I have had real trouble getting my head around the fact that somewhere between 35 and 40 percent of Americans actually support Donald Trump. Here is a man who demonstrates hourly that he is boorish and crude, none-too-bright, embarrassingly and painfully ignorant, and bereft of anything resembling a coherent policy agenda (or, for that matter, a coherent anything).He routinely embarrasses us on the world stage, his cabinet is a cesspool, and his crazy tariffs are threatening the economy. And that’s just for starters.
What accounts for the support?
I’m clearly not the only person who struggles with this question. What do his rabid supporters in the GOP see in this man who repulses rational, thoughtful people around the world?
Some of the explanations come from a 2017 review paper published in the Journal of Social and Political Psychology by the psychologist and UC Santa Cruz professor Thomas Pettigrew. Others have been put forth as far back as 2016, by me, in various articles and blog posts for publications like Psychology Today. A number of these were inspired by insights from psychologists like Sheldon Solomon, who laid the groundwork for the influential Terror Management Theory, and David Dunning, who did the same for the Dunning-Kruger effect.
This list will begin with the more benign reasons for Trump’s intransigent support. As the list goes on, the explanations become increasingly worrisome, and toward the end, border on the pathological. It should be strongly emphasized that not all Trump supporters are racist, mentally vulnerable, or fundamentally bad people. It can be detrimental to society when those with degrees and platforms try to demonize their political opponents or paint them as mentally ill when they are not. That being said, it is just as harmful to pretend that there are not clear psychological and neural factors that underlie much of Trump supporters’ unbridled allegiance.
So what were the theories? The “benign” ones ranged from rich people being willing to support him because they’re making money, to the theory that “showmanship and simple language” engage the brains of some people, to America’s addiction to celebrity.
These are “benign”?
The list also referenced research showing conservatives more responsive to threat: fear, in this theory, keeps his followers energized. And it included the the Dunning-Kruger Effect (Trump followers aren’t simply misinformed; they’re completely unaware that they are misinformed.) Authoritarian personality disorder was another.
And of course, a significant number of recent studies have correlated support for Trump with “racial anxiety,” a polite word for racism. (This one has been my “go to” explanation; they support Trump because he hates the same people they do.)
I’m no psychologist, and I don’t play one on TV, so I can’t evaluate the relative merits of these theories. But I want to add one. Bear with me…
Recently, I was listening to “Fiddler on the Roof.” Tevya was singing “If I were a rich man,” and I was struck by the passage where he sings that, if he were rich, all the men in town would come ask him difficult questions. “And it wouldn’t matter if I answered right or wrong; when you’re rich, they think you really know.”
It was an “aha” moment. The line made me think of a Guardian report quoting Steve Bannon.
According to an upcoming book obtained by The Guardian, Bannon predicts Trump will be abandoned by his base following various investigations into his family’s secretive finances.
“This is where it isn’t a witch hunt — even for the hard core, this is where he turns into just a crooked business guy, and one worth $50 [million] instead of $10 [billion]. Not the billionaire he said he was, just another scumbag,” Bannon tells Michael Wolff in Siege: Trump Under Fire, according to an advance copy seen by The Guardian.
Is a significant portion of the American public really that superficial?
Maybe I should ask a Kardashian….