How Trump Won

A very interesting article has (re)appeared in Scientific American Mind:

Trump’s Appeal: What Psychology Tells Us

According to the Scientific American editor’s note:

All but the last section of this article was written before Donald Trump’s victory in the U.S. presidential election, making its insights all the more remarkable. It was updated for Scientific American Mind.

Please read the whole article, but to whet your appetite here’s a few salient points. The author’s set out their stall early on:

The inability of even the most experienced pundits to grasp the reality of Donald Trump’s political ascendency in the 2016 presidential race parallels an unprecedented assault on the candidate and his supporters, which went so far as to question their very grip on reality.

They go on to draw parallels between the rise to power of Donald Trump and that of Adolf Hitler in Nazi Germany, adding the caveat that:

We are not comparing Trump, his supporters or their arguments to the Nazis. Instead our goal is to expose some problems in the ways that commentators analyze and explain behaviors of which we disapprove. In 1934 Theodore Abel traveled to Germany and ran an essay competition, offering a prize for autobiographies of Nazi Party members. He received around 600 responses, from which he was able to glean why so many Germans supported Adolf Hitler. Certainly many essays expressed a fair degree of anti-Semitism and some a virulent hatred of Jews. In this sense, party members were indeed racists or, at the very least, did not object to the party’s well-known anti-Semitic position. But this is very different from saying that they joined and remained in the party primarily or even partially because they were racists. Abel discovered that many other motives were involved, among them a sense of the decline of Germany, a desire to rediscover past greatness, a fear of social disorder and the longing for a strong leader.

We would argue that the same is true of those who supported Trump.

The author’s then briefly outline their case:

To understand how Trump appealed to voters, we start by looking at what went on inside a Trump event. For this, we are indebted to a particularly insightful analysis by journalist Gwynn Guilford, who, acting as an ethnographer, participated in Trump rallies across the state of Ohio in March 2016. We then analyze why Trump appealed to his audience, drawing on what we have referred to as the new psychology of leadership. Here we suggest that Trump’s skills as a collective sense maker—someone who shaped and responded to the perspective of his audience—were very much the secret of his success.

As I said, please read the whole article, but here are the conclusions:

When we put it all together, these figures tell us something important about leadership in general and about the 2016 leadership contest. They underline the point that leadership is never about the character of individuals as individuals. This is the “old psychology of leadership” that our own theoretical and empirical analysis has called into question. Instead leadership is about individuals as group members—whose success hinges on their capacity to create, represent, advance and embed a shared sense of “us.”

Reflecting on the implications of this analysis for the specifics of this election, we can see that many Trump voters knew full well that their man was a reprobate, that they deplored his crudities and that they saw him as a risky choice. And yet in a world where the system is seen to be against “us” and where things appear to be driven in the wrong direction by “them,” the really irrational thing to do is to vote for the conventional candidate who represents sticking with that system.


[Edit – February 12th]

Thanks to a heads up from Neven in the comments below, an extremely pertinent documentary:

An “English language” version of the video can be seen at: