The Psychology Of The Trump Appeal

By: Connie Wedel

This year’s presidential election epitomizes that life is stranger than fiction. Unless you’ve just crawled out from under a rock, you know that Donald Trump won the 2016 Republican Party nomination to run for President of the United States. Prior to his nomination, Trump was best known as an outspoken real estate mogul, NYC business person and the star of the reality show, The Apprentice. Today, Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton in the throes of arguably the most controversial presidential race in history.

When Trump announced his candidacy after riding down a Trump Tower escalator with his wife, Melania, even with all the media hoopla, not too many thought he would go far. Were they wrong. The experts and pundits constantly underestimated his appeal and how he would connect with so many Americans. Newscasters and experts refer to these supporters as his “Base”.

Trump’s base is predominately made up of citizens who live in the middle part of the country. The demographics of his base are Americans who more likely to be older, white males, working class, are not college educated, and have little exposure to diversity. I grew up and lived in this part of the country for nearly half my life. These supporters are my friends, neighbors, and classmates. I know them well. Most are values-driven, hard-working citizens who feel that the American dream is no longer in within their reach. They are hurting, disillusioned and looking for a liberator.

For many, Trump is that liberator. He has touched the right chords, pushed the right buttons and has persuaded millions of people that he is the only one who can “Make America Great Again.”

I think I understand why he persuaded so many people to become die-hard supporters and there is a scientific explanation to his influence and appeal. His appeal is aptly explained by the works of prominent social psychologist, Dr. Robert Cialdini in his book, “Influence: Science and Practice.” Cialdini defines six scientifically-based, universal principles of persuasion and influence.

  1. Reciprocity – the obligation to give when you receive

  2. Scarcity – Wanting more of what you have less of

  3. Authority – Being influenced by knowledgeable authority figures

  4. Consistency – Looking and asking for small commitments

  5. Liking – Connecting with people who are like us, associating with people who we want to be

  6. Social Proof– Watching and adopting the behaviors of others

At one time or another, we have seen Donald Trump effectively use 5 of these 6 principles. He uses Scarcity as the foundation of his appeal. If he’s elected, he promises that he will return prosperity and a better life to those who have been struggling and left behind. His motto “Make America Great Again” resonates tremendously with his base.

Trump has cleverly exploited the Authority principle. He touts himself as an outstanding businessman who runs highly successful businesses with a “take no prisoners” attitude. The evidence he uses to promote his business prowess are his namesake buildings, TV show and many Trump-branded products. People have bought into this without validated proof (e.g., tax returns) that these businesses are run ethically, are profitable or even solvent.

Consistency is another principle that Trump has used effectively. It’s been scientifically proven that once people decide and commit to an idea, it is extremely difficult to get them to change their minds. His supporters are steadfast in their beliefs that Trump is an outstanding business person, will bring prosperity, the system is rigged, or Hillary Clinton is a crook. The science proves that people want consistency and are unwilling to move from their original commitment and beliefs.

The fourth persuasion principle Trump wields often is Social Proof. The science behind this principle is that people will follow others’ behaviors if there are social reasons or a consensus to do so. Trump applies this principle when he pontificates often and widely about “so many people who…”, “huge number of people…”, “I know many, many people…”. Trump wants to influence his audiences that a majority are already behind him.

The fifth principle that Trump has deployed is Liking. It also is quite possibly the most troubling and potentially dangerous. Liking is associating with people we want to be like or connecting with people who are like us. In our times of social media fluency and celebrity worshiping, he is adept at both. Trump is a self-proclaimed “Winner”. He professes he never loses. We are wired to be associated with winners.

The frightening part is this principle has manifested by giving racists, chauvinists, and haters a role model to emulate. Trump’s opinionated rhetoric and blustery rants about women, religion, race, ethnicity, physical appearance and disabilities have given license to underground extremists and bigots to surface and proclaim their hate.

The sixth principle, Reciprocity, may become the ultimate heart-breaker for Trump supporters. If Trump wins the presidential election, the voters who sent him to the White House will count on his reciprocity. His electorate will expect, in exchange for their vote, Trump will oblige by fulfilling his promises. He will need to follow through on changing the governmental systems that he has admitted he knows well, has taken advantage of and has made him rich. The eventual question to be answered is: Are there any of the six universal persuasion principles that will influence Trump to change his money-making ways to fulfill his promises to the voters who elected him?

Even though I lived almost half my life in Trump’s electorate territory, I am obviously not a supporter. As a woman of color, I do not believe he is right for America. Yet, I do understand why he appeals to so many people. This is an historical, future-changing election and should be a wake-up call for everyone that the we need and want sweeping change.

Connie Wedel is a diversity proponent, equal rights advocate, global HR exec, writer, and mom.

*Note: The views expressed by our members on this blog do not necessarily reflect those of the Ellevate Network.

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