Trumping Conventional Wisdom: A Psychological Explanation of Donald Trump’s Political Success

The media, his rivals, and even members of his party have all panned Donald Trump. But he has confounded them all. Despite his apparent flubs, offensive remarks, and blatantly narcissistic self-promotion, he is now the President Elect. Many in the media and in the realm of politics are practically apoplectic about it. They are wallowing in self-critical analysis. How could they have gotten it so wrong? They have offered a myriad of explanations: Trump is a demagogue; he is a con man; he is tapping into the anger of the electorate; he is a political outsider. We misunderstood rural America. The Obama coalition was unique to Obama and Clinton could not hold it. Clinton was overconfident and a bad campaigner. There was a conspiracy spearheaded by the FBI to topple Clinton. The country is misogynist. There were secret Trump supporters who wouldn’t admit to the pollsters what their true intentions were. So the polls weren’t really wrong, it was the lying electorate. (This is my personal favorite.) The pundits have been and continue to be wrong. So what is really going on?

Let’s look at some data and some basic empirical psychological findings and stop the punditry for a minute. First, were the pundits and the polls wrong about Trump? Yes and no. They were correct as far as they went but they did not go far enough. After getting it all wrong during primary season, you’d think that they might rethink their metrics. No matter how sophisticated your statistical analyses, if you are not looking at the right data, you are not going to make accurate predictions. So “big data”, meta-analyses, and such are not going to be accurately predictive if they are missing critical variables. What did they look at? They looked at voter self-report. Usually this is good enough. What did they not look at? Implicit processes that also underlie decision making. Specifically, they did not look at the associations generated by the candidates to see how the voters conceptualized them. Additionally, they did not accurately assess the relevant emotions driving people in this election cycle. All we heard about was the angry electorate. But no one asked about other emotions. There are five basic emotions. The movie “Inside Out” used this knowledge. If the pollsters had looked at all of the basic emotions, they would have learned that disgust far outweighed anger. But they never asked about disgust. Let me repeat this since we are still hearing it over and over. It was not anger; it was disgust. And I’m not just engaging in my own punditry. I have data for all of this. So let me lay it out. And then let me talk a bit about some basic clinical psychology that has also been ignored by the pollsters and pundits.

Attributes of Clinton and Trump

Let’s look at the profiles generated by Clinton and by Trump. In the graphs below, the longer the line, the stronger the attribute is associated with the candidate. Positive attributes are in green, negative in red.

Here is Clinton:

Clinton Attributes
Clinton Attributes

And here is what it means in words:

Although Hillary Clinton Shares My Values, she is Scary. She is Presidential but there is some worry about her judgment (Poor Judgment) although she does Get Things Done. Being qualified is not a problem for her (low on Not Qualified). She is a Genuine, albeit prejudiced/opinionated (Bigot), Leader who Cares About People Like Me but she can be Mean. She is only weakly seen as someone who is Inspiring and Competent and can Keep Us Safe. By far, her weakest association is Likeable. This does not register for her. She has the qualifications to be President but she is simply not likeable and there is some doubt about her competence and ability to deliver.

Bottom line: Clinton triggers extreme reactions. You are either for her or against her. It’s hard to be on the fence. And it is difficult for anyone, even supporters, to really like her. She will garner pro and anti-votes. The anti votes have passion but there is little pro-passion. She can win but her support is not deep and strong.

Here is Trump:

Trump Attributes
Trump Attributes

And here is what the results mean in words:

Donald Trump is first and foremost a Leader. And, although he is Presidential, Shares My Values, and can Keep Us Safe, he is also prejudiced/opinionated (Bigot). He is moderately Inspiring but also Scary. He weakly Cares About People Like Me and is Genuine but also Mean. He is seen weakly as someone who Gets Things Done. Not Qualified is a very weak associate but so is Competent. Poor Judgment and Likeable do not register, with the latter not at all in people’s minds. People have a lot of positive associations to Trump but do not find him likeable and question his competence, despite what they see as important assets. He is a flawed candidate but with a lot of powerful positives. Like Clinton, he triggers extreme reactions. Like her there is anti passion. Unlike her, he also garners pro-passion. But even his supporters do not see him as likeable. He can win but must counter perceptions of poor judgment and present himself as qualified to get things done in this country. He also must address not being likeable.

Emotions: It’s Disgust, Not Anger

Now let’s look at emotions. Unlike other surveys, we asked about disgust as well as anger. Take a look. Disgust far outweighs anger. The voters were much more disgusted than they were angry.

Politics in General

Feeling % Feeling Extremely That Way

Happy 8.4

Sad 24.7

Angry 17.0

Disgusted 30.6

Surprised 8.8

Frightened 20.2

Bored 8.0

Admiration 5.1

Interest 14.3

Trust 5.1

Optimistic 6.7

The electorate was/is disgusted (30.6%) with politicians whose approval ratings are about equal to that of a cockroach (literally). Just parenthetically, recall Trump’s rhetoric. Does “Little Marco”, “Lying Ted”, “Crooked Hillary”, “Low Energy Jeb” get you angry or does it generate contempt/disgust. How about “blood coming out of her whatever”? Check how many times Trump literally used the word “disgusting.” Clinton going to the bathroom was disgusting and so were a host of other events and people. Why does this matter? It matters because our reactions to disgust are very specific and they differ from our reactions to anger. Anger results in a hostile approach or attack. Disgust leads to avoidance and cleansing (drain the swamp). And one of the problems for Clinton was that she could not turn out the vote the way Obama did. There weren’t really more voters for Trump than for the last Republican candidate, Romney. But there sure were fewer people turning out for Clinton.

And there is more. The late psychologist Robert Plutchik offered a very influential theory of emotions relevant to this. The important points are that some emotions are closer to others, and that each emotion has an opposite. The opposites of disgust and loathing are admiration and trust. Further, anger and disgust are close to one another and, in combination, form contempt.

Plutchik Color Wheel
Plutchik Color Wheel

Trump repeatedly expressed contempt, loathing and disgust for his rivals and for members of the media who criticized him. He then painted himself as their opposite: someone to be admired and trusted. He repeatedly said, “Trust me”, “Believe me.” Much of his rhetoric, when it was not disparaging others, was self-congratulatory (I am rich, successful, the best ever). It says, “Admire me.” It is as though Trump studied Plutchik’s work and leveraged it to his advantage. What’s more, recent scientific research shows that political conservatives are especially sensitive to disgust, and therefore susceptible to this emotional leverage. So disgust served many functions: It helped keep people away from rivals, it provided a powerful metaphor, it led to an increased tendency to admire Trump, and it was especially effective with Conservatives, Trump’s core group.

Clinical Psychology Insights

Now for some clinical psychology. We take pleasure in the discomfiture of those we dislike and/or perceive as thinking that they are better than we are (deplorables). In German it is called shadenfreude. The press and establishment politicians were and continue to be discomfited by the Trump phenomenon. He violates all of their rules and received wisdom. He tells us how wrong they are. He insults them and goes merrily on his way. There is pleasure in seeing these arrogant, entitled, “experts” get their comeuppance. High minded liberals have a very low opinion of Trump supporters. They are uneducated rubes, racists, and misogynist -- deplorables. Trump allows the electorate to guiltlessly experience shadenfreude.

Next is a concept termed the false self. To a degree, we all present a false self somewhere, sometime: at work, at social events. But people see politicians as presenting a false self virtually all of the time. They parse their words. They consult polls. They rely on well rehearsed talking points. They “pivot.” They almost never answer questions directly. We don’t really know what they believe, and the public therefore does not trust them. Trump seems to do none of this. He famously ignores polls. He seems narcissistic and grandiose, but he owns it.

Other politicians cloak their grandiosity and narcissism behind noble phrases like wanting to serve, caring about others, and “giving back.” Thinking you should be President is grandiose; believing that you can do a better job than anyone else and become an historical figure, even if true, is narcissistic and grandiose. But no politician will admit to ambition, grandiosity, or narcissism. They speak in code. They tell us that their state is now the best state in the country and so much better off than before they took office (when, invariably, it was in terrible shape). They tell us of their Senatorial principles and leadership (but never mention what legislation they have actually succeeded in getting signed into law). They tell us of their high moral code and how they will “never rest” in their pursuit of a better America. They never say directly that they are wonderful, smart, and better than everyone else. Trump does.

Bottom Line

Donald Trump is not the President Elect because of misguided or bigoted supporters. He is not popular because the electorate is angry and he expresses it. And he is certainly not where he is because people see him as being like them. Donald Trump is where he is because he is implicitly associated with the attributes of leadership, shared values, and keeping us safe. Perhaps disturbingly, the attribute of bigotry is seen in an otherwise positive context and accepted. Also keep in mind that Hillary has this attribute too (albeit to a lesser degree). She was also scary and exhibited poor judgment even as she seemed Presidential and demonstrated shared values. Trump intuitively understands the relation between the emotions of disgust (which was never assessed) and admiration. He has leveraged the disgust that people feel for politicians and the media and separated himself from them (outsider beholden to no one). He stuck it to pompous, entitled political stalwarts and media heads. And, finally, he is President Elect because he does not hide his grandiosity behind a mask of virtue.

None of this makes him qualified to be President. But it casts in high relief what motivated the electorate and why all the polls and pundits got it so wrong and are still getting it wrong.

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