Politics | Psychology | Trump

Understanding the MAGA Mind

How 6 psychological factors help explain the mindset of Trump’s base.

Photo by David Todd McCarty on Unsplash

According to a recent NPR/PBS NewsHour/Marist survey, only 24% of Republicans trust that the results of the 2020 presidential election are accurate. A few weeks before, a Reuters/Ipsos opinion poll reported that 52% of Republicans believed President Donald Trump “rightfully won” the U.S. election but that it was stolen from him by widespread voter fraud.

Although trending downward, these numbers are remarkable in light of the fact that Trump and his allies have failed to produce any credible evidence of such extensive fraud. As noted by U.S. District Court Judge Matthew Brann when dismissing a lawsuit brought by the Trump campaign in an attempt to disenfranchise almost seven million Pennsylvanian voters:

“One might expect that when seeking such a startling outcome, a plaintiff would come formidably armed with compelling legal arguments and factual proof of rampant corruption … That has not happened. Instead, this Court has been presented with strained legal arguments without merit and speculative accusations, unpled in the operative complaint and unsupported by evidence.”

And yet, every wild claim and accusation Trump fires out from his Twitter account is believed by millions of Americans.

How did we get to this point? What drives Trump’s staunchest core of supporters?

Understanding Trump’s Base

Not everyone who simply voted for Trump can or should be considered part of his base. By “Trump’s base,” I’m referring to his most fervent, rabid, “follow him over a cliff” supporters, not to more casual supporters who “just couldn’t vote for a Democrat.”

A compelling body of research by Thomas Pettigrew, Bob Altemeyer, John Duckitt, and others point to an array of factors behind Trump’s base of support. Interestingly, as much as it may feel like the forces behind Trumpism are a uniquely American phenomenon, these factors also appear to drive European far-right-wing voters in Austria, Belgium, France, Germany, and Great Britain.

Photo by John Cameron on Unsplash

In each case, an initial core of white male nativists and populists who were less educated than the general population coalesced in reaction to perceived threats, such as unchecked immigration and rapid globalization. This core then attracted individuals with one or more of five highly interrelated characteristics: authoritarianism, social dominance orientation, out-group prejudice, the absence of intergroup contact, and relative deprivation. As described below, to that list I would add anti-intellectualism.

Authoritarianism

Several traits characterize authoritarianism: deference to authority, aggression toward out-groups, a rigidly hierarchical view of the world, resistance to new experience, and conventionalism (adherence to traditional social norms and belief that others should be required to adhere to those norms). There is evidence to suggest that authoritarianism begins early in life as a personality orientation and later this orientation typically leads to some form of a right-wing political ideology. Authoritarians tend to view the world as a very dangerous and threatening place and are typically triggered by threat and fear.

Trump’s appeal to authoritarians is consistent with the fact that they seek politicians that protect law and order, defend traditional and religious values, and react negatively and even aggressively towards norm violators.

Social Dominance Orientation

Although Social Dominance Orientation is closely related to authoritarianism, it is separate and distinct. Social Dominance Orientation is characterized by an individual’s preference for societal hierarchies and domination over lower-status groups. Individuals who score high in Social Dominance Orientation typically believe in a “dog-eat-dog” world and report being motivated by self-interest and self-indulgence. These individuals are typically tough-minded, driven, dominant, disagreeable, and relatively uncaring seekers of power.

Trump resonates with individuals high in Social Dominance Orientation because they particularly favor competition-based social inequality and group dominance.

Out-Group Prejudice

This is prejudice towards those one sees as outside of one’s in-group, as defined, for example, by family, community, gender, race, sexual orientation, political party, religious, or national identity.

Although Trump’s most dedicated followers appear to be characterized by many out-group prejudices, those most popularly stoked by Trump’s rhetoric have tended to be anti-Mexican, anti-Black, and anti-Muslim attitudes.

Photo by Greg Bulla on Unsplash

Lack of Intergroup Contact

Throughout the world, intergroup contact has typically been shown to reduce intergroup fear, induce empathy, and diminish prejudice. One of the strongest predictors of Trump support is the racial and ethnic isolation of whites at the zip-code level, even while controlling for dozens of other variables. Researchers also found that in 2016 Trump support increased the further an area was away from the Mexican border, a finding that appears to have been confirmed when looking at county by county results from the 2020 presidential election.

Most of Trump’s staunchest white supporters have experienced far less contact with minorities and others outside of their insular social networks than other Americans.

Relative Deprivation

Mass media explanations for Trump’s 2016 victory often touted the primary explanation as being due to economically disadvantaged, often unemployed, angry, working-class voters in manufacturing areas who switched political parties to vote for change. While this may be true for some followers, studies have shown that Trump followers were less likely than others to be looking for work, unemployed, or part-time employed, and had a higher mean annual income than Clinton voters. Voters living in districts with more manufacturing were actually less favorable to Trump.

In contrast to measures of absolute deprivation, a more predictive approach is to consider relative deprivation. Relative deprivation is when someone feels like they are doing worse than they actually are, particularly in comparison to other “less deserving” groups or relative to what they expected to have at this point in their lives.

Trump adherents may not typically be economically destitute, but feel like they are “falling behind the Joneses” and feel deprived relative to their hopes and expectations.

Anti-Intellectualism

Contrary to popular belief, anti-intellectualism is not simply due to lack of education or hostility towards acquiring knowledge, but instead includes the tendency to discount abstract ideas in favor of practical knowledge. The authority of social and/or intellectual “elites” is rejected, and reason, logic, and fact are denigrated in favor of emotions, morals, and religious absolutes.

A clear example here is the politicization of public health recommendations in response to the coronavirus pandemic. Evidence-based measures such as wearing a mask, social distancing, and minimizing large group gatherings are viewed as attacks on personal freedom or even as anti-Trump protests by those who relish Trump’s touting of anecdotally based therapies and his vilification of figures such as infectious disease expert Dr. Anthony Fauci.

The Trump Snowball Effect

The factors described above can be observed within various groups that have been proposed to form a part of Trump’s base. For example, it would seem that white nationalists tend toward all six of these factors. White evangelicals would seem to tend toward all of these factors except, arguably, relative deprivation. Whites without a college degree would seem to tend toward relative deprivation and anti-intellectualism, and arguably to a lesser degree toward out-group prejudice and lack of intergroup contact.

Trump rose to office by fanning fears of fabricated threats that played to some or all of these factors, from unchecked immigration by Mexicans and Muslims, a severely declining economy, massive increases in crime, and widespread voter fraud. Once in office, Trump has continued to reinforce and redefine an “us vs. them” mentality by conjuring threats of “fake news” from the mainstream media, socialism from Democrats, erroneous and biased advice from scientific and medical experts, and an overall undermining of him and his administration by an anti-Trump “deep state.”

Photo by Aubrey Hicks on Unsplash

Once aligned behind Trump, myriad psychological phenomena play into the reinforcement of that support and rejection of evidence or arguments that challenge that support:

  • Cognitive dissonance — rationalization in the face of information that causes inconsistent beliefs or thoughts.
  • Confirmation bias — interpreting new information as confirming existing beliefs.
  • Desirability bias — a bias toward a belief one wants to be true.
  • The illusory truth effect — repetition of a lie makes it seem true.
  • The Dunning-Kruger effect — people with low understanding or ability in a given area don’t know enough to recognize their lack of knowledge or ability.
  • The backfire effect — a strengthening of beliefs in response to evidence meant to debunk them.
  • Tribalism — a tendency to think or behave in a way such that people are loyal to their social group above all else.

All of this is to say that support for Trump from his base cannot be easily explained by reference to a single factor or trait. Trumpism is a complicated multifactorial interaction of social and psychological phenomena and appears poised to impact the political landscape well past President-Elect Biden’s inauguration.

Patent attorney with a PhD in neuroscience. Sometime adjunct professor. Writer. Carbohydrate enthusiast.

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