If any theory of psychology explains the fierce devotion motivating Trump’s base, it has to be social identity theory, an idea popularized by the social psychologist Henri Tajfel (1919-1982) in the 1970s. According to Tajfel’s research, people will show remarkable allegiance to arbitrary groups for seemingly unimportant reasons e.g., “shared hair color, place of birth, or even after being randomly assigned to a group by an experimenter.”
U.S. psychologist Michael Hogg (1950- ) developed a series of experiments in the 1990s that built upon Tajfel’s work. Hogg found that group members will choose not the “best and brightest,” but the most average individuals with whom most members could easily identify. “Once they are in power, by necessity leaders become different from their constituents, so they must go to increasing lengths to prove they are like their group. This may be why nationalistic slogans — and outright racism — are often effective political strategies. By defining their group in exclusive terms, leaders reinforce their social identity and build power.”
Sound like anyone you know? The truth about Donald Trump is that he is not all that charismatic. When you take away the glitz and glamour of his brand proselytization, the man is actually quite dull, intellectually careless, and socially unsophisticated. Far from being a phenomenal politician, tactical genius, brilliant administrator, or mesmerizing speaker, Trump is, in every sense of the word, average. An average thinker, writer, and speaker. Not the worst of the worst, but merely subpar in every category. In terms of basic spelling and cultural literacy, he is far below average, bordering on incompetent at times. Upon close inspection, there really isn’t anything unusual or special about him as a businessman, entertainer, politician, or president. Taken at face value and based on the evidence of his actions, he is — and I don’t mean to be shallow and unkind — an overweight white male who is preoccupied with money, pop culture, fast food, tabloid journalism, womanizing and golf.¹ That is far from a unique portrait of the modern American male. He is, to borrow the language of social identity theory, prototypical in that regard.
The point is that he is far from being among the “best and brightest.” Almost all of Trump’s “big” ideas are reactions to the initiatives and policies of the Clinton and Obama administrations, or position statements slipped to him by the likes of Rudolph Guliani, Steve Bannon and Steven Miller. Nor is Trump all that charismatic. Inspiring just a small percentage of Americans (his approval polls are consistently in the 30% range), Trump only plays the role of a showman. At times the playacting is painfully contrived. His rallies, for example, are, to all intents, constructions, and purposes, pedestrian affairs, with predictable punchlines, attendees who look and sound alike, superficial villains, feigned anger, and host sites that never drift too far from Trump’s stronghold. To everyone else in the world who does not attend these spectacles as a fan (atic), these events appear overly theatrical and ultimately boring.
Nevertheless, these events perfectly represent the needs of a particular group in America looking for a leader who is willing to put aside their own personality and adopt the values and goals of the collective mission. Needing a leader to define their group in exclusive terms — even racist and xenophobic terms — they looked for someone who was willing to reinforce their worldview and literally attempt to become one of them. Hence the MAGA hats, incessant tweeting, schoolyard name-calling, unapologetic jingoism, dog-whistling, pretentious evangelizing, and all the rest of it. If Trump has any political intelligence at all, it is, according to social identity theory, his stealth ability to foster the sense that he is no longer a draft-dodging, tax scheming, billionaire real estate heir with a fear of germs and unions; he is simply, merely, uncannily one of them. Looking and dressing like your followers may seem phony and pathetic to most people, but Trump understood that it was the only way possible to generate a mass following. For someone who only wanted popularity and nothing else, it was the only strategy that made sense and he seized it with a relentlessness that has transformed the American political landscape forever.
30-Second Psychology: The 50 Most Thought-Provoking Psychology Theories, Each Explained in Half a Minute, edited by Christian Jarret.
¹Editor’s note. One Rochestarian, Peter Roby, beat Trump in a youth golf tournament. Peter thinks he could beat Trump — who some say lies about his handicap — today. See Having defeated Trump in 1961, Rochestarian Peter Roby welcomes a rematch