Can evolutionary psychology and personality theory explain Trump’s popular appeal?

GettyImages-632198430.jpgBy Christian Jarrett

One year ago today, Donald J Trump, a man with no political or military experience, defied expectations, winning the election to become the 45th president of the United States. Nearly 63 million voted for him, including, and in spite of his reputation for sexism, over half of all white women. In an open-access paper in Evolutionary Studies in Imaginative Culture, Dan McAdams, one of the world’s leading experts in personality psychology, proposes an explanation for Trump’s popular appeal that is grounded in evolutionary psychology, personality theory and the social psychology of leadership.

Trump encapsulates, and his personality is perfectly suited to, “dominance-oriented leadership”, McAdams explains, in contrast to “prestige leadership”, as exemplified by Barack Obama.

Prestige leadership emerged more recently in our evolutionary history and is grounded in the cultural transmission of ideas and skills. Individuals who acquire expertise, and who have the ability to effectively organize other experts, are respected for their knowledge and wisdom and seen as legitimate leaders for this reason.

In contrast, dominant leadership is based on fear and power and dates farther back in our evolutionary past. To many Americans, Trump’s bombastic style and persona and proclamations have a “primal appeal”. Describing Trump as more “overtly aggressive” than any other political figure, “physically big and dynamic”, “insulting” and “egregiously self-promoting”, McAdams likens Trump’s “incendiary tweets” to the “charging displays” of an alpha male chimp, “designed to intimidate”.

Key to the dominance approach to leadership is the derogation of experts – Trump has previously stated he knows more than military generals and has no need for economists. Related to this is the espousal of an essentialist view that sees some individuals as inherently superior to others. Trump consistently boasts about his superior intelligence and abilities over others. He displays what social psychologists call “hubristic pride” – celebrating who he is (brilliant and powerful, in his view), rather than the work and effort he has invested (upon which “authentic pride” is based).

The dominant leader is especially appealing in a climate of fear. Trump has pushed this view – highlighting the dangers of outsiders, be they Mexican immigrants or Islamist terrorists, while also speaking of the economic “carnage” afflicting the country. Throughout his life, Trump has advocated a Hobbesian view of human culture. Even as long ago as 1981, he said “Man is the most vicious of all animals, and life is a series of battles ending in victory or defeat”. Against the enemies he invokes, and in these dangerous times, Trump “confidently assures Americans that he will deliver them from the chaos,” McAdams writes.

Trump’s personality is perfectly suited to this particular approach to leadership, McAdams observes. He has an unusual mix of extremely high extraversion, low agreeableness, and extreme narcissism. The first two traits contribute to his ability and willingness to forge opportunistic, short-term coalitions, but then to drop them as soon as they no longer fulfill his needs, just as alpha chimpanzees do with their potential rivals. Indeed, McAdams observes that “the case of Donald Trump shows how much humans turn out to be like chimps.”

Meanwhile, Trump’s narcissism (and his essentialist view of ability and status) is likely appealing to voters who crave authoritarian rule – that is, submission to a strong leader, adherence to strict rules, and an aggressive, intolerant approach to outsiders and liberals (polls suggest authoritarianism has risen in the US over the last decade). A leader who believes confidently in, and frequently brags about, his own abilities, and strength and power, is highly appealing to these voters who have what social psychologists call a right-wing authoritarian attitude and social dominance orientation, meaning they believe strongly in the superiority of their own group over others, and who want a leader who endorses and represents this superiority.

McAdams concludes by writing that he does not wish to dismiss or denigrate the many other explanations put forward for the rise of a man described by people from all political persuasions as “a serial liar, a sexual predator, a swindler, a narcissist, and a bully”. There are “many reasons” McAdams writes, [but] “the view advanced here is that Trump holds a deep and primal appeal for millions of Americans at this time in our history because of how effectively he channels the psychology of dominance – a way of thinking and feeling about leadership in groups that traces back many millions of years in human evolution, to our primate heritage.”

The Appeal of the Primal Leader: Human Evolution and Donald J. Trump

Image: U.S. President Donald Trump delivers his inaugural address on January 20, 2017 in Washington, DC. (Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)

Christian Jarrett (@Psych_Writer) is Editor of BPS Research Digest

15 thoughts on “Can evolutionary psychology and personality theory explain Trump’s popular appeal?”

  1. So that confirms it. Trump is a chimpanzee. Well that explains a great deal, not only about him, but about the selfish, self – centered attitudes(evolutionary advantage), held by those who voted for him…!!!! A backwards leap for mankind in a world that so desperately needs to adopt a planetary and inclusive humanistic world view if our beautiful planet and it’s life is to survive the next mass extinction event we seem to be walking into with eyes wide open…

  2. I find the fact that anyone even needs to ask the question, astounding and breathtaking. Trump got in because he represented the opposite of the left wing control on free speech. That is the explanation in its simplest terms. The public has had a growing resentment that they are not permitted to deal with or discuss problems, if they involve protected groups. The left vastly underestimated the effect of 30 years of closing down any and every attempt to deal with the real and pressing problems created by amongst other things, mass immigration and the failure of select aspects of multiculturalism.

    Brexit was an identical situation, people voted to leave, because it was the first time that they had a means of expressing an opinion that was not able to be censored by the left wing authodoxy. How is it possible that people don’t realise this still? If you close down debate, people become more extreme in response. People saw problems in their day to day lives, but have been repeatedly told that they were not allowed to think those thoughts and never express them in public. For the poor especially, issues have been flatly ignored. I have a Pakistani friend who got so angry that no-one was dealing with the 50% male and 75% female unemployment rate in his community, that he voted out on brexxit. Even though it would have little effect on that issue, he just wanted some kind of political voice.

    I would like to see a psychological analysis of the effects of this taboo culture. Trump was a symptom of a problem that we were not allowed to discuss. For most people, in the media, academia and the middle/upper classes, they can’t understand what the general population are talking about, precisely because they almost never come in to contact with any of the negative sides of the issue. Hence, to a leftwing psychology professor, the idea that community enforced sexism, homophobia, violence, crime, NHS and education pressure and ignored cultural sexual exploitation as in Rotherham, Oxford and Luton, could be a problem, is evidently mad and indicative of underlying right wing extremism. Psychologists rarely get impacted by any of the main repercussions of the huge changes that have taken place in the US and the UK, because they don’t live for long in poor neighbourhoods, they aren’t in contact with people and they don’t lose anything.

    Psychology needs to examine the varying class perspectives in finding the reason for Trump’s popularity. He says things that other politicians are too frightened to say, he talks of issues that most people know exist, but which police, tv presenters and academics, would never dream of raising, for personal fear of career damage. It has been said many times, but the right is birthed by the left. The more you try to deny a self evident truth, the more you make the opposite position attractive. Trump is attractive, because he is not concerned with left wing taboos and/or he thinks dealing with problems is more important that denying them, in the hope that it will somehow halt the move to the right. For the first time, the public saw a difference in the candidates, one told the truth, all the rest shook with fear in case what they said damaged their career chances. Is it surprising that they picked Trump. Why would the public vote for cowards, they’re the last type of person you want leading your country.

    So in summary, 30 years of left wing pressure on free speech+fear of career/social damage+persisting, but ignored problems=Trump’s election success.

  3. Lots of fancy theories and ‘explanations’ for why the US ended up electing a ‘chimp’ to the office. Did Trump made up all the fears and worries that he appealed to? Did he trick millions of people into making an ‘irrational’ choice? We are sitting here taking the real life ‘success’ of Trump and taking pride in our social psychological theories in how wonderfully it explains it all.
    It is time social psychologists to leave the comfort of their theories. The reality out there does not have to fit into those theories, the theories should better reflect the reality itself. Those explanations tell us nothing we don’t know. Only describing Trump as a phenomenon in its own lingo, that’s all.

  4. This article exemplifies the nonsense that psychology is. Each attribute described as “evidence” here applied equally to Obama (see his comments that he knew more than his policy director, speechwriter etc), and there is plenty of evidence Obama was narcissistic and arrogant (someone who wasn’t wouldn’t even get a look-in as POTUS).

    The writer wouldn’t dare compare Obama to a chimp because it is obviously insulting, but biased and tendentious groupthink allows the writer to compare Trump to a chimp. That does not improve a flawed and false argument. Comparing humans to animals is never a clever argument.

    The article is not falsifiable, hence it is hocus pocus (pace Popper).

    1. The problem is, that almost every leader has strong narcistic traits. You can see that in big companies as well as politicians as well as in police officers. But still there is differences in the styles of leadership, and I think there are quite some differences between Obama and Trump, starting by non-verbal behaviour and choice of words, ending with the party they represent.

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