The rise of Trump blindsided many political experts. Even now, despite having a 40% approval rating, he also draws large crowds and has a lot of die-hard supporters. The mindset of a Trump supporter has interested the mental health community since early in Trump’s campaign, but in a recent paper published in the Journal of Social and Political Psychology, Thoman Pettigrew, a psychologist and UC Santa Cruz professor, narrows the mentality to five different psychological phenomena.
- Authoritarian Personality Syndrome (APS)
People with this syndrome believe in total and complete obedience to an authoritarian figure, even at the cost of their own personal freedom. They have little to no concern for truth, opinions, or the needs of others. They generally display aggression toward other groups and have a strict hierarchal view of society. They also find absolutist terms such as “complete disasters,” “losers,” and “fake” appealing.
- Social Dominance Orientation (SDO)
SDO is similar to APS, but the people with SDO favor the societal hierarchy of groups, especially when there is a structure that gives a high-status group dominance over low-status ones. Trump appeals to the SDO mindset by making clear divisions between the high-status group (White) and the assumed lower status groups (everyone else).
While not every single one of Trump’s supporters is prejudiced against ethnic and religious minorities, many of them certainly are. Republicans, at least since the Nixon era, have favored a “southern strategy” which appeals to bigotry and laces speeches with “dog whistles”—code words to signal prejudice toward minorities, such as “animals,” as Trump recently used to describe Mexican immigrants. But that is subtle for Trump, even if less subtle than dog whistles used to be. Appealing to prejudice is why Trump demands people say “radical Islamic terrorism.”
- Intergroup Contact
Or, more accurately, a lack thereof. Intergroup contact reduces prejudice when members of one group interact with people outside of their group. But many Trump supporters don’t have this experience. A 2016 study found that “…the racial and ethnic isolation of Whites at the zip-code level is one of the strongest predictors of Trump support.” In fact, Trump’s support increased the more physically distant voters were from the Mexican border.
- Relative Deprivation (RD)
RD is about entitlement, and the anger one feels when they compare their station in life to those they feel are inferior or even equal to them. They believe others have unfairly gained more success than they had. While prejudice can play a role, RD also explains the non-bigoted Trump voter. They see their economic status dwindle, and are given someone to blame, such as China or Mexico, even if this claim is not accurate. These kinds of voters made Pennsylvania, Michigan, and Ohio swing to Trump.
If Pettigrew is correct, it certainly reiterates the idea that Trump supporters are “working class” citizens angry at the Democratic and Republican “elite”—and it is why Trump is now so set on attacking his own party.