Donald Trump
Government and politics, Leadership and teamwork, Personality and self

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

Donald 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.

09 November 2017

By 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.”