What are the psychological roots of President Donald Trump’s populist success? Understanding populism through Cas Mudde’s The Populist Zeitgeist and Jan-Werner Müller’s What Is Populism, the ideology sees the world in a unique way. Operating distinctively apart from the political spectrum, the ideology can latch itself onto other political movements (both on the left and right) and is characterized by charismatic leaders who portray the world as “the people” and “the elites” and generates widespread popular support from the people who identify with the populist leader. The ideology generally only speaks to “a small part of the politician agenda,” as defined by Mudde, and builds a fervor around the individual leader. Trump and his actions have him fall into this categorization, through his divisive rhetoric that pits himself as the “voice” of the people and against the (Democratic) corrupt, ruling, elite. Trump’s charisma and his claim to represent these widely-thought views of the people help classify him as a populist. From when he launched his campaign, Trump’s following massively grew to the point that he had created a movement – a “true people,” as populists tend to view it – and created a populist movement surrounding himself.
While most populists (including Trump) latch their movements onto social and economic concerns, they also benefit from the social psychology that comes along with populist movements. Shared beliefs and feelings characterize political identities. Trump’s populism conforms to this; he speaks to the economic woes of the population, but also has created a movement that people can be a part of. That phenomenon creates the feeling of being part of the “in-group,” the sociological construct in which people divide the world into an “us” and a “them,” and seeks to identify flaws in the opposing group, often to inflate their own self-image. Populists play into this by creating that shared identity and feeding it by bringing the in-group together behind the charismatic leaders like Trump who so often lead populist movements, and by explicitly delegitimizing their opposition. Inflammatory rhetoric catches and holds the attention of followers, who often resonate with the fact that their leader is finally expressing their views, and really affirming to them that they hold the correct views. The result is that populists like Trump say inflammatory things, create widely-recognized enemies and capitalize on the resulting popularity. The success they get from these strategies is at least in part due to the psychological response their actions provoke.
Motivated reasoning is a psychological phenomenon that describes how your desires distort your view of the world. Motivated reasoning occurs in all sectors of society, including sports and how fans perceive the events in a game with their team in it, and extends into the political realm. When Trump pits himself against the allegedly unfair media or allegedly crooked political opponents, motivated reasoning makes his following inclined to believe him. This distortion due to motivated reasoning can also be chalked up to confirmation bias, in which people only accept information that confirms their existing beliefs, ignoring all else. Whichever of these psychological occurrences is the leading force, the fact that psychology is pushing Trump’s followers to his populist ideology remains the same.
Those two psychological factors play into the current wave of populism we see, which is can be characterized as “xenophobic populism.” For example, some of the views that modern populists including Trump express regarding immigration, which some people may find distasteful (to put it nicely), are similar to the views of right-wing Americans who have been told their views are not “politically correct.” The result is these right wing Americans may find Trump’s demeanor and rhetoric a refreshing change. When a politician says these things, it plays into that confirmation bias that they were right all along. It seems that many populations globally, especially those in the United States, are not as hesitant as we may think to express distasteful views, potentially due in part to the rise of xenophobic populism. The fact that these views are shared by a large group allows the populist leader to gain popularity through these sentiments, which enables xenophobic individuals to see their views are morally absolute and correct, cementing them as a follower to the populist. Trump has clearly done this, capitalizing on large-scale xenophobia and the popularity that garnered for him electorally. While those sentiments may arguably be rooted in economic fear, there is certainly a psychological aspect present as well in the electoral success they brought.
Additionally, populism’s portrayal of things in a right and wrong, black and white way plays into the human desire for simplicity. Similar to the confirmation bias discussed above, humans want their current views to not be challenged; being faced with complex issues threatens their current perception of the world. The desire to understand how things work in a way that affirms our intelligence plays into this populist rise. Regardless of the political orientation of the populist, they are capitalizing on the ideological tendency to create an in-group and an out-group, and that portrayal of complex issues in a simple light or the similar attribution of a complex problem to a single, easily identifiable enemy, aids to the success of populism. Whether those enemies are the intellectual or political elite of today or the industrial elite in the early ages of populism that focused on farming, this unifying force aids to the success of populist leaders.
Trump uses these tools as a populist leader successfully. He takes advantage of the group identity that people want, and confirms their beliefs, especially those that aren’t typically given the time of day in normal discussion, including xenophobic tendencies. His use of the typical lingo and playbook of populists cement him as a populist leader, and Trump successfully takes advantage of the psychological aspects that live within populism.