Basic anxieties often overwhelm rationality. As leftists and many members of the establishment Republican base reel in the wake of the US election results, an explanation through the lens of threat psychology may be useful.
Simply put, Donald Trump’s campaign appealed to the needs of working-class white Americans. Factors such as deindustrialization and loss of jobs to technology have mobilized an anti-establishment base for whom the modest signs of economic recovery were not enough. While this explanation is largely correct, it says little about the psychological factors that were a conduit between America’s economic realities and the Americans who filled in ballot bubbles at the booth.
As a researcher of the experience of psychological threat, I have learned that humans have two fundamental needs:
- To feel that they are in control of their lives.
- To feel that they are people of moral worth.
It is not news that both of these needs have come under sustained attack in the past decade for members of that once all-powerful group: heterosexual, male, white Americans. The recession, ever-expanding personal debt, and high-profile terrorist attacks have undermined their sense of personal agency, especially for lower-income members of this group. Simultaneously, minority groups have achieved more rights and a louder voice, which is generally perceived by conservative white Americans to be an attack on their moral value. It is what Nietzsche called a “reversal of values”: the powerful, who once derived a sense of self-assurance from their status, now feel that they are being labeled as immoral.
In our studies at the University of Arizona, we have found that individuals who are experiencing such threats respond in characteristically defensive ways. Their first strategy is to scapegoat someone for their problems. This is because blaming another group for our problems rids us of potential guilty feelings.
For instance, a study conducted by Zachary Rothschild (now at Bowdoin College) and colleagues in 2013 showed that middle-class Americans accused of exploiting working-class Americans felt guilty about this exploitation—unless they were also given the opportunity to blame immigrants for the plight of the working class, in which case the guilt disappeared.
At the same time, blaming a scapegoat or enemy for one’s misfortune can also preserve a sense of personal control. One representative study was carried out by Daphna Motro and recently published in The Journal of Experimental Social Psychology. She recruited working adults from around the country and asked some of them to think about concerns they have about their job security, which elevated their anxiety. Some of these participants were then additionally given the opportunity to privately vent their aggression toward someone in the workplace who causes them problems. Threatened participants who were given the chance to express anger toward a boss or coworker expressed elevated feelings of control and empowerment. Therefore, by reducing complex problems to a single enemy person or group, we restore threatened feelings of power.
Trump pointed to clear scapegoat targets—immigrants, Muslims, and the Clintons—to satisfy his supporters’ corresponding need for control. But beyond scapegoating, another strategy for facing moral value threats is to claim that one’s own group has been victimized.
In 2012, I published a series of studies showing that when male white Americans were told that their group has caused the suffering of minorities, they responded to these accusations with competitive victimhood, such as claims that their group suffers basically as much as minorities. Following in this vein, Trump consistently portrayed Americans as being exploited by their government and other nations, which absolved white males of any guilt by granting them their own victim status. Our data showed that this tendency was driven by feelings of “stigma reversal,” which is a resentful sense that majority groups are now considered immoral and stigmatized due to historical injustice.
Trump’s stump speeches deftly wove together all these pieces of the psychological puzzle. He painted a bleak, conspiratorial vision of the country’s future and government, eliciting anxiety. Trump’s refusal to comply with current norms for public discourse affirmed his supporters’ convictions that they have been the victims of stigma reversal, their free speech curtailed by the rise of new ideas about discrimination and justice.
If the country is to move forward on a path that does not involve defensive aggression and resentful claims to victimhood, the basic needs for feelings of control and moral value of every citizen must be met through rational and constructive political means. Even if the economy nosedives back into collapse under Trump’s presidency, if he continues to satisfy his supporters’ psychological needs better than the Democratic alternatives, he may still have an army of supporters in four years—no matter what chaos ensues.