So appalling, so appealing?

Ella Rhodes reports from a joint British Academy / British Psychological Society talk, from Professor Stephen D. Reicher (University of St Andrews).

‘In most of the major countries of the globe there are either elected leaders, or strong authoritarian populist movements, and the question is why? Why are these people who, to many of us, are so appalling, so appealing? And of all these people that question is asked most frequently about Donald Trump. We look at Donald Trump and we see a man who calls Mexicans rapists, we see a man who boasts about his sexual assaults on women, we see a man who is so infantile in his insults that he boasts about the size of his genitalia in major political speeches. What on earth is the appeal of this man?’

So began Professor Stephen Reicher’s public talk, held at the Royal Society. While many see psychology as the science of the self and the individual, Reicher argued that understanding core psychological concepts was crucial to untangling much larger societal and political phenomena. To understand the rise of Trump, we must re-examine our understanding of the concept of self.

We feel like our selves are what make us individuals, and what set us apart from other individuals. In reality, Reicher said, the self is made up not just of individual traits but of those norms and values of the many groups to which we belong. When we begin to see ourselves as group members this leads to psychological transformations: not only do we embody the thoughts and values of a group, but the behaviours and actions, and then, Reicher added, ‘in a group we share a perspective, we share a notion of what we’re about and what we’re trying to do, we also align our efforts and work together, we become empowered and in being empowered we are able, finally, to instantiate our norms, our values, our sense of the world… When you get people to form a sense of a collective self, when you can define the norms and values of that self, you have something truly powerful in your hands, you have a world-making resource, you form a source of social power, it’s based on that sense of common values and common groupness.’

Reicher also outlined three models of leadership based on this idea. Egalitarian leaders do not say what it means to be British, for example, but guide a discussion and facilitate the collective enterprise of what it means to be 'us'. Hierarchical leaders appear to dictate what it means to be Chinese, Russian or Indian, etc, and present themselves as the best version of that group identity. Finally, autocratic leaders take it a step further and present themselves as embodying the identity of the group: they appear as the living, breathing epitome of the group, they are the group, and if you question that type of leader, you tend to be portrayed as an out-group member.

With all of this in mind, Reicher asked, why did people elect Donald Trump? This has been asked on repeat since his election and many of the narratives write off his supporters as mad or stupid. But projecting what we feel is most salient about Trump onto his supporters is deeply dangerous, Reicher said. For example, Theodore Abel’s 1938 book Why Hitler Came Into Power collected essays from more than 600 Nazi supporters explaining why they voted for Hitler. While some voted because he was anti-Semitic and racist, most didn’t, most voted for him despite that. What is so salient to us about a leader may be less so to those who vote for him.

Surveys have shown that even among Trump supporters words such as 'jerk', 'idiot' and 'dumb' are commonly used to describe him, while they don’t dispute the fact he is a racist and sexist. They voted for him regardless. As Reicher pointed out, while his supporters should in the very least have condemned these racist, sexist views, the evidence suggests they voted for him not because of those beliefs, but rather in spite of them.

It is also interesting to look at those people who switched sides to vote for Trump. Recent analysis has shown those who switched were mainly 'anti-elites' and those who felt like America was falling behind. Reicher said it was important to consider the world view and demographics of Trump supporters. They tend not to be the poorest, earning on average just over $30,000 per year. They aren’t the least educated and have often completed at least some college education. Reicher said they are the groups who have pulled themselves up, fear sliding back, and feel like they have something to lose. The most important issue for people during the election was whether a leader could bring about change and Trump was seen overwhelmingly as someone who could. Similarly, of two thirds of people surveyed who said they felt America was going in the wrong direction, 69 per cent supported Trump.

It emerges that Trump supporters’ lived experience is one of decline, being left out, derided and ignored. Many feel powerless in the face of governments who seem to ignore the needs of the 'ordinary' person, and are confronted by narratives which look down on ordinary voters as ignorant hicks and hillbillies. This is aggravated by a widespread notion of humans, often propagated by psychology, that we are cognitively flawed and prone to error and as a consequence we need technocratic elites to decide things for us. ‘We have this notion of the ordinary person as inadequate… people’s experience of government, and many institutions within society, is being ignored, excluded, derided and being treated as “other”. In that context we need to understand the appeal of Trump.’

Reicher played Trump’s closing campaign advert in which he spoke to the notion of Make America Great Again, one of decline – an experience that many ignore. He also tries to theorise and explain people’s lived experience, he tries to tell people who they are, who is experiencing decline and why. On one hand there’s 'the people', on the other there are Muslims and Mexicans, portrayed as attackers and rapists and 'the other'. ‘There was a very simple and very powerful construction of categories, an exclusionary notion of us, a derided us, an excluded us and an us in decline vs. the other.’

Another baffling element of Trump’s victory is how a billionaire businessman came to represent the ordinary American person. Reicher said throughout his campaign Trump was constantly defining not just 'the people' but his relationship to them. ‘The point is he doesn’t represent the reality of the ordinary person, it’s that he reflects the values and the norms of the group, a certain notion of America, the notion of the American dream, the notion ordinary people can rise up and become powerful again.’ Rather than acting against the interests of the people, Trump says his wealth allows him to act in the interests of the people, against the elites and the establishment. ‘The more he breaks the political rules, the more he establishes an anti-political construction of the people and makes himself one of them.’

Trump’s campaign rallies also allowed him, in a performative way, to display how he embodies the in-group and represents their concerns. During rallies supporters were encouraged to surround protesters chanting Trump’s name… Trump even glorified violence against them. Similarly, he encouraged the audience to turn and bay at the journalists reporting from the press area. Reicher said this is like a morality play which enacts the 'enemy within' and 'enemy without' narrative and the vision of them being defeated. The media are silenced by the people, and Trump is at the helm throughout. ‘Trumpism is simplistic, perhaps, but it speaks to an experience, it clarifies and theorises an experience, it performs that experience, it involves people in it and it involves their victory overall. The categorical, the rhetorical and the performative aspects of what Trump does have a terrible coherence.’

In what way is Trump authoritarian? Reicher said the enlightenment ideal could be summed up as an attitude towards difference, the notion that we will debate differences and reach a common outcome, as common members of a community. Difference is good and should be embraced, democratic politics would not work without opposition, for example. But Trump represents anyone who differs with Trump as being against America, or as not American. ‘It’s an attitude towards difference that says if you differ with Trump, because Trump is the people, you differ with the people. You’re to be derided, you’re to be brutalised, you’re to be imprisoned.’

Deriding Trump and his stupidity is to miss how, in many ways, he is a master of understanding the art of constructing groups and making him representative, and as a result we miss the reasons behind his victory. ‘He’s a consummate entrepreneur of identity, remarkably skilled, remarkably coherent, remarkably simple, in a way Hillary never was. The success of Trump might not be in intellectual brilliance but in performative brilliance and performative coherence. Our sneering will mean that we won’t understand what he did and will leave to him the tools of constructing social categories. We’ll leave the world-making tools in his hands.’

Trump articulated and theorised the experience of a large group of people within the American population and placed himself as the ultimate group-member, when others ignored them. Even if they hated him as a person or disagreed with some of what he said, he spoke to their lives. ‘It was the failure of alternative explanations, non-exclusionary explanations, economic explanations, as well as political explanations, that allowed that space. The success of Trump is the legacy of a long political failure of the liberal left.’

- Listen to this talk.

You can find much more from Professor Reicher in our archive. A transcript / podcast of his appearance for us at Latitude Festival, on 'The rules of unruliness', will be available soon. Also, make sure you read Reicher and Alexander Haslam's prophetic piece on Trump's appeal from Scientific American Mind.

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