Explaining Trump’s appeal

Thursday 10 November 2016


The extraordinary appeal of Donald Trump is explained in a prophetic new book on the President elect, written several months ago and to be published in the New Year.

In the book, Professor Stephen Reicher of the School of Psychology and Neuroscience at the University of St Andrews and Professor S Alexander Haslam of the School of Psychology at the University of Queensland argue that, while many have argued that Trump supporters are ignorant or irrational, this is a mistake.

Indeed, the authors suggest that such a viewpoint – akin to characterising Trump voters as ‘deplorables’ – plays directly into Trump’s hands. It exemplifies Trump’s argument that the world is divided into an unaccountable establishment who sneer, exploit and ignore ordinary people, and that he stands outside the establishment on the side of the people.

As the two academics say, Trump succeeds by providing a “categorical grid – a definition of groups and intergroup relations that allows many Americans to make sense of their lived experience, to understand their problems, and to entertain the hope of being able to deal with them”. In short, when one looks at things from the perspective of his supporters, Trump’s view of the world makes sense to them and speaks to them.

They go on to explain that “he establishes himself as a champion and as a voice for people who otherwise feel unchampioned and voiceless”. In this context, even Trump’s so-called ‘gaffes’, the things that were thought should undermine him according to the ordinary norms of politics, actually increase his appeal. So Trump’s crudity, his incivility, even his mistreatment of women, establish him as an ordinary guy, warts and all, unlike smooth, polished and dishonest political operators. With Trump ‘what you see is what you get’.

Reicher and Haslam continue: “Ironically too, in a politics controlled by wealth and privilege, his wealth frees him of the charge that he is in hock to the money men. What is more, Trump’s successes must be seen in the light of the failure of others. Most particularly, his rivals have not succeeded in providing an alternative grid based on alternative categories to make sense of what many Americans are experiencing. They have not elaborated an alternative politics and an alternative set of solutions. In that context, Trump has had a relatively free run.”

They argue that, like the shock result of the Brexit referendum, those who woke up to a Trump victory this week will ask: “what we and our leaders might — and should — have done to present a more inclusive narrative of ‘us’ that deals with the real problems people face, to embody that ‘us’ in all we say and do, and to develop a politics that provides solutions to those problems.”

Notes to news editors 

‘The politics of hope: Donald Trump as an entrepreneur of identity’ by Stephen Reicher and S Alexander Haslam will be published in The myth of rational politics: Understanding the allure of Trumpism, Edited by M Fitzduff.


Stephen Reicher is Wardlaw professor of psychology at the University of St Andrews, a Fellow of the British Academy, the Royal Society of Edinburgh, and the Academy of Social Sciences. He has been studying issues of social identity and collective behaviour for nearly 40 years, including crowd behaviour, nationalism, leadership, tyranny, intergroup hatred and, latterly, obedience and resistance.

S Alexander Haslam is Professor of Psychology and Australian Laureate Fellow at the University of Queensland. He is a fellow of the Canadian Institute for Advanced Research and of the Association for Psychological Science. His research focuses on the study of group and identity processes in social, organizational and clinical contexts, and he has published over 200 peer-reviewed papers on these topics.

Issued by the University of St Andrews Communications Office, contactable on 01334 467310 or [email protected].

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