This paper provides an in-depth political, and psychological analysis of Donald Trump, focusing on his rise to power and his presidency. It examines Trump’s personality, leadership style, use of political rhetoric, relationship with the media, and the social and political conditions that enabled his election. Through the lens of political psychology theories, including authoritarianism, social dominance orientation, and the authoritarian personality, it seeks to explain Trump’s appeal and the dynamics surrounding his controversial presidency. An interdisciplinary approach draws on psychology, political science, sociology, and communication studies research.
Donald Trump’s victory in the 2016 presidential election shocked many political pundits and experts. Though he was initially treated as an entertaining curiosity when he announced his candidacy in 2015, Trump quickly gained popularity and defeated over a dozen experienced Republican politicians to become the party’s nominee. His campaign rhetoric broke many established political norms, leading to debates over whether he represented a new populist movement or a resurgence of a darker side of American politics (McElwee & McDaniel, 2017).
Trump’s rise to power and his conduct as president present a fascinating case study for political psychology. Political psychology broadly examines the intersection of psychological and political processes, studying how human thoughts, emotions, and behaviors shape and are shaped by political structures and events (Sears, Huddy, & Jervis, 2003). As an interdisciplinary field, it draws on theories and methods from psychology, political science, sociology, and communication studies. Political psychologists analyze the role of individuals’ psychological characteristics in politics, the psychological effects of political institutions and contexts, the psychological factors shaping political attitudes and actions, and the psychological processes involved in political communication and persuasion (Renshon & Duckitt, 2000).
This paper applies key concepts and perspectives from political psychology to develop an in-depth examination of Donald Trump, his unorthodox political career, and the social conditions that fueled his rise. First, Trump’s personality traits, leadership style, and rhetorical techniques will be analyzed through the lens of theories regarding authoritarianism, social dominance orientation, and authoritarian personality. Next, his symbiotic relationship with the media will be explored. Finally, the social and political context in the United States that enabled Trump’s election will be considered.
Trump’s Personality and Leadership Style
Political psychologists have extensively studied leaders’ personalities and their implications for governance and national politics. They find that the personalities of presidents and prime ministers can shape leadership styles, communication strategies, policy priorities, and relationships with the public and other key political players (Immelman, 1993; Rubenzer & Faschingbauer, 2004). Donald Trump’s personality and leadership style are thus important factors to analyze.
According to many psychologists and political analysts, Trump exhibits many characteristics associated with authoritarian leadership (Bélanger & Schreiber, 2021; Diamandis, 2021; MacWilliams, 2016; Schaffner, 2020). Authoritarianism involves a desire for order, power, control, and limited tolerance for difference (Adorno et al., 1950; Altemeyer, 2006). Authoritarian leaders tend to dominate, focus on status and hierarchy, be adverse to dissent, manipulative, and distrustful of others (Padgett, 2022).
As a leader, Trump prizes loyalty, attacks critics and demands obedience from his subordinates (Bennett, 2020; Galvin, 2020). He admires autocrats and has explicitly praised authoritarian leaders like Putin, Xi, Erdogan, and Kim Jong-Un while alienating democratic allies (Diamandis, 2021). Trump relies heavily on nepotism, appointing close family members like his daughter Ivanka and son-in-law Jared Kushner to high-level White House positions. This signals a lack of trust and a need for control. His administration had record turnover rates, as he quickly discarded staff members he perceived as disloyal (Tenpas, 2018).
Trump’s management style embodies the hubris and volatility associated with authoritarianism. He is famously mercurial, improvising policy and reversing decisions on a whim (Reny et al., 2022). He disdains expert advice, believing his own instincts superior. This overconfidence leads to poor planning, chaotic implementation of directives, and surprise public announcements via Twitter that shock even his own staff (Balz, 2017).
These traits have serious ramifications for democratic governance. Authoritarian leaders with low openness, poor impulse control, and fragile egos are prone to demagoguery, corruption, and political violence when their power is threatened (Diamandis, 2021; Padgett, 2022). By analyzing Trump through this psychological lens, the dangers of his authoritarian tendencies for U.S. democracy become clear.
Beyond general authoritarian characteristics, Trump exhibits tendencies psychologists categorize as social dominance orientation (SDO). SDO describes a personal orientation toward intergroup hierarchies in which one’s own group dominates others (Pratto et al., 1994). Those with high SDO are more likely to support ideologies and policies that promote inequality, show prejudice toward low-status groups, and endorse using force to maintain their group’s dominance.
Trump’s rhetoric and policies consistently reflect SDO rather than egalitarian values. For instance, he instigated racist “birtherism” conspiracy theories questioning Barack Obama’s citizenship (Pasek et al., 2014). His immigration policies and response to Black Lives Matter protests demonstrate a regressive stance on racial equality. Trump also espouses deeply patriarchal views on gender, refusing to condemn sexual harassment and assault. By analyzing Trump through the SDO framework, his political priorities emerge as conservative policy choices and as an overt stance upholding intergroup inequality.
Finally, Trump exemplifies many traits associated with the authoritarian personality by psychologists such as Adorno, Altemeyer, and others (Adorno et al., 1950; Altemeyer, 2006; MacWilliams, 2016). While controversial, the authoritarian personality construct aims to identify a cluster of attitudes correlated with antidemocratic stances. Key features include submission to authority figures, aggression toward minority groups, anti-intellectualism, superstition, and stereotyped thinking (Adorno et al., 1950).
Like the authoritarian leaders he admires, Trump demands submission, scapegoats migrants and Muslims for societal problems, ridicules intellectuals and experts, and relies on simplistic stereotypes in his communication style. His relentless effort to overturn democratic election results and inflammatory rhetoric leading up to the January 6th Capitol attack illustrate the danger of an authoritarian personality in a position of power. While an imperfect construct, viewing Trump through the authoritarian lens provides insight into his disdain for democratic norms.
By drawing on theories of authoritarianism, SDO, and the authoritarian personality, political psychology fundamentally enhances understanding of Trump’s peculiar leadership style and antidemocratic governing tendencies. The patterns illuminated reveal risks far beyond typical partisan policy disagreements. Fortunately, research also indicates authoritarians perform poorly under prolonged social and economic strain (Stenner, 2005). Trump’s authoritarian psychology may explain his rise, but also demonstrates his weakness.
Trump’s Rhetoric and Relationship with the Media
In addition to his authoritarian personality, Donald Trump’s persuasive communication style and symbiotic relationship with the media were instrumental to his political success. Political psychology examines how rhetorical techniques and media interactions shape public impressions and voter behavior. Trump strategically exploited mass media to propel himself first to the presidency and then to challenge democratic election results.
Authoritarian demagogues often utilize propaganda to sway followers. Trump masterfully employed accessible rhetoric combining simplicity, repetition, emotion, and divisive “us vs. them” narratives (Hahl et al., 2018; Roberts, 2020). He reinforced this rhetorical style through constant media exposure. Trump manipulated journalistic norms of neutrality, exploitation, and narrativity to control media narratives (Groeling, 2013).
For example, he dominated 2016 campaign coverage by exploiting sensationalism. Outrageous statements like calling immigrants “rapists” ensured he remained the center of attention (Patterson, 2016). This media circus benefited Trump, as continual exposure, even negative coverage, increased his recognition and resonance. Studies show Trump supporters consumed more partisan media, reinforcing his polarizing rhetoric than other Republicans (Schaffner & Luks, 2022).
Once in office, Trump maintained his erratic, combative media persona. He used Twitter prodigiously to circumvent journalists and shape coverage, tweeting conspiracy theories and disinformation to energize his base (Ott, 2017). Trump strategically exploited divisions within American society, particularly racial and cultural anxieties among white working-class voters who felt marginalized in the Obama era and threatened by changing demographics (Schaffner, 2020).
Overall, Trump fundamentally altered presidential communication norms, replacing decorum with Reality TV-style drama. This analysis reveals the necessity of incorporating media studies with psychological theories to fully explain Trump’s rise. His authoritarian rhetoric and media savvy combined to increase his appeal among certain segments of the electorate.
However, Trump’s dominance of media narratives declined once he lost access to the bully pulpit after the 2020 election. Unable to tweet false claims of election fraud to millions of followers, he became increasingly reliant on right-wing partisan outlets like Fox News. However, even Fox could not maintain support for Trump’s conspiracy theories as it became clear that Joe Biden won the election. This demonstrates the limitations of Trump’s media influence once disconnected from the legitimate powers of the presidency.
Political psychology teaches that communication strategies exercising “soft power” are more successful long-term than authoritarian propaganda (Nye, 2008). As Trump discovered, demagoguery can achieve short-term electoral success but lacks the ethical foundations needed to endure controversy and challenge. His rhetorical strengths ultimately failed when tested by America’s institutional checks against authoritarianism.
Social and Political Context Enabling Trump’s Rise
Finally, political psychology underscores that leaders do not rise in a vacuum. The social and political context shapes both the appeal of a leader like Trump and the willingness of citizens to embrace authoritarianism (Altemeyer, 2006; Stenner, 2005). Several key conditions in the contemporary United States increased Trump’s resonance.
First, rising economic inequality and cultural displacement of working-class whites fostered grievances Trump exploited (Schaffner, 2020). Second, partisan media polarization provided networks Trump could commandeer to attract attention and disseminate propaganda (Groeling, 2013). Third, racial resentment among whites and demographic shifts heightened intergroup conflicts Trump capitalized on (Sides et al.,2017).
In addition, declining civics education contributed to low political knowledge, allowing Trump’s lies and violations of democratic norms to go unchallenged (Journell, 2019). High levels of anti-intellectualism and distrust of expertise primed many voters to embrace Trump’s authoritarian appeal rather than heed warnings from scholars and scientists (Motta, 2018). These conditions elucidate why a sizable segment of Americans found Trump’s message resonate.
However, political psychology also indicates authoritarianism alone rarely allows despots to take power. Enabling contexts involving elite acceptance and institutional instability are required for democracy to erode (Levitsky & Ziblatt, 2018). Thus, while Trump clearly exhibits authoritarian traits and tendencies, checks on executive power constrained his anti-democratic ambitions. The failure of his attempt to overturn the 2020 election despite his brazen efforts underscores the ultimate resilience of American democracy against individual authoritarians.
This analysis demonstrates the value of political psychology frameworks for understanding leaders like Donald Trump, who defy traditional models. Trump combines highly authoritarian personality traits and leadership styles with the sophisticated use of modern media for propaganda and public appeals based on racism, xenophobia, and nationalism. The social and political context in America provided fertile soil for Trump’s rise by fostering economic and cultural grievances for him to exploit. However, his demagogic and authoritarian tendencies failed when tested by America’s institutions and civil society.
Political psychology reveals the grave risks of Trump’s assault on democratic norms and the processes by which U.S. democracy withstood this challenge. This case study highlights important areas for future research, including charismatic rhetoric by political outsiders, intersections of authoritarianism with partisan polarization, media manipulation in the digital age, and building societal resilience against antidemocratic movements.
The unprecedented nature of Trump’s presidency underscores the need for interdisciplinary analyses integrating psychological and political research. Political psychology provides crucial insights into the individual, social, and structural factors shaping Trump’s popularity. Through evidence-based examination of authoritarianism and its contemporary manifestations, this field can help citizens understand threats to democracy and how to overcome them.
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