On Trumpism and Polarization I: Perspectives on the Trump ecosystem

The psychology of bullying provides an apt starting point for thinking about the so-called “Trump ecosystem.” This is not to argue that Trump is best understood as a bully; some of his targets, including Fox News analyst Megyn Kelly, Gold Star father Khzir Khan, and Secretary Clinton herself, are too strong or powerful to fit the prototypical victim. Rather, the literature on bullying is informative if for no other reason than because it describes an interrelated continuum of roles, from the leader (the bully) through the close follower or henchman to enthusiastic supporters, passive bystanders, discomfited but nonetheless inactive observers, and finally, to those who actively resist.

In characterizing Donald Trump, his followers, and the contemporary Republican party, a bullying-like continuum can be used to frame the public stances of political elites as well as the behavior of the masses on social media platforms such as Facebook. The bullying metaphor is useful, too, because of its value as a tool for thinking about persuasion or mobilization: It suggests that we can expect to move people one stage on this continuum but not several, that people do not ‘flip’ so much as move. And the model is useful for what it doesn’t include as well as it does, for it is a model restricted to attitudes about Trump, not Clinton, and not the rest of us. This — the rest of us, and in particular the nature and extent of polarization — are to be considered in a second essay.

The rationality of Trumpism

Each position on the Trump-as-bully spectrum is multiply determined, and may be understood from perspectives such as moral psychology, the self-concept, and the structure of social networks. Although each of these is important, they are arguably less critical (if more interesting) than brute-force ‘instrumental’ accounts. Trump’s henchmen, such as campaign manager Stephen Bannon and politicians such as Rudy Giuliani and Newt Gingrich, amplify Trump’s message because of their own self-interest. Behind them on the continuum, the tortured dance of ambivalence seen by “vote for-but not support” politicians such as Paul Ryan and Marco Rubio is largely determined by their perceived need to alienate neither Trump voters nor those on the political right who have broken with him.

Instrumental explanations are important in understanding the behavior of the political masses as well as elites. If, as Hillary Clinton clumsily argued, half of Trump’s supporters are “deplorables,” the other half are not: They find themselves as supporters of Trump for a number of reasons, including partisan inertia. Trump is the Republican nominee, and they will vote for him out of habit, as they have always voted Republican. As the mechanisms of habit include how we process political information, they will tune into messages of small government, of liberty over equality, and of American exceptionalism, and tune out messages which oppose these. Inertia plays a role, too, in the lazy tendency to equate celebrity with authority. We are all drawn towards the familiar, and celebrity takes familiarity to an extreme. (During the primaries at least, Trump support was associated with those who were fans or viewer of his TV show). The more passive supporters of Trump may argue that our democracy is sufficiently established so that there is nothing we can do to hurt it, that our country has survived thus far, that America can withstand Trump. Though we may challenge these positions, we should recognize their collective significance: One can be a Trump supporter without being full of hate.

Not deplorable (All pictures: West Palm Beach, FL, October 13, 2016)

Privilege and threat

For all of the power of instrumental explanations, they are not sufficient to account for the rise of Trump: If the first factor of Trumpism is marked by instumentalism, inertia, and partisanship, the second is a sense of threat. By ‘threat,’ I refer not just to the prospect for one’s financial well-being, but to the self-concept.

Trump’s core supporters are White males without four-year degrees, and they live an America that is changing, moving inexorably towards a majority-minority state in which White males are no longer prototypical, in which a Black man has risen to its highest office, and in which a White woman now knocks at the door. They claim that a physical wall is needed to define and defend our country. Inside, the self needs to be protected as well. They may feel trapped in an unfinished argument: If I am an American and the meaning of America is changing, then who am I?


Our role, the role of older white males, in this country is changing. Today, we experience trust that is as ubiquitous, and as invisible, as the air that we breathe. (In my suburban neighborhood a few weeks ago, a police officer saw me, slowed, pulled over and rolled down her window: She called out to me and said “We have a report of someone suspicious in the neighborhood. Have you seen him?”). This quotidian trust lies at the core of privilege, and it is under threat: With every step towards equality, with every additional life that matters, my own privilege is eroded, for when all have privilege, privilege ceases to exist.

I’ve earned my “privilege.”

There is a sense, of course, in which none of us are free until all are free. But there is another sense in which privilege is experienced as a source of wealth, an asset, something that I lose when you gain. Sadness — a sentiment called out by Trump in hundreds of tweets and media posts — would be an understandable response to the impending loss of privilege. Trump supporters have struggled in an economy which has been unforgiving. Many of them have been successful. But it has not been easy, and they believe that their success is their own, that they have built it themselves, that they have earned their privilege.

Why is Trump?

While there has been a rise in ethnic nationalism in many developed countries, it is striking that Donald Trump would personify this in the US. Trump appears in many ways as the antithesis to Obama, his opposite, his shadow. If Obama’s presidency has been characterized by an appeal to civility, Trump’s candidacy has been a call to arms. If Obama’s presidency has been characterized by an appeal for equality for all, for people of color, Trump’s candidacy strives to “take our country back.” Trump’s success is, first, not just about him, but about our time. As the journalist Lincoln Steffens argued more than a century ago, our preference in leaders is cyclical: We seek good government, then grow tired of process and settle for activists unburdened by conscience. The political scientist Stephen Skowronek has more recently made a similar argument.

The big man arrives

And then there is the man himself. Our views of Trump are of course deeply colored by the limited perspective of the present moment, by the lens of now, by our lack of personal knowledge of Trump and those in his circle, and, too, by our own political beliefs, values, and motives. What follows is better understood as a description of a phenomenon rather than a specific characterization of Donald Trump the person, as a model of how Trumpism illustrates a particular perspective on personality structure.

At the level of personality traits, psychologists such as Dan McAdams and Ryne Sherman have described Trump as narcissistic. Trump has also been called paranoid, and at the very least manifests the distinguishing characteristic of paranoia, the grandiosity of “Only I;” this grandiosity is a characteristic shared by both narcissism and paranoia. Notoriously, we have seen a lack of empathy, and an attitude towards others as objects. This is true not just with women, but also with men. (Trump is, of course, not alone in this among politicians; see Barton Swaim’s marvelous The Speechwriter). Some of those who worked on Trump’s television show, for example, were treated as less than human — one, whose job it was to put the microphone on Trump, remembers Trump acting repulsed, and calling him an f***ing monkey (BuzzFeed). This expression of revulsion points to another of Trump’s characteristics, one topologically distinct from narcissism and paranoia, and that is the repeated manifestation of a sense of disgust. As Jonathan Haidt and others have shown, sensitivity to disgust is associated with political conservatism. (And, conversely, insensitivity to disgust is associated with liberalism — witness the “fart-in” by supporters of Bernie Sanders on the floor of the Democratic National Convention a few months back). But although disgust-sensitivity may be seen as an expression of the moral foundation of sanctity or purity, it can also be understood as a mechanism in the service of narcissistic or egocentric self-protection.

Each of these qualities — Trump’s narcissism, his paranoia, his grandiosity, his lack of empathy, and his proneness to disgust — are all consistent with, and can be seen as subordinate to, an egocentric moral stance. His reckless claim that “it’s rigged,” threatening the institutional trust which lies at the heart of a functioning democracy, supports the view that the country and the world do not matter, except insofar as these are an extension of Trump himself. Many of Trump’s policy stances, including his proposals for a more regressive tax code, are consistent with furthering the self. Egocentrism is central to understanding Trump, or at least his public persona.

Taking care of Americans like us.

While sanctity and disgust may be seen as moral virtues or sensibilities, egocentrism should be understood as a primitive moral stage. While Trump himself can be characterized by a limited sphere of concern with only the self, Trump’s followers are characterized by a concern for a broader in-group, for family first and America first. Though these stances are more sophisticated than the regressive position of their leader, they remain more primitive than messages concerned with broader spheres, with a utilitarianism-without-borders, or, perhaps, with moral conceptions grounded in human dignity and compassion. This is an asymmetry which eats at all of us, in the inescapably patronizing tone of posts like this one, and in the resentment of those who stand with Trump: It is not just different, but better, to care about refugees than to reject them. So what do we do?

(End part 1).