The Allure of Donald Trump
The primary season is now well underway, and the Trump bandwagon continues to gather pace. Like most observers, I thought it would run out of steam well before this stage. Trump delights in the kinds of vicious attacks and stupidities that would derail any other candidate. His lack of shame and indifference to truth give him a kind of imperviousness to criticism. His candidacy no longer seems funny: it now arouses more horror than humor for many observers. Given that Trump is so awful – so bereft of genuine ideas, of intelligence, and obviously of decency – what explains his poll numbers?
While many Republicans disapprove of him strongly (a sufficient number, I suspect, to sink him when the field thins and the non-Trump vote is less divided among candidates), around one third support him. No doubt there are many reasons. Disillusionment with mainstream politicians (on both sides) is understandable, perhaps even warranted. So is despair at the loss of jobs in the US and the state of the economy. Trump’s very failure to offer specific proposals may allow people to project any fantasies they like onto him. And his scapegoating of minorities offers the white working class, which has seen real wages fall and unemployment rise, a target for their anger.
I want to suggest that in addition to all these factors, a psychological mechanism may be playing a role in explaining Trump’s attractions to a substantial minority of voters. Trump is a very wealthy man. By one primary indicator, that means he is a successful person. We are often unable to judge accurately what makes a person successful. For this reason, we are disposed to imitate them. We don’t (consciously) hope thereby to copy some of the behaviour which makes them successful: rather, we have evolved to have mechanisms that dispose us to imitate them because doing so raises the probability that we will imitate the behaviour that makes them successful. All kinds of things might play a role in causing success; sorting out what is cause and what is mere correlation is notoriously difficult. Better to imitate more widely: hence the evolution of our prestige bias.
It may be that the prestige bias helps to explain why celebrities are often paid to endorse consumer goods. No one consciously believes that wearing the same scent as Gwyneth Paltrow or the same watch as Brad Pitt will lead to movie contracts, or money, or being sexually irresistible, but we might nevertheless look more favourably on the products they endorse due to the fact that they are prestigious individuals. Similarly, I suggest, the fact that a successful businessman, one who repeatedly emphasises his wealth, puts forward what he claims are solutions for the many real problems confronting the white working class disposes them to give his words much more weight than they deserve.
It is worth noting that low information individuals – those with less capacity, due to limited resources or education – to identify what factors actually explain the success of individuals seem to be especially susceptible to the prestige bias. That makes evolutionary sense: if imitation is relatively low cost to the individual, then it is adaptive to copy broadly, even if for every behaviour copied there is only a small chance of thereby achieving success. If the prestige bias explains some of Trump’s attractiveness, then we ought to see stronger support for him among the less well educated and the less wealthy. And that’s precisely what we observe. No doubt many factors, rational and irrational, explain why people consider voting for Trump. But the prestige bias may explain a great deal of his attractiveness.