Social identity and Trump’s base

To the editor:

Building on the pioneering experiments of Henri Tajfel (1919-1982) in the 1970s, U.S. psychologist Michael Hogg (1950-) has found that when picking leaders, group members will choose not the “best and brightest,” but the most average individuals with whom most members could easily identify. According to social identity theory, once they are in power, by necessity leaders become different from their constituents, so they must go to increasing lengths to prove they are like their group. “This may be why nationalistic slogans — and outright racism — are often effective political strategies. By defining their group in exclusive terms, leaders reinforce their social identity and build power.”

Sound like anyone you know? President Trump is actually quite dull, intellectually careless and socially unsophisticated. Far from being a phenomenal politician, tactical genius, brilliant administrator or mesmerizing speaker, he is, in every sense of the word, average. (In terms of basic spelling and historical accuracy, he is far below average, bordering on incompetent at times.)

Nor is Trump all that charismatic; he mainly plays the role of a showman. At times the play-acting is painfully contrived. His rallies, for example, are full of predictable punchlines, attendees who look and sound alike, superficial villains, feigned anger and host sites that never drift too far from the president’s sphere of influence. Some commentators have compared them to a WWE wrestling event.

Speaking of Trump’s background and interests, in the context of social identity theory, he is an overweight white male who is preoccupied with money, pop culture, fast food, tabloid journalism, sexual objectification and golf. That is far from a unique portrait of the modern American male. Tajfel and Hogg would call Trump “prototypical” in that regard. In fact, they would contend that these attributes are what got him elected in the first place.

Nevertheless, these rallies do symbolize the needs of a particular group in America, one that is looking for a leader who is willing to amend their own personality and adopt the values and goals of the group. Needing a leader to define their group in exclusive terms — even racist and xenophobic terms — they looked for someone who was willing to reinforce their worldview and literally attempt to BECOME one of them. Hence the MAGA hats, tweetstorms, bullying, jingoistic propaganda, dog-whistling and pandering to evangelicals. Trump may be an average speaker, writer and thinker in general, but he is no dummy when it comes to appealing to the masses on the right side of the political spectrum.

Perhaps Trump’s most impressive accomplishment, at least according to social identity theory, has been his stealth ability to foster a sense in their minds that he is no longer a non-religious, draft-dodging, tax scheming, misogynistic, billionaire real estate heir and germaphobe; that he is simply, merely, uncannily one of them.

George Cassidy Payne