Donald Trump and white men over 40 without a college degree share a common belief: Something is wrong in America, and others are to blame. As a professor and psychologist specializing in the psychology of men and masculinity, I believe there are several critical psychological dynamics that the public needs to know that explain why these white men see Trump as their savior, their masculine hero and ideal, and their only choice in this election.
I offer my own diagnostic analysis and have no interest in devaluing or stereotyping this unique group of men. I only want to pose hypotheses about what is happening between them and President Trump.
Why are these psychological dynamics important to be understood? Because it is not just white men over 40 without degrees who are drawn into Trump’s propaganda and rage, large segments of our electorate voted for him in 2016, and the same may be true in 2020.
More importantly, one senses a dangerous synergy between these men and Trump; reminding us of past dictators who have manipulated the masses using intimidation, lies, and propaganda to cause discontent, chaos, civil unrest, violence, and genocide. At this point, Trump is no dictator. Still, the psychological processes he uses are the same that other authoritarian leaders have used to destroy democratic societies, oppress people, and cause revolutions and world wars in the 20th century.
My insights are not true for every white man over 40 without a college degree. And to dislike, devalue or demonize these men is counterproductive to understanding why they support Trump with such energy at his daily rallies. These men deserve our understanding and compassion; they are in pain and despair and vulnerable like the rest of the country.
Many of these men feel angry and defiant, believing that there are serious, unjust disparities in wealth and power in the U.S. They are correct about the income disparities, with 40 percent of American wealth owned by 1% of the population. Unhappy with their status in life, including their economic situation and social standing, these men blame liberals and minorities for the injustices negatively affecting their lives.
On a more unconscious level, these vulnerable men are envious of those who have succeeded in ways they wish they had — especially the educated, liberal intellectuals, minorities, and women with power, status, money, and options in life they believe they will never have. They feel left out by the status quo and marginalized by the capitalist system they believed in. Trump uses fear to activate their anger and shame by telling them it will worsen unless something is done.
Trump tells them how to feel better about themselves and who to blame for their problems. From a psychological perspective, Trump tells them what they want to hear:
- Follow and believe in me, and you will feel better about yourself.
- Yes, the system is rigged against you. Vote for me; I will fix it.
- I’ve always been an underdog like you. We can fight back and “Make America Great Again” (which translates to these men as “Trump Will Make Me Great Again”). There are hope and promise in this fight, and we can beat the corrupt status quo together and lock up the liberal criminals for good.
- Immigrants, minorities, feminists, homosexuals, and environmentalists are working against your interests. Their liberal agendas threaten your Christian morality, economic prosperity, and our American way of life. I’m on your side, not theirs.
- I can do anything I want with my power because I always win; follow me, and you will win, too.
The mix of these messages has positively impacted Trump’s base and a had serious negative impact on those who oppose his manipulative and coercive style of gaining adoration and being worshipped. With these kinds of messages, it is easier to see why these men have such emotional intensity and bond with Donald Trump and what he represents.
We need to understand these psychological dynamics between Trump and his ardent supporters because their bonds have in part destabilized our society. After the election, their grievances about the economic disparities will remain and whether the politicians will responsibly respond to the economic injustices these men know remains unclear. But what is clear is that: How these men and Trump view “Making America Great Again” is very important because their political ideologies seriously threaten our democracy and having a peaceful and civilized social order.
James M. O’Neil is a Professor of Educational Psychology at UConn’s Neag School of Education and a psychologist in private practice. He is the author of Men’s Gender Role Conflict: Psychological Costs, Consequences, and an Agenda for Change, APA Books, (2015).