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February 22, 2024

Diagnosing the psychological factors at play in the 2020 election

By ANJU FELIX | December 4, 2020



Felix assesses the 2020 election, arguing that the rationales of Trump supporters are more complex than most Biden supporters.

The polarization of the 2020 presidential election felt inescapable. The “ride or die” individuals in each party didn’t just differ in political beliefs but seemed to experience different realities. Hinting at this polarization, 56% of registered Democrats stated their support for President-elect Joe Biden stemmed from their aversion to President Donald Trump.

Of course, this opposition is completely understandable given how starkly different the incumbent and president-elect are (not to mention Trump’s antics on Twitter and abuse of power). According to the Pew Research Center, an extreme majority of voters (86%) view Trump and Biden as having completely different positions. 20 years ago, only 51% of Americans found candidates George W. Bush and Al Gore to be drastically different.

Interestingly enough, the rhetoric and reasoning of Trump supporters appears to be multi-dimensional, considering most cite reasons for supporting him other than disliking Biden. This disconnect between rationales certainly points towards a greater disparity. Following the 2016 election, a paper in the Journal of Social and Political Psychology reviewed some psychological phenomena in play among the MAGA base. 

At its center is a strong leaning towards authoritarianism syndrome and social dominance orientation (SDO). Authoritarianism syndrome has been interpreted as a personality construct (with genetic basis), ideology or state of being, triggered by a feeling of being in danger or under threat. The syndrome is defined by opposition to new experiences, subscribing to the view that the world is a strict hierarchy and a high regard for authority (an “agentic” state).

SDO is closely related but fixates specifically on the aspect of authoritarianism related to societal hierarchies. Social dominance orientation describes individuals who are strongly inclined to dominate groups of a lower-status and vehemently oppose egalitarianism. 

Both these phenomena can certainly be found at any point of the political spectrum, but throughout the world, authoritarianism is much more present on the right. The rhetoric in some of Trump’s key campaign slogans appeal to the symptoms of these mindsets. In just a few of his thousands of tweets, the use of absolutist terms like “absolute authority,” “massive proof,” “absolutely decimated,” “total scam” is significant. 

As with SDO, Trump embraces denigrating and distinct societal groupings using classic social dominance statements. See: bad hombres, Kung Flu/China Virus, sh**hole countries, draining the swamp and birtherism campaigns against former President Barack Obama and Vice President-Elect Kamala Harris.

The Trumpian voting block not only actively consumes media resembling authoritarianism, but they also act in a way consistent with the syndrome — “typically dominant, driven, tough-minded, disagreeable, and relatively uncaring seekers of power.” This is especially clear in how the MAGA team responded to COVID-19 as well as the election results. 

Early in the pandemic, Trump significantly diminished the severity of the virus, despite predictions and warnings from the scientific community. As a result, only 24% of registered voters who support Trump consider the pandemic to be an important issue, compared to the 82% of Biden supporters who do. At countless rallies held across the country this year, Trump deliberately ignored guidelines from state and health officials and refused to enforce policy his own Centers for Disease Control and Prevention created. The areas he visited usually experienced a higher rate of positive COVID-19 tests following the local rallies.

In a study of the 2016 election by Katarzyna Jaśko, a professor of Psychology at Jagiellonian University in Poland, the behaviors of both Trump voters and Hillary Clinton voters were analyzed in response to Clinton’s loss. After asking “Should [Trump] stand up to the Democrats on issues that are important to Republican supporters, even if it means less gets done in Washington?”, they found a correlation that the prouder the voter was, the stronger they supported Trump’s unwillingness to work with Democrats.  

Additionally, the study found that Trump supporters were more likely to support him taking hostile actions against his political opponents than Clinton supporters were. 

“It means that among those who were particularly invested in supporting Trump and whose individual sense of personal significance was mostly affected by the victory, his hostile actions were accepted the most,” Jaśko said in an interview with PsyPost

This deep connection to a form of authority is certainly a factor influencing how Trump’s supporters are acting now. As Trump encourages his base to rise up and plants seeds of mistrust of a rigged election, implicating his own Federal Bureau of Investigation and Justice Department in the process, his supporters dutifully march and wait for their leader’s direction, continuing to defy COVID-19 guidelines. With the support of the current President, his base is still fed messaging and fodder by his administration, the GOP and the far-right media to remain defenders of their leader, despite what is at stake for their own lives, the health of Americans and ultimately whatever little faith we still hold in our government institutions. 

Cheers to happier times (that is, if we ever see the end of this election cycle)!

Anju Felix is a dual-degree sophomore studying Neuroscience, Political Science and Harp performance from Port Murray, N.J. She is a writer for the Triple Helix scientific journal.

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