Yes, Donald Trump, the current Republican candidate for President of the United States, is a fear-mongering, narcissistic, opportunistic, reality TV celebrity with no experience in public office, little concern for the truth, and a strong penchant for racism, xenophobia and autocratic fascism.  

But that is beside the point. 

The history of the world is filled with such pathological persons. Stalin, Hitler, Mussolini, Franco, Hirohito, Mao, Pol Pot, Pinochet, Tito, Idi Amin, Papa Doc and Baby Doc Duvalier, Charles Taylor, Joseph McCarthy, Saddam Hussein, Kim Jong-il and Kim Jong-un, the list of strongmen is endless.

The focus of our attention should not be on these destructive, delusional men – their histories, personalities, psychologies, character or the food they eat. Really, who cares? At times like these we tend to focus on these individuals because, frankly, it is easier to understand, celebrate or attack single individuals than it is to comprehend and address the context that gives rise to them. Psychologists call this the fundamental attribution error, the tendency to place undue emphasis on the individual rather than on the context that supports their behavior. But there will always be plenty of these tyrants around, and focusing so much energy on them just incentivizes their actions and feeds their egos. 

Instead, our focus should be on understanding how such despots rise to power. It should be on comprehending the underlying conditions that spark such epidemics of hate and bring them to a tipping point where large majorities of people come to support dictators. We should be taking a hard, systematic look at why Trump’s brand of vile fear mongering, dooms-dayism and authoritarianism resonates so much today that 13 million American voters came out in record numbers during the Republican primary to offer their support. Leaders are only as powerful as the extent to which they attract loyal followers. So the crucial question should not be what is the deal with Trump, but rather what is driving the hordes of Trump supporters to see him as a viable presidential candidate?

Of course, the answer to this question is a complex constellation of factors, which differ in emphasis with different subgroups of Trump supporters. But to some degree they are driven by:

Economic loss and hardship.  Many citizens are still struggling from more than eight years of economic downturn, which took their jobs and homes and hopes for their future and their childrens’ futures. They feel the current economic system is corrupt and unfair (see the $700 billion TARP program to bail out our financial system). 

Humiliation. Losing one’s job and home is publicly humiliating, no matter what the circumstances. Humiliation has been shown to be a particularly toxic emotion that can result in increased aggression against oneself (see the recent spike in addiction and suicide among middle-aged whites) and others, particularly members of outgroups. The longer people ruminate on it, the more poisonous it becomes.

Relative deprivation. This is the increasing sense that you and people like you can no longer get what you deserve, while members of other groups (bankers, off-shore business owners, lobbyists, politicians and welfare recipients) are doing just fine.  This is a particularly mobilizing political force that, under certain conditions, leads to rebellion and violence.

Continued in Part 2 forthcoming next week...


Peter T. Coleman, author of The Five Percent: Finding Solutions to Seemingly Impossible Conflicts, is associate professor of psychology and education at Columbia University, director of the International Center for Cooperation and Conflict Resolution, and on the faculty of Teachers College and The Earth Institute at Columbia. In 2003, he received the Early Career Award from the American Psychological Association, Division 48: Society for the Study of Peace, Conflict, and Violence. He lives in New York.