President Trump’s populist candidacy and election defied the expectations of both political professionals and public-opinion researchers. In the scramble for explanations since, several influential accounts have emerged.
One part of the puzzle is structural: As political scientist Julia Azari put it, a toxic combination of “weak parties and strong partisanship” makes it harder for party leaders to stop Trump-like insurgents while guaranteeing that the party faithful in the general public will support those insurgents once they are nominated.
Another part of the puzzle has to do with various individual inclinations that attracted voters to Trump’s candidacy. Explanations of this sort have focused on economic dissatisfaction, authoritarianism, sexism and racial resentment.
Recently, we explored a psychological characteristic that explains some of the support for Trump’s candidacy: collective narcissism, or an exaggerated belief in an in-group’s greatness, which must be continually reinforced from the outside. The Trump campaign repeatedly insinuated that the United States was no longer what it used to be — and promised to “make America great again.” This theme was particularly well tuned to the kinds of concerns and fears that come from collective narcissism.
What is collective narcissism?
Collective narcissism is a lot like individual narcissism in that it involves emotional dependence on others’ admiration. The difference is that collective narcissists seek privilege and recognition for groups they belong to. They constantly monitor their environment for validation and are hypersensitive to threats to the in-group’s image.
Collective narcissists’ default reaction to having the in-group image threatened is intergroup aggression. When the in-group is, in their view, criticized or insufficiently recognized, collective narcissists attack back and rejoice in the out-group’s misfortunes.
Collective narcissists are also prejudiced toward groups they perceive as threatening. For instance, Polish collective narcissists who endorsed conspiracy theories about Jewish efforts to undermine Poland evaluated Jews more negatively.
Collective narcissism and the Trump candidacy
Donald Trump’s campaign rhetoric focused heavily on concerns often expressed by collective narcissists. Consider the slogan mentioned earlier: “Make America great again.” Collective narcissists are likely to be mobilized by calls to restore the in-group’s perceived greatness because they fear that others do not recognize it — and because they may doubt the group’s (exaggerated) greatness themselves. Collective narcissists are also likely to have been attracted to Trump’s promises of aggressive action against targeted out-groups such as Muslims, given that collective narcissism predicts hostility toward minorities.
Data from other nations confirm that collective narcissists support “populist” initiatives and leaders who emphasize threats from disliked out-groups. For example, Britons who scored high in collective narcissism were more likely to vote in favor of leaving the European Union, influenced by perceptions that foreign immigration threatened the United Kingdom’s identity.
Here’s how we did our research
To examine this hypothesis, we turned to data from 1,459 respondents who took part in a national four-wave Internet panel study fielded by the University of Minnesota’s Center for the Study of Political Psychology. The final post-election wave of the survey asked respondents who they voted for in the presidential election and included five questions that could diagnose American collective narcissism:
- If the United States had a major say in the world, the world would be a much better place.
- The United States deserves special treatment.
- It really makes me angry when others criticize the United States.
- Not many people seem to fully understand the importance of the United States.
- I will never be satisfied until the United States gets the recognition it deserves.
We controlled for variables known to predict presidential voting in general and Trump support in particular. These included basic demographics (age, income, gender, education and race), as well as common political orientations, such as ideology and partisanship. We also controlled for a number of variables that have been cited as predictors of Trump support in recent studies: racial resentment, hostile sexism, personal economic dissatisfaction and authoritarianism. Finally, we controlled for how close respondents felt to other Americans.
In a statistical analysis, we used collective narcissism and the control variables to predict whether respondents voted for Donald Trump. This analysis allowed us to gauge how much each factor predicted how likely it was that someone would vote for Trump. The figure below shows the relationship between collective narcissism and the probability of a Trump vote (bottom), as well as the relationship between each of five key control variables and a Trump vote.
Even after controlling for other factors, collective narcissism strongly predicted whether someone voted for Trump. Individuals who scored highest in collective narcissism were 29 percent more likely to vote for Trump than those who scored lowest. Indeed, the only predictor with a notably stronger effect was partisanship, as you can see above: The most Republican-leaning voters were 61 percent more likely than the most Democratic-leaning voters to vote for Trump.
What does this mean for U.S. politics?
Of course, our findings are subject to several caveats. For example, our data are observational, so we cannot be sure that collective narcissism “causes” a voter’s preference rather than vice versa. Moreover, because we only have data on the 2016 election, it is not clear whether collective narcissism is uniquely related to vote choice in 2016, or whether it consistently predicts presidential voting.
Nevertheless, our findings suggest that Trump’s election may make collective narcissism a more acceptable way of conceptualizing national identity.
If motivated by collective narcissism, decision-makers and citizens are likely to make unrealistic demands on other countries, increasing the likelihood of international confrontation. Within the United States, intergroup tensions are likely to increase. Because collective narcissists’ tendency to define “America” narrowly has arguably been legitimized by Trump’s victory, hostile treatment of minorities may increase, as has been seen in the increase in defaced cemeteries, mosque attacks and so on.
Agnieszka Golec de Zavala is a senior lecturer in psychology at Goldsmiths, University of London, where she specializes in social psychology of intergroup relations and started the empirical research on collective narcissism.
Christopher Federico is a professor of psychology and political science at the University of Minnesota, and recipient of the International Society of Political Psychology’s 2007 Erik Erikson Award for Early Career Achievements.