Donald Trump’s Psychological Manipulation of the American People

Authored By 
Gina Roussos
Blog contributor 
Policy Fellow
December 1, 2016

The results of the recent presidential election have left many wondering how Donald Trump, a man with no political experience who was deemed unfit for the presidency by many high-ranking government officials—became the next President of the United States. I believe part of the reason is that Mr. Trump, whether intentionally or not, utilized methods drawn from social psychology to induce system threat. System threat occurs when people’s belief that society is fair and stable is challenged; they are persuaded to believe that the nation’s future is dark and uncertain. This manipulation induces fear and uncertainty and has many influences on behavior—in this case, voting behavior. I believe it was this system threat manipulation- carried out on a national scale—that ultimately won Donald Trump the US Presidency.

Amidst worldwide terrorism fears, and with America in the midst of civil unrest and still reeling from multiple mass shootings, Trump had the perfect opportunity to heighten Americans’ fears and uncertainty about our country’s future and then offer himself as a way to bring back fairness and certainty. With the country already under mild and intermittent spells of system threat from the aforementioned events, Trump’s task was all too easy. He just had to remind us of all of the civil unrest and violence, make it constantly present in our minds, and make these threats seem more severe and more looming. So, how and why did this method work?

Social psychological research tells us that we have an intrinsic and powerful motivation to believe that the socioeconomic and political systems in which they live are fair, legitimate, justifiable, and unchanging. Threatening this belief in any way makes us feel scared, anxious, and uncertain about the future. System threat leaves us scrambling for a way to feel secure again; an action, event, or person that will restore peace and stability; in the words of Donald Trump, a way to “make America great again.”

Mr. Trump spoke to Americans about how the government was the reason for their troubles, about how the rising immigrant population was a threat to their job security, and about the imminent and terrifying threat from terrorism. He described our world as one full of corrupt institutions and threats of violence. In this world, Trump was the person who could eliminate the corruption, the person who could protect citizens from financial insecurity and foreign enemies.

One might think that Trump’s blatant xenophobia, racism, and sexism should have worked against him and should have shown Americans that Trump was not the one who could protect all of us from threats both national and international. Fortunately for him, another effect of system threat is reduced concern for members of disadvantaged groups and reduced interest in recognizing and fixing injustice and inequality.

Because belief in a just and fair socioeconomic and political system addresses our epistemic need for certainty and consistency, we are highly motivated to maintain that belief. If certain groups, such as racial minorities or women, are being systematically mistreated in our country, that is a violation of that belief. Thus, under high system threat, individuals will deny the existence of injustice and will subsequently oppose any programs or policies meant to rectify injustice.

If we do not acknowledge that gender bias exists, we will not see demeaning or objectifying comments about women as reflecting sexism; this protects our palliative belief in a just society, keeping our anxiety at bay.

This system threat strategy, it seems now, was unbeatable. Americans, driven by our fears of unpredictability and threats of violence, found in Trump someone who could assuage our fears and protect us from danger. A vote for Donald Trump was an attempt to bring security and justice back into our lives. Now that Mr. Trump is the President-elect, the threat has been assuaged. The future is now secure. We will all find out in January if Trump is able to deliver on his promise to make our country safer and fairer.

Gina Roussos is an ISPS Graduate Policy Fellow and a fourth-year graduate student in Social Psychology. She is broadly interested in how prejudiced attitudes and beliefs originate, are perpetuated, and can ultimately be changed.

Area of study 
Political Behavior