US Election 2020: -Trump is true to the image he has created of himself
- Trump has created an image of himself as the strong man, who will rebuild American values and fight for the forgotten women and men. That he is true to this message is part of his strength, says Sigrun Marie Moss, a researcher who specialises in political psychology.
Playing his game: Danald Trump is sticking to the same recipe as before, says researcher. (Photo: NTB/Scanpix)
Sigrun Marie Moss, a postdoctoral fellow at the Department of Psychology at the University of Oslo, was not as surprised as many others when businessman and reality star Donald Trump won the election and became President of the United States four years ago.
Many people, both then and now, were shocked that a person who spoke so contemptuously about large sections of the population, including women and people from minority backgrounds, could win the election — and also get the votes of those he demeaned. They simply couldn’t make any sense of it.
- We know from psychology that it is easy to categorise people based on what we think is the most important thing for them. But then we forget that we are all composed of many different identities.
Women vote not only because of their femininity and "Hispanics" vote on the basis of more than being "Hispanic". It is possible to be both Hispanic and very conservative. It is possible to be a woman and to most of all be tired of the political establishment, explains Sigrun Marie Moss.
She stresses that understanding different identities is important in order to address why so many voters ignored Trump's racist and sexist statements – and probably still do. This is because they believe that Trump defends them in other arenas and offers hope for the future – which is so important to them. In addition to being a character who does not conform to the type of politician they had become tired off. Those qualities weigh heavier than what he had to say about them as women, gays or representatives of minority groups.
The fact that, from the very beginning, Trump was very clear about positioning himself, was a major reason according to Moss for why he won the presidential election four years ago and why he still may have a chance of winning another term, despite the opposition candidate Joe Biden's lead at the polls.
- Trump's strategy towards his core voters is entirely in line with the core elements of political psychological theory: In order to build yourself up as a political leader, it is necessary to create a so-called in-group. This is about figuring out who this group should be and what is most important to those who define themselves as part of it. Then you have to launch yourself as the most representative, prototypical leader of that group. This increases the likelihood that those who identify with this prototype will vote for him, like him, and join his political project. Trump has been very successful at spinning himself as being such a prototypical leader for his core voters.
What characterises the Trump prototype?
- He has played on the ideal of a United States, which is about being strong, taking back the conservative values of the past and returning the forgotten men and women to their rightful place. In the last election campaign, he positioned Hillary Clinton as a prototypical politician, who was incapable of doing anything new and could only deliver "more of the same old thing." He positioned himself as a prototypical American, as opposed to the types of politicians people were accustomed to. He also utilised the fact that he was very successful, not least financially, regardless of whether this was true or not", says Moss.
She believes that Trump has succeeded in making his group believe in him as someone who cleans up and acts like a "businessman". Another important feature is that he has positioned himself as someone who engages in "straight talking", which is in contrast to the prototypical politician.
- Several studies show that while people don't necessarily agree with his statements, his followers appreciate his simple, rough language, which contrasts with what they have been accustomed to hearing from politicians.
- Is this still Trump's strength - after four years as president?
- Yes. Straight talking appeals to his followers. But it's probably just as important that Trump, as they see it, is someone who delivers on what he's promised, and follows it up. He said he would "take action on China" and "bring jobs home." His constituents feel that he has tried to do so and they support him, regardless of whether it has gone well or what effect it has had. He is good at spinning stories about his successes.
Sigrun Marie Moss stresses that very many Americans, especially among Republicans, have very little confidence in the system and they feel, often rightly, that there has been a great distance between them and those who are in power. For some of these voters, it was and is liberating to have a president who is so different, who does things his way and who says what he thinks spontaneously, seemingly without weighing his words.
Someone who knows the "game"
Moss points out that several polls show Joe Biden scoring best when it comes to dealing with crime, racial issues and, not least, dealing with the pandemic. At the same time, several of the polls show that some voters regard Trump as being the best qualified to manage the economy.
- Trump's followers think of him as a businessman, someone who makes deals and who "knows the game." Whether planned or unplanned, I think Trump has been extraordinarily adept at spinning this image of himself, both as a successful businessman and as a successful prototypical American and representative of the forgotten men and women. It is ironic that someone who has his own private jet and his own golf course should be the candidate that many of those who are struggling financially identify strongly with.
- Yes, what's the reason for that?
- One might ask why the Democrats have let the Republicans take over as representatives of some of the population groups that are struggling financially and who feel forgotten by the political system.
Many people felt that what Hillary Clinton said during the last election campaign did not resonate with them. Perhaps they were still paying for "last year’s Christmas" and did not felt recognised.
Instead of "more of the same" from Clinton, they opted to vote for a colourful character like Donald Trump in order to get something that was new and different. I'm sure a lot of people did it from a logic that it couldn't get any worse than it was.
Whether Trump has succeeded in his project or not is, according to Moss, entirely dependent on the eyes if the beholder.
- He has obviously contributed to polarisation and has sharpened the divide in order to take advantage of it in his political project. As president, he has played on a culture war that was already present, and he increased the divide between Republicans and Democrats, right and left. By building on opposing force, he has made himself an even stronger advocate for those who feel the same way as him.
Moss refers to, among other things, how Trump has branded Mexicans as rapists and referred to four young female politicians with minority backgrounds (The Squad) in a derogatory fashion on a number of occasions. He always does this with his in-group in mind in his political communication.
Ill with Covid-19, but brushes it off
Trying to win an election in the United States during a pandemic would be difficult for any sitting president, Moss points out.
She stresses that Trump's handling of the corona pandemic has been peculiar to him, not least that he withdrew his support for the WHO amid a pandemic that requires international cooperation. However, the fact that he himself became ill and quickly recovered may have helped strengthen his candidacy.
- The rapid recovery fits well with Trump's narrative about himself as the strong man, who is fighting for the United States. He's so strong he recovers from Covid-19.
His own rapid recovery, as long as it persists, also fits well with what he has said all along about the virus: that it is not so dangerous and that we did not have to take it so seriously, says Moss. She doesn't disregard the fact that he'll score points from the fact that he was so quickly out campaigning after getting up from his hospital bed.
- Trump's followers probably see the quick recovery as proof that their candidate won't be knocked out so easily, not even by a pandemic, and it is exactly his type of president that is needed to get the nation through the pandemic.
However, the researcher believes that the pandemic overall has cost Trump votes, even in his own ranks, especially where people have seen close family suffer and die due to a lack of help and inadequate equipment. Those who haven't been affected can more easily accept Trump's message that the pandemic is dissipating quickly and is nothing to worry about. And also the claim that a vaccine is just around the corner.
Playing on Joe Biden as weak and old
Donald Trump was merciless in the last election campaign and disrespected Hillary Clinton, both as a representative of the establishment, "no change", and not least as a woman.
- He had and has quite a good understanding of what is going on in parts of American society. He intuitively understood that many voters were not ready to have a woman as president. And if it were to be a woman, it certainly shouldn't be "that woman there." When Bernie Sanders withdrew his candidacy, we could see interviews with people who were dedicated Sanders supporters. When it couldn’t be him, they voted for Donald Trump rather than for Hillary Clinton
- What was the logic of that?
- The theme of Sanders was much the same as Trump's. Both talked about the forgotten women and men, albeit some different women and men. Both talked about change. Although the solutions they proposed were diametrically opposed, they both appealed to the many voters who wanted something new and who didn't believe that "more of the same" would make their lives any easier.
Moss believes that Donald Trump is relying on much of the same message in this election campaign as in the previous one. He still positions himself as "The American" and Biden as "the politician." This time, according to Moss, he won't succeed as well in sticking the establishment tag on Biden. This is partly because Biden is better liked than Clinton was. This time, Trump can't play the woman card, but he has other ammunition lined up.
- Trump spends a lot of time and energy portraying himself as the stubborn, strong man, in contrast to Biden as being older, weaker and without the same stamina,says Moss.
She refers, among other things, to how Trump almost bullied Biden for wearing a mask and added that he "had never seen such a big mask before" and that Biden wore it "even if he was standing 200 yards away from people." Although there’s no more than a 4-year age difference separating Trump and Biden, and they're both at an advanced age, researchers believe that Trump has succeeded in portraying himself as far younger.
- As long as he repeats it enough times that he is strong, virile and has what it takes, then it seems that the message hits home with his followers. The implied message is that they shouldn't choose an old man like Biden, who can die of a heart attack at any time.
Doesn't care about norms and rules
Attacking opposing candidates in the crudest way and hitting below the belt is, according to Moss, a practice Trump has introduced into politics and the campaign.
- He is probably the first politician we have seen in the United States who so totally doesn't care about all the norms and rules and who apparently does exactly what he wants. But this also matches perfectly with the image he has created of himself, as the one willing to break the rules and norms to get the American people "the best deal ever," say Moss. She believes that by his language and characterisation of others, Trump has both changed and pushed the boundaries for what is acceptable to say in public debate.
- Regardless of whether Biden wins this time, Trump's method will probably have a lasting effect on political discourse. This is particularly true with regard to how polarised the discourse has become and regarding what is acceptable to say about other people.
Moss points out that, under Trump, the limits for what it is acceptable to say publicly about e.g. immigration, women and homosexuals have been greatly expanded. Even George W. Bush said in 2017 "Bigotry seems emboldened.” But Trump has struck a chord with many voters who are tired of politicians who they believe have dictated what they should have the right to think and feel and say on various topics, based on what is politically correct.
The fact that Trump, when he is not "muted" like during the last election duel with Biden, interrupts the opposition candidate and makes faces and ridicules his opponent, as he also did with Clinton, isn't necessarily a behaviour that his followers dislike. Rather, this may be part of reinforcing the image he has created of himself as a prototypical American, and as a counterweight to the prototypical politician, as Moss sees it.
- A lot of people think that a lot of the things Trump does are annoying, rude and not appropriate - even among his own voters. When so many people vote for him, I think it's in spite of some of these things, and not just because of what he stands for. Precisely because the United States is now so polarised, it has become very important for many people to feel that they are standing by their candidate, who represents the side they have defined that they belong to. This will be the case for many voters, regardless of who the candidate is, because the alternative is that the other side wins.
But interestingly enough with Trump, it has gone so far that now there are support groups for Biden among Republicans, as he is seen as a better option.
Biden most important to avoid four more years with Trump
Biden is leading in the polls and one of his campaign strategies, according to Moss, is to undermine Trump.
- He has a much more sober, quiet demeanour than Trump. Rather than getting agitated when he thinks Trump is telling lies, at times he laughs loudly, saying that "this is just nonsense," referring for example to the fact that Trump's own FBI director can debunk what Trump says Biden's strategy is to show that Trump is telling lies, as well as pursuing an irresponsible policy. He has launched himself as an alternative to four more years of "that lunatic."
Moss stresses that the outcome of the election will depend on who will be able to mobilise the most votes, especially among their own core voters, but also among those who have not made up their mind.
- One problem for Biden may be that he is leading so clearly in the polls, that some traditional Democratic voters will think that nothing is at stake - and perhaps fail to vote.
Obama's strength was that he was able to mobilise voters. Clinton, on the other hand, lost because so many people stayed home.
Moss points out that Clinton ran for president after Obama. Biden's advantage may be that he is running to help avoid four more years of Trump. Many people fear just that, so a powerful motivation for Democrats and voters on the left is to avoid another term with the incumbent president.
Contrasts himself with Trump
- I don't think Biden is seen as anything very different from previous Democratic candidates, but he is perceived as being completely different than Trump, moss says.
She thinks Biden is better at talking to the left than Clinton was. For example, he addresses financial problems that affect the weakest, addresses them directly and assures voters that things will improve if he is at the helm. He stares straight at them via the TV screen, promising to remove the "tax benefits Trump gives to the rich" and pointing out that Trump himself "pays no more tax than a nurse."
- Biden contrasts himself with Trump and communicates that he's going to clean up all the wrong things Trump has done, says Moss, who believes this is Biden's strongest card.
- Biden appears to be a good option for all those voters in the United States who may be starting to get a little worried about how relations and cooperation with other countries is really going now that there is a pandemic. Many people probably see Biden as an adult person, as a contrast to Trump, who seems unplanned and spontaneous. You can never know what Trump's up to, Moss says. She has observed that many of those who might have thought it a little refreshing to have Trump in the previous election, have now had second thoughts and wonder if they shouldn't have had a "more steady captain on this ship."
However, Moss stresses that there are many factors that play into the final election result, as well as the need for core voters on both sides to be mobilised.
- Although Biden still leads in the polls, the wind can quickly change, given that, for example, Trump is launching a Covid vaccine a few days before the election. He believes in taking such measures at the last minute, says Sigrun Marie Moss.