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An entrepreneur of identity

by Kurt Kleiner Nov 18 / 16
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Donald Trump speaks at a campaign rally before the election. Photo credit: Gage Skidmore

Donald Trump’s surprising election victory has many observers searching for an explanation for his popularity. Alexander Haslam and his co-author Stephen Reicher, who studied the Trump campaign for months, say that Trump won because he successfully created and represented a sense of shared identity with his followers, and positioned himself as someone who could be trusted to bring about identity change. The two argue that Trump’s political opponents need to understand how and why Trump was so appealing.

Haslam is Associate Director of CIFAR’s Social Interaction, Identity and Well-Being program, and a social psychologist at the University of Queensland. Reicher is a psychologist at the University of St. Andrews. Their paper, The politics of hope: Donald Trump as an entrepreneur of identity, is scheduled to appear in a collection called The Myth of Rational Politics: Understanding the Allure of Trumpism. The two are also the authors of The New Psychology of Leadership, along with Michael J. Platow.

We spoke to Haslam a week after the election.

News & Ideas: How do you explain Donald Trump’s success?

Alex Haslam: I think in this particular election people were very clearly looking for change. And I think that Trump had built a collective movement around a model of change which he was going to represent and push through.

So he was a very skillful identity entrepreneur. He was masterful at marshalling the sentiments of ordinary Americans, at leading people to believe that he represented their collective interests and was going to put a sledgehammer through the political system.

N&I: It’s been true for a lot of years that everybody wants to run as an outsider, at least in U.S. politics. How did Trump pull this off so well?

AH: I think again it was pretty masterful because in a particular sense he’s a part of the elite. But one of the core things is that he absolutely refused to follow protocols. He was non-diplomatic. He was crude. He was vulgar.. I think that was a very powerful signal that he was not going to buy into or represent the system in its present form.

So Trump very clearly signalled that he represented ordinary people and a non-party political view, he signalled that he was not going to be buying into the standard representations of how politics is done. Hillary Clinton was absolutely not in a position to do anything other than that. That made her vulnerable to precisely the attack that Trump laid down. And at the end of the day, in these terms, her political acumen, her character, didn’t really matter.

N&I: You make the case that Trump was able to craft and build an identity for his followers, and to position himself as one of those people and as their leader.

AH: The craftsmanship was supreme and it was working at a number of different levels. A lot of people were saying, “Trump is a lunatic. His supporters are deluded and irrational,” and so on.

But if you are inside Trump’s world I think what he was doing made a lot more sense, from the perspective of his supporters. Rhetorically, he presented a particular analysis of what is wrong with America – this was that it is being run by a corrupt political class who are in league with malevolent forces both inside and outside the country. Moreover, he argued that this is the class Hillary Clinton and the Democrats represent and want to advance yet further.

Leadership is about a person’s capacity to represent the group that they want to lead.

I think that resonated amongst the disenfranchised working class and middle class people in the U.S – people who had been hurt over the last couple of decades by America’s economic decline and the post-financial crisis world.

N&I: In your paper, you describe a Trump campaign rally as being designed to instill a sense of identity, largely by creating a sense of “us” against “them.”

AH: One of the powerful things about Trump’s rallies was that they presented a model of the world in which people could live out a particular identity. It wasn’t just talking about doing things differently and getting rid of the cuckoo in the nest, the corrupt people, whether it’s journalists or academics or politicians.

Those rallies gave Trump supporters a vision of a world in which these things were not simply things one talked about or dreamed of. Again, I think from the outsider’s perspective, that’s utterly frightening. But what was happening in those rallies was that Trump very powerfully used the press in attendance to make them objects of hate and to humiliate them, and to actually allow his followers not simply to say, “Oh, yeah, he’s going to attack the corrupt journalists,” but actually to participate in that process.

He was allowing people to live out their collective aspirations and to participate in a collective enterprise that empowered them in that way. I’m saying all of these things not as something that I think is fantastic. I’m just saying it’s incredibly powerful.

History tells us that if you can communicate and get people inspired by a new model of “us” that’s one thing. But it’s absolutely critical to provide them with a framework which allows them to live it out. I think his rallies were actually tremendously powerful in that regard.

N&I: Stepping back from Trump, could you articulate for me this idea that leadership isn’t just about people making rational decisions about who can do the best job?

AH: Being elected as a leader and getting the support of followers is not about being the best individual. That’s really the standard “old psychology” of leadership, the idea that leadership is about the character, the psychology of the person as an individual.

Our point is that leadership is about a person’s capacity to represent the group that they want to lead. So leadership is about an individual as a group member, and it’s about their “us-ness,” not their “I-ness” or “me-ness.”

If you give people a choice between a great individual but one who doesn’t represent us, versus somebody who is not a great individual but does represent us, the latter person will win out every single time.

Trump was allowing people to live out their collective aspirations and to participate in a collective enterprise that empowered them

N&I: How do you respond to the claim that Trump simply unleashed racism and misogyny that has always been there?

AH: We don’t buy into the idea that there are cultural essences that are waiting to be unleashed. There’s a history of, yes, racism and so on. But that’s true in most countries. It’s true in Canada, it’s true in Australia, it’s true in Britain.

The issue is, what are the identity narratives that successful leaders will develop? And what are the collective potentialities that they will unearth? Just as leaders can bring out the best in us, so too they can bring out the worst in us.

Identity is a work in progress. It isn’t about, unleashing natural essences, and saying “Well Americans are racists, so obviously if you play that card, you’re going to win.”

Just as leaders can bring out the best in us, so too they can bring out the worst in us.

Bernie Sanders, for example, had a very different model of “us” that would have moved into quite a different territory. But that was no less of a representation of the essence of America.

So I’m not fatalistic or deterministic or essentialistic when it comes to these things. I think everything is always up for grabs and it’s a very big mistake to imagine that it isn’t.

N&I: What you’re saying seems to imply that it doesn’t matter what you’re going to do or how good you’re going to be at it, you simply have to convince enough people that you’re one of them and that you can lead them.

AH: I think just saying those things and invoking a sense of “us” is only part of the story. At the end of the day it is the ability to transform people’s lived experience. The leaders that we remember in history are people who do that. They bring about material transformation by working in collaboration with followers around a shared model of identity, so the change ends up being a collective coproduction.

Lots of the things that we’ve achieved over time have been fantastic and have been associated with progress, and some have been disastrous, nightmarish collective projects. The issue here then is about the content of the identity around which the leadership is mobilized. Are we about giving or taking, about opening up or shutting out, about bridges or about walls?