A Psychologist's View on Why Trump is Polling So Well - Part 2

It is no secret that our nation has been experiencing chronic dissatisfaction with the politics of Washington. Congress’s approval ratings are abysmal and have been for a long time. Both sides of the aisle, Democrats and Republicans, seem to be really good at pointing the finger, causing stalemates, and getting very little accomplished.  This impasse is even potentially putting our lives at risk on a daily basis. In a recent 60 Minutes segment called “Falling Apart,” Steve Kroft reported on the aging infrastructure in our nation. Roads, bridges, and airports are “out of date,” he said. The main reason for this massive problem is the inability of our current government to raise the necessary funds. “Another example of political paralysis in Washington,” Steve Kroft chirped.

Adding to this sense of national helplessness are the colossal cultural shifts occurring and the enormous global issues facing our nation. Take the issue of gay marriage. For those staunchly against the redefinition of marriage, I imagine it feels deeply alarming to witness national opinion shifting on a belief that was so assumed for many centuries. It even feels like an immense spiritual and cultural crisis for some. I also suspect that the repeated instances of mass shootings contribute to our national fear, particularly when the discussion after is so riddled with strong opinions about the issue of gun control. Then there’s the Affordable Care Act – and our conflict with the Middle East – and the issue of global warming – and the drought in California – and …well, you get my drift. It is my opinion that national and world events leave us feeling nervous, scared, and perhaps even helpless - no matter what political persuasion we might espouse. What I’m trying to say is that the combination of all these events and circumstances can leave us feeling vulnerable.

Whenever humans face a situation that stirs feelings of helplessness or fear, they’ll do a lot to try and AVOID it. It’s why we have a hard time facing the loss of a beloved lover or friend. It’s part of the reason why grieving a death is so painful. It’s why we find facing our own limitations difficult.  It’s why parents have a hard time letting their teenage children have some independence. The feeling of helplessness, or fear, is uncomfortable, and it’s inherently difficult to lean into or tolerate it. We don’t tend to like feeling vulnerable.

So what does all this have to do with Donald Trump?

When feeling helpless, scared, and nervous, we humans tend to respond in typical ways. We try to take back control. Depending on the situation, we might get angry. We want to feel omnipotent. We want to feel powerful. And therein lies the seduction of Donald Trump. On the face of it, Donald Trump is not an obvious choice for President. He’s failed at marriage and business numerous times; he says profoundly offensive things; and he’s deeply narcissistic (more than your average politician!). However, for many I suspect he feels like a superhero, able to swoop in and regain control, leaving us all feeling less scared, vulnerable, and helpless. Without being able to provide details, Trump promises to subdue Isis, take back trading power from foreign entities (such as China and Mexico), build a wall between the US and Mexico, and tax the wealthy. When he’s pressed for details during interviews, Trump frequently says, “I know how to do it.” Or “We just do it.” Just because he says he can do it, it can be done. Because he says he can take back control from foreign powers, it will be accomplished. Just because he says he will build a wall, it will be completed. “It will be an amazing wall,” he said in a recent interview. He’s a “superhero” – able to regain control, punish the wealthy, put money in your pocket, and re-establish our power in the world – all in one bounding leap. He’s omnipotent. He’s also unpolished in how he expresses his opinions. I suspect that because of the chronic paralysis of Washington, our nation is frustrated and angry – very angry – and I wonder if some are tired of polished candidates that say all the right things but don’t follow through. In contrast, Trump is uncouth, brash, and cusses on national television. He’s a bully. I think some actually like it because it’s mirroring their own anger and frustration at Washington. He’s the bully that can go in and fix everything. Trump is saying what some wish they could say.

Ultimately, I doubt Trump will make it to the White House. But I do think the amount of support for his campaign reflects a dynamic that frequently occurs within the human psyche – when we feel helpless, vulnerable, and scared, we overcorrect by wanting control, wanting to feel powerful, becoming angry, and denying the layered complexities of life as it really is.  It is my humble opinion that the support for Trump represents and embodies that over-correction.

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Stay tuned for video from last week's therapy storytelling event in Pasadena, California, “Moments of Meaning.” In our first public event, we gathered six local therapists to talk about the most incredible moment from their practice (de-identified, of course). It was like a TED talk or Moth Radio Hour for psychotherapy, promoting and demystifying psychotherapy one moving story at a time. They’ll be edited and ready to go viral soon! 


"I'm pleased to support National Psychotherapy Day and honor the therapists and patients who courageously travel together on this most intimate, meaningful and big-hearted journey." - Irvin Yalom, M.D.