Character and image in the U.S. presidential election: a psychological perspective

Prof Geoffrey Beattie

Academic psychologist, writer and broadcaster.Professor of Psychology at Edge Hill University and a Fellow of the British Psychological Society (BPS), a Fellow of the Royal Society of Medicine and a Fellow of the Royal Society of Arts. He was awarded the Spearman Medal by the BPS for “published psychological research of outstanding merit”.

Section 3: Candidates and the campaign

My latest book is on a topic a million miles from politics, but not a million miles from Donald Trump, it seems. It’s on the psychology of trophy hunting – men and women who kill the majestic ‘Big Five’ (lion, elephant, rhino, buffalo and leopard) so that they can sit beaming at the camera with the dead animal at their feet. They pose with their rifle or cross-bow, the instruments of killing in a little iconic tableau representing power and dominion, representing their authority.

They have narratives about the hunt, of course, about how they love the animals, about how hunting allows them to get close to nature, about human bonding and, of course, the evolutionary ‘naturalness’ of killing large prey. But it’s never about this; it never has been. Killing large prey was never about providing food for the family, it generates too much meat to even share in a reciprocal exchange, it has always been about display – display of knowledge, cunning and resolve. Social scientists evoke ‘costly signalling theory’ and talk about its evolutionary implications. And it is display that drives trophy hunting today – but now it’s about the display of wealth and resource (trophy hunting is a very expensive activity).

It’s all about the image; everything else is secondary. Image is especially important in this narcissistic age of ours. Those with weak self-esteem can boost it with these images, their Duchenne smile of achievement on display, the fatal wound of the animal temporarily hidden. Most narcissists stick to parading in different clothes on Facebook and counting their likes but those whose personality fall within the Dark Triad of narcissism, Machiavellianism and (non-clinical) psychopathy seem drawn to it. Indeed, a lack of empathy and a degree of callousness (characteristic of the Dark Triad) may be necessary conditions for trophy hunting, and trophy hunting and its depiction in images and films clearly facilitate the maintenance of narcissistic flow (another necessary condition). Such individuals don’t feel for the animal, the animal is secondary, it’s only a prop for the main actor. It’s all about the person with the rifle, the main man.

And so to politics – in an interview with David Frost in 1987 (now hastily rediscovered) when Joe Biden first ran for the presidency, he said that the most important attribute for any Presidential candidate is ‘strength of character’. We all know what he meant. He meant ‘strength of good character’. Character allows some attempt at truth and justice, and consistency. Bad character allows something else – winning at any cost, all about me, the flooded gurgling steam of narcissistic flow necessary to keep the fragile ego watered and intact. Like the trophy hunters, the narrative has to be different to make it palatable, to stop it being risible. ‘Make me feel great again’ becomes ‘Make America Great Again’.

And narcissists can be incredibly myopic – they only see what they want to see, to stop them getting upset. Trump never saw climate change nor Coronavirus and when I say ‘saw’, I mean it quite literally. In our lab, we have analysed individuals with particular personality characteristics as they read climate change articles. Optimists who suffer greatly from ‘optimism bias’ and believe wholeheartedly in the ‘power of positive thinking’ (written by Norman Vincent Peale – Trump’s favourite author, and his family’s pastor when he was growing up) skim over the articles and their longest gaze fixations are on any sections of the articles disputing the science. That’s the ‘good’ news that they like to hang on to, even if there’s little scientific basis for these critiques. But that’s all they see. And this biased pattern of fixation feeds into their perception of the threat of climate change – it won’t affect them – maybe other countries, maybe their children’s children, but not them personally. Therefore, they do nothing.

Connect up optimism bias with narcissism, and you have a nexus of traits driving attention and perception, only noticing certain things, fixating on this word rather than that, it is predictive and anticipatory. It maintains and reaffirms a mind-set but without necessarily any conscious awareness driving it. These gaze fixations are measured in micro-seconds but help establish a world view that most of us cannot recognise.

So Trump lost, he misread COVID, he never saw it; he misread climate change, he never saw it. He spent too much time watching the iguanas fall from the trees in Florida when he was golfing at Mar-a-Lago in that cold snap of December 2017 – frozen iguanas persuading him that climate change was a hoax, fake news. But the weather isn’t climate, cold snaps don’t contradict climate change, fragments aren’t the whole, moments aren’t the final story, they can’t be.

Images fade, no matter how desperately you want them to be indelible. They fade like footprints in the snow, as the season changes, leaving just dirty looking puddles behind. That was the indelible image of the U.S. Presidential election in 2020 – for me at least.