McAdams: Trump’s ‘Primal Appeal’ Helps Explain Rise to Power

McAdams: Trump’s ‘Primal Appeal’ Helps Explain Rise to Power

Dan McAdamsDonald Trump prevailed in the 2016 election because of his uncanny ability to appeal to voters’ deep and primal instincts, Northwestern University Professor Dan P. McAdams wrote in an essay published in the journal Evolutionary Studies in Imaginative Culture.

“Like the alpha male of a chimpanzee colony, Trump leads (and inspires) through intimidation, bluster, and threat, and through the establishment of short-term opportunistic relationships with other high-status agents,” wrote McAdams, a professor of human development and social policy at the School of Education and Social Policy.

Drawing on what scientists know about human evolution and social/personality psychology, McAdams sought to explain Trump’s improbable – and momentous – rise to political power. “Why did 63 million Americans elect a president of the United States who was repeatedly described during the campaign, by both Democrats and Republicans, as a serial liar, a sexual predator, a swindler, a narcissist, and a bully?” he asked.

McAdams, who acknowledged Trump’s ascent can’t be explained by a single factor or theory, argues that Trump effectively channels the “psychology of dominance” – a way of thinking and feeling about leadership in groups that traces back millions of years in human evolution, to our primate heritage.

“Trump’s leadership style derives readily from his personality makeup, which entails a combustible temperament mixture of high extraversion and low agreeableness, a motivational agenda centered on extreme narcissism, and an internalized life story that tracks the exploits of an intrepid warrior who must forever fight to win in a Hobbesian world of carnage,” McAdams wrote.

McAdams, the author of “The Mind of Donald Trump,” in The Atlantic, is director of the Foley Center for the Study of Lives at the School of Education and Social Policy.

He currently serves as president of the Association for Research in Personality.  McAdams’ research and writing focus on the role of life stories in social and personality development, psychological biography, political and cultural psychology, and modern conceptions of the self.   His most recent book is The Art and Science of Personality Development.

Read the entire essay "The Appeal of the Primal Leader: Human Evolution and Donald J. Trump."

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By Julie Deardorff
Last Modified: 9/18/17