Donald Trump won the election because of men. An analysis conducted by Nate Silver of FiveThirtyEight demonstrated that if only men had voted in the presidential election Donald Trump would still have won, but in a landslide. Pundits characterized Trump supporters as poor, working class, and disenfranchised by globalization. However, Trump supporters do not tend to have lower incomes.1 A better predictor of support for Trump is proneness to authoritarianism–a desire for and deference to dominant leadership. But why are certain individuals drawn to authoritarianism? And why the particular appeal of authoritarianism now? The appeal of Trump’s “broad-shouldered” leadership makes more sense when we consider our evolutionary history and the precariousness of manhood.

Political psychology is partly a product of our evolutionary history. Evolutionary psychologists find that people prefer political leaders who are physically dominant when they believe their group faces an existential threat.2 Group members may believe physically dominant leaders are more capable of quelling internal division and mobilizing collective defense.3 Dominant leaders pose their own threats to group members, but the threat of group extinction looms larger. This support for physically dominant leaders seems irrational in our society, where leaders and followers do not often interact face-to-face, and formal institutions regulate aggression between people. However, conditions were different for our hunter-gatherer ancestors, where the physical dominance of leaders may have been valuable during crises.

Perceived threats to the group also increase people’s willingness to grant leaders more coercive powers. For example, Americans broadly supported an increase in domestic surveillance and executive authority in the United States soon after 9-11. Studies of traditional societies, from the Amazon to highland New Guinea, describe people granting leaders greater authority during periods of inter-group conflict.4

Current conditions are ripe for increased authoritarianism in the United States. Perceived threats are high from terrorism and, to a lesser degree, immigration. This may increase the likelihood of political rhetoric that emphasizes the behavioral and physical dominance of candidates. When Mike Pence praises Trump’s “broad-shouldered” leadership, his words are not just metaphorical. Pence takes advantage of our evolved political psychology to promote Trump’s authority, while simultaneously criticizing his opponent and aspiring women leaders in general, given gender differences in physical dominance.

Conservatives may be more prone to threat-induced authoritarianism,5 though the right certainly has no monopoly on support for autocrats. Trump has much stronger support among men than women, but in general, men do not tend to be more authoritarian.10 Perhaps male Trump supporters are drawn to his particular brand of authoritarian values, which denigrates immigrant communities and women while glorifying a past where white men faced less competition. Trump supporters not only tend to be white men, but also less educated and less upwardly mobile.1

These characteristics of many Trump supporters make sense in light of the “precariousness” of manhood. We are more likely to hear “Be a man!” than “Be a woman!” in our daily conversations, in literature and in film, or in the news media. This is because manhood tends to be treated as more precarious than womanhood. It is typical of human societies that men are not granted the status of manhood simply by being male. Rather, manhood is achieved or lost, depending on display of competitive ability, skill, generosity, or other traits that signal value to others.

The precariousness of manhood is due partly to our reproductive biology.7 Men are not physiologically obligated to invest in gestation or lactation, and an individual man can potentially reproduce at a much faster rate than an individual woman. Over our evolutionary history, these differences in reproductive biology motivated men to pursue political strategies that carry substantial risk. Cross-culturally, boys and men are more likely than girls and women to physically aggress against competitors, build large coalitions in the support of such competition, and risk health to showcase skill and generosity.8 By equating manhood with success in these domains, cultural norms reinforce evolved sex differences in political psychology.

Precarious manhood helps explain why white men with less education or upward mobility are more likely to support Trump, and why men with these demographic characteristics experienced jumps in mortality from suicide and drug abuse during the 21st century.9 These men may not be poor on average, but they increasingly feel under-valued and politically impotent. Trump helps them reassert their manhood, albeit disingenuously, by identifying threats to their communities and to their manhood, from terrorists, immigrants, women, and societal elites.


1. Rothwell, Jonathan and Diego-Rosell, Pablo. “Explaining Nationalist Political Views: The Case of Donald Trump,” Draft Working Paper, Social Science Research Network, Nov. 2, 2016. URL: https://papers.ssrn.com/sol3/papers.cfm?abstract_id=2822059

2. Van Vugt, Mark and Grabo, Allen E. “The Many Faces of Leadership: An Evolutionary-Psychology Approach,” Current Directions in Psychological Science, Vol. 24(6): 484-489. URL: http://cdp.sagepub.com/content/24/6/484.full.pdf+html

3. Lukaszewski, Aaron W.; Simmons, Zachary L.; Anderson, Cameron and Roney, James R. “The Role of Physical Formidability in Human Social Status Allocation,” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, Vol. 110(3): 385-406. URL: http://psycnet.apa.org/psycinfo/2015-55805-001/

4. Von Rueden, Christopher and Van Vugt, Mark. “Leadership in Small-Scale Societies: Some Implications for Theory, Research, and Practice,” The Leadership Quarterly, Vol. 26(6): 978–990. URL: http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S1048984315001198

5. Laustsen, Lasse and Petersen, Michael Bang. “Winning Faces Vary by Ideology: How Nonverbal Source Cues Influence Election and Communication Success in Politics,” Political Communication, Vol. 33(2): 188-211. URL: http://www.tandfonline.com/doi/full/10.1080/10584609.2015.1050565?scroll=top&needAccess=true

6. Brandt, Mark J. and Henry, P.J. “Gender Inequality and Gender Differences in Authoritarianism,” Personality and Social Psychology Review, Vol. 38(10): 1301-1315. URL: http://psp.sagepub.com/content/38/10/1301.full.pdf

7. Winegard, Bo M.; Winegard, Ben and Geary, David C. “Eastwood’s Brawn and Einstein’s Brain: An Evolutionary Account of Dominance, Prestige, and Precarious Manhood,” Review of General Psychology, Vol. 18(1):34-48. URL: http://psycnet.apa.org/journals/gpr/18/1/34/

8. Benenson, Joyce F. and Markovits, Henry. Warriors and Worriers: The Survival of the Sexes (Oxford University Press, 2014). URL: https://global.oup.com/academic/product/warriors-and-worriers-9780199972234?cc=us&lang=en&

9. Case, Anne and Deaton, Angus. “Rising Morbidity and Mortality in Midlife Among White
Non-Hispanic Americans in the 21st century,” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, Vol. 112(49): 15078–15083. URL: http://www.pnas.org/content/112/49/15078.full.pdf

Published On: November 7, 2016

Christopher von Rueden

Christopher von Rueden

Chris von Rueden is an anthropologist and assistant professor of leadership studies at the University of Richmond. He studies status hierarchy and collective action in small-scale societies, in particular the Tsimane forager-horticulturalists of lowland Bolivia. His research has implications for why humans in general are motivated by social status, how and why we adopt leader-follower relationships in groups, and how more politically complex societies emerged over the past few millennia.
Website:  https://sites.google.com/site/chrisvonrueden/home


  • Stefan says:

    The other sides brand of tolerance is starting to be quite authoritarian as well… Great article, but I think it’s not just to say that if only men would vote, Trump would win. I mean, I t’s of course true, but if only men could vote in all the past elections, there is no chance that many of the things that Trump is a risky pushback against, like intersectional feminism or identity politics, victimhood culture and pathological altruism (thoughtless about consequences), dissolving of social cohesion and integrity of the values, would happen to the extend that men will be willing to risk Trump, or had to choose between Trump and somebody who represents all of the listed things.

    • Markus Meier says:

      That is it: Hillary WAS intersectional feminism or identity politics, victimhood culture and pathological altruism (thoughtless about consequences, together with Angie Merkel), dissolving of social cohesion in an “why are males are not just the way we would like them to be …”-attitude (at the same time relying on them paying taxes to finance all these luxury social extravaganzas).

  • Pete Richerson says:

    Dr. von Reuden is likely right about the psychology of men and leadership. But the immediate cause of Trump, and similar right-wing populists in Europe recently, probably owes mainly to rising inequality since the 1970s. That has affected mainly the less educated and the prospects of younger people. The threats to the absolute well-being of such people, much less to their relative well-being, is very real. It has led to a general loss of confidence in elites in Western style democracies. Trump taps real as well as imaginary grievances!

    Interestingly young people, including many men, broke for Bernie Sanders. In fact in the opinion polls during the primary season, Sanders generally ran better than Hillary Clinton against all of the GOP contenders.

    See Peter Turchin’s new book Ages of Discord: A Structural-Demographic Analysis of American History for an evolutionary account of why the politics of the US and elsewhere is so polarized.

    • Chris von Rueden says:

      Hi Pete,

      Thanks for your comment.

      I could have emphasized more the interaction of structural forces with male psychology. It’s my worry that demagoguery will remain a potent political option for power-seekers well into the future because of inequality and decreasing income mobility, and loss of blue collar jobs. So yes, very real concerns for those hit hardest. And the left is as susceptible as the right.

      I wanted to emphasize the demographic characteristics of Trump supporters, who tend to be white and male but not necessarily low income, because I think that demographic has experienced most relative status loss over past couple generations. And it can often be relative status concerns more than absolute status concerns that affect political behavior.

      And thanks for the book tip: I didn’t know Peter has that out!

  • Joseph Graves Jr says:

    I find this amazing…that someone who lives in the United States could write an essay about Trump and the word “racism” not appear or be prominently analyzed in the piece! What the author really means is that males of European descent are the ones most threatened by the current circumstances; especially the fact that this group will no longer be a numerical majority by 2040. The support for Trump was primarily driven by European American racism, especially in reaction to the election of a person who was not entirely of European descent (Barack Obama) as president of the United States. I discuss this more fully in Graves, J.L., Why the non-existence of biological races, does not mean the non-existence of racism, in: “The Mechanisms of Color-Blind Racism,” Special Issue of American Behavioral Scientist, DOI: 10.1177/0002764215588810, 2015.

    • Malcolm Kirkpatrick says:

      (Graves): “The support for Trump was primarily driven by European American racism…”
      You know this how?
      (Graves): “… especially in reaction to the election of a person who was not entirely of European descent (Barack Obama) as president of the United States.”
      Trump won States that Obama won in 2008 and 20012. Did high-school educated white males learn to hate non-whites in the 8 years of Obama’s rule? And how does this explain voters’ rejection of a white woman?
      (Graves): ” … the non-existence of biological races … ”
      Substitute for “race” the term “regional variety of plant or animal”. Does the assertion “there are no regional varieties of human” hold?
      (Graves): “I discuss this more fully in Graves, J.L., … “The Mechanisms of Color-Blind Racism,” Special Issue of American Behavioral Scientist, DOI: 10.1177/0002764215588810, 2015.”
      Pass. I discuss my reasons in “Not Really Education-Related” (blog: The Harriet Tubman Agenda).

  • Bernd Ehlert says:

    A victory of the instinct-emphasized consciousness against the mentally-cultural one – and in it a step back of the mentally-cultural evolution.

  • Malcolm Kirkpatrick says:

    1. “Authoritarian” is to “classical liberal” (i.e., free marketer”) as “up’ is to “down”. Neither H. Clinton nor D. Trump represents the free market ideal, but Trump is by far the lesser of two evils.
    2. Markets and federalism institutionalize humility on the part of State actors. Nations are experiments in social organization. Unlimited immigration destroys information.
    3. Value is determined by supply and demand. This is not a principle of capitalist economics or even human economics, it is a fact of life. Compare the leaf surface to root mass ratio of plants of the rain forest floor to the leaf surface to root mass ratio of plants of the Sonoran desert.
    A world in which human life is precious is a world in which human life is scarce. Build the wall.

  • Markus Meier says:

    I do not agree with most of it. America was under a much greater threat during WWII and the Cold War and men voted for FDR and Jimmy Carter … I think it is the specific denigration of the white male in XXI. century USA, that caused Trumps victory. Women have gained all the male “privileges” in the field of work, while at the same time monopolizing the field of the family for themselves. Fathers are being dumped overnight without further notice. This specific unbalance is threatening the very economic, social and emotional existence of men, more so of middle-class and poor men … and they fight back. Authoritarism is a phenomen, on the contrary, that fascinates women at least as much as it does men. Remember, it was women who elected Hitler, cried after having a glimpse of Stalin etc.
    Don´t biologize politics is my point, but look what specifically and legally goes wrong for males right now in the US and all Western countries.

  • Markus Meier says:

    REading the comments I would suggest to take the findings of social scientist much more serious: It is males ALL OVER, that voted Trump, not just “the poor, illiterates and the marginalized” (traditionally rather left, yielding for the welfare state …). That would call for an analysis beyond purely economic variables (as there are poor, middle and rich and super-rich men … and women). In what do men and women differ aside from economic variables? I think it comes down to reproductive rights and duties: Voting for Hillary, who wanted to further monopolize reproduction as a “naturally” female issue, was potentially “evolutionarily” suicidal to any American male; voting Trump was not-voting-Hillary-whoever-that-hair-style-idiot may be. Why didn´t black men vote for him … well, there is black racism and reliance on the welfare-state also, isn´t there ?!? Voting for or against Trump (who I see as a real threat to the US and the world …) was much more rational on the female AND male side than the commentators believe, demonizing and ridiculing him will not suffice.

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