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