The One Personality Trait That Won Donald Trump the Presidency
The race for the U.S. presidency has come to an explosive end. Recount battles aside, it appears that Donald J. Trump has defeated Hillary Clinton to become the next President of the United States. Trump has promised radical and immediate policy changes, in contrast with Clinton's more nuanced proposals. But was it Trump's policy proposals that won him the presidency, or is something else at play?
What's striking about this election is that both candidates were perhaps the most unpopular in history—more unpopular even than Richard Nixon, who researchers repeatedly rank as the nation's most disagreeable president. The media has made much of their radically different personal styles. Clinton was often described as cold, calculating, and distant, while Trump has been characterized as narcissistic, inflammatory, and vulgar...or perhaps a man who is simply playing a role.
Not only do these characterizations make for entertaining reading, they may give valuable insight as to how Donald Trump, a man with no political experience, set himself up to become the most powerful man in the country.
Let's take a closer look.
The Big Five Personality Inventory
There are numerous ways to categorize personality, but for the purposes of this discussion, we're going to focus on the Big Five framework. The Big Five theory describes personality based on where a person sits on the following dimensions:
- Openness to experience: imaginative, curious, forward-thinking, receptive to new ideas
- Conscientiousness: diligent, rule abiding, disciplined, organized
- Extroversion: enthusiastic, action-oriented, sociable, reward-seeking
- Agreeableness: compassionate, generous, cooperative, caring for others
- Neuroticism: anxious, depressive or negative tendencies, emotionally reactive
While Trump shows sky-high levels of Extroversion, the more interesting issue is another trait—namely, openness to experience. The higher an individual scores on Openness, the more intellectually curious, imaginative and receptive they are. The lower an individual scores on Openness, the more down-to-earth, conventional and resistant to change they are. Intellectuals tend to score highly on Openness, although intellect is perhaps a consequence of Openness rather than the other way around.
People high in Openness are often described as more "cultured" by academic researchers, who may themselves be highly open to experience. But a closed style of thinking may actually be a strong marker of political success. In their book, Personality, Character, and Leadership In The White House, researchers Steven J. Rubenzer and Thomas R. Faschingbauer rank George W. Bush as especially low on openness—a president who tended to be risk averse, realistic and purposeful.
People who have a less Open, more concrete thinking style are the realists of the world. They tend to excel in law enforcement and the military, practical careers such as manufacturing, construction and logistics, and administrative occupations.
Is Trump Low on Openness?
If there's one thing we cannot accuse President-Elect Trump of, it is subtlety. In a way that other politicians have avoided doing, Trump displays his personality, attitudes, and viewpoints unapologetically for all to see. So what can we observe about Trump's level of Openness?
Less Open people hold convictions strongly and rarely question their beliefs. Combined with Trump's high level of Extroversion, we can imagine a president who is inclined to make big, bold decisions, and to make them with the confidence that he could not possibly be wrong.
In particular, scoring lower on Openness is associated with traits like absolutism, or seeing the world in a black-and-white way with little tolerance of "otherness." This brings to mind the repeated calls to "build the wall!" and demands "for a complete and total shutdown of Muslims entering the United States until our country's representatives can figure out what the hell is going on."
Another feature of low Openness is conservatism, in the sense of valuing tradition—to "Make America Great Again," as Trump's campaign slogan said. Touting himself as the job-creating president, Trump has aspirations of creating a booming economy that will create 25 million new jobs over the next decade. This is a noble aspiration, but it's Trump's choice of language that is significant. There's no talk of technological innovations or expanding the global economy. Instead, Trump plans a round of conservative tax cutting and tearing up trade deals—taking the US back to the way it was before, when things were better. "I'll bring back our jobs from China, from Mexico, from Japan, from so many places," Trump promised. "I'll bring back our jobs, and I'll bring back our money."
Can we say with absolute certainty that Trump is low in Openness? Like most of the debate surrounding Trump, the issue is not clear-cut. As a real estate developer, he certainly hasn't prided himself on his conservatism. His massive personal fortune—and repeated bankruptcies—are testimony to his risk-taking behavior, which is not necessarily present in a more concrete thinking style.
So perhaps Trump's true nature is more middle-of-the-road, but the persona he has adopted for his political career is a textbook example of low Openness. Trump's communication during the campaign has been consistently simple, concrete, and straightforward. His promises to improve the United States entail a return to the past, not a launch into the future.
What about Hillary?
Hillary Clinton, by contrast, appears to be very high in Openness. As a young woman, she sought out leadership positions when it was somewhat unusual in that era, and she has ambitiously pursued her career despite gender role expectations. The willingness to challenge authority, convention and traditional values is a classic sign of Openness, and one that is associated with a more progressive political orientation.
Intellect plays an important role in Openness. Abstract thinkers are typically open-minded to new ideas, and like to debate intellectual issues. Concrete thinkers, on the other hand, prefer dealing with things or people rather than ideas and typically regard intellectual rhetoric as a waste of time.
You'll often hear Open personalities talking in terms of abstractions and symbols rather than concrete, physical experience. Although Hillary Clinton makes an effort to inject her speeches with folksy, real-life stories, the bulk of her communication focuses on big ideas and complex policy proposals. Supporters call her approach "adult," while critics point out that her complicated treatments of various key issues tend to bore and alienate large swaths of the American public.
For better or for worse, Hillary Clinton's approach shows considerably more Openness than Donald Trump's.
It is problematic to talk about the electorate as if they were a single personality profile, when clearly they are not. But we can make some observations about the typical Trump supporter; the people who cast their vote in his favor, according to the exit polls.
This is where things get interesting. Because the profile of a typical Trump supporter—a rural, white, middle-income male who wants a return to simpler, more traditional way of life—also fits the profile of someone low in Openness.
People with lower scores on Openness prefer the security and stability brought by tradition. They favor the straightforward, the practical and the obvious over the metaphorical, the ambiguous, and the complex. They may regard the arts and culture with suspicion, regarding these endeavors as puzzling or of no practical value. In addition, concrete thinkers are more likely to prefer hands-on jobs such as manufacturing—jobs that have been disappearing from the economy, and which Trump has promised to restore.
In the political domain, people who score low on the Openness scale are more suspicious of liberal ideology with its love of new ideas, sympathy for difference, and preference for novelty. Concrete thinkers like simple ideas—yet the world we live in is not simple. Rather, it is complex and global, a fact that can cause anxiety for those who long for the familiar. Trump tapped into these anxieties and promised his supporters that he would make them feel secure in the world.
Trump's plain language, practical ideas, and promises about restoring a more traditional way of life were spot-on to appeal to concrete thinkers. And one suspects that Trump knew it, and deliberately played on these concerns. In a fascinating analysis of Trump's personality in the Atlantic, psychologist Dan P. McAdams describes an incident on the campaign trail in Raleigh, North Carolina, when Trump repeatedly said that "something bad is happening" and "something really dangerous is going on." A 12-year-old girl from Virginia, told him, "I'm scared—what are you going to do to protect this country?" Trump responded: "You know what, darling? You're not going to be scared anymore. They're going to be scared."
Why voters swing the way they do
How do voters decide to support a particular candidate? It's a million-dollar question and one that poll predictors repeatedly get wrong. Many political scientists argue that it comes down to "valence": issues, not related to policy, that boost a candidate's appeal such as gender, attractiveness, or—you guessed it—personality.
And that, perhaps, is where Trump went so right, and Clinton went so wrong. Support for traditional values, fear of those who are different, and a resistance to new ideas play a key role in how people make up their minds in an election. Trump spotted this, and leveraged those fault lines to his ultimate advantage.
Back in 2008, YouGov asked people a number of questions that identified their preferences on the Big Five personality inventory. Three years later, it asked those same people what they thought about Donald Trump. The correlation was significant. People who scored lower on Openness rated Mr. Trump more than 20 percentage points higher than those who scored higher on Openness.
These differences played out in the election with startling effect. As a final piece of evidence, take a look at this map published by the Wall Street Journal. It shows how each state ranks on the Big Five trait of Openness. Now take a look at this map of the 2016 election results. Compare these two maps, then tell me: how do you think personality traits influenced the outcome of the election?