Basic Psychological Needs as a Means of Understanding Populism


Christopher Ebbe, Ph.D.   2-21

ABSTRACT:  Basic psychological needs for being valued, being accepted, and being safe are posited to account for most political populism, and these needs point society toward what needs fixing if populist risings are to be assuaged.

KEY WORDS:  psychology, psychological needs, politics, populism

Populist uprisings, such as the one that propelled Mr. Trump to the White House, occur when some segment of society is particularly unhappy, usually because of some perceived threat to themselves and/or their way of life.  Many Trump voters and many members of white identity groups (which includes white supremacy groups such as the Proud Boys) (1) felt that they were being left behind economically, partly due to globalization, (2) resented being looked down on by the political and intellectual elites of the country, (3) felt that their sense of morals was being attacked and degraded in most media outlets, and/or (4) felt that their place in society and their worldview, which they identified mainly with their religion and their freedoms, was being neglected and degraded.  These concerns and the emotions they aroused were the motivation for the populist uprising that propelled Mr. Trump to the Presidency, and I suspect that one or more of these provides the motivation for all populist risings.  (White identity groups are groups for whose white members whiteness has been a key aspect of their self-esteem and who feel that this is being taken away from them by the attention and concern given to immigrants and non-white persons.)

We can identify a number of voter types who voted for Mr. Trump:

  1. persons of conservative persuasion who voted for Mr. Trump mainly as the conservative alternative, even if they disliked him as a person
  2. persons who had always voted Republican and who voted for Mr. Trump mainly for that reason, even if they disliked him as a person
  3. persons who fall in the populist group identified above who voted for Mr. Trump based on their recent experience in life (thinking that only he would be able to make some changes)  (Many evangelical voters for Trump could fall in group 3, as they have felt for some time that their beliefs and worldview were being marginalized, but some of them would have voted primarily as members of group 1 or group 2.)
  4. persons who liked Mr. Trump’s policy promises (be tough on China, take better care of American workers, make our allies pay their way) but who did not fall in groups 1, 2, 3, or 5. 
  5. persons from the militia (prepare to fight federal take-overs), sovereignty (“I am my own country, and the U.S. has no claim on me as a citizen of another country”), and apocalypse (end-of-the-world) groups who related to Mr. Trump as a disrupter (A key difference between groups 3 and 5 is that the Trump voters and white identity groups that are described in group 3 want to be re-included in society in a more favorable status, no matter how much they might criticize current society, while the militias, sovereignty groups, and end-of-the-world groups seek fundamental changes in the country’s philosophy.  Many group 5 members did not vote at all.)
  6. Persons who are attracted to Mr. Trump’s personality (image of strength, power, self-control, control in general, complete willingness to use power to win) but who have few or no populist complaints.

This essay deals only with group 3.  Some persons in groups 1, 2, 4, and 5 may have had some of the same four marginalization feelings as group 3 but did not vote for Mr. Trump mainly on that basis.  I have no firm basis for estimating the respective sizes of these groups, but it is my impression that a sizeable proportion of attendees at Mr. Trump’s rallies fall in group 3 and 6.  Clearly, at his rallies, Mr. Trump talked directly to group 3, and group 3 and 5 persons were the most likely to be aroused by Mr. Trump’s rhetoric of a stolen election and the need to “fight” to keep what we value in our country.

Understandably, this populist uprising has been met largely with criticism and rejection by the elites and the establishment, because its champion, Mr. Trump, was so disliked by the elites and intelligentsia of the country and because it has become an accepted truth in our society that immigrants and non-white persons in our society are discriminated against and disadvantaged.  The populist concerns (above) deserve more serious attention, though, since they do represent the reality of those voters in group 3. 

The stereotype of these persons is looked down on by society’s institutions, as being coarse, rude, prone to violence, backward, and ignorant.  Their conservative morals (abortion, gender-change issues, self-reliance) are rejected by society’s elites and traditional media as well as by the Democrat party.  Their religious beliefs are seen as unscientific and backward by people in our upper classes, and their desires for freedoms are seen as antithetical to appropriate controls on behavior in our society. 

Our society is so stuck in its either-or, pro-vs.-con, good-evil, black-white thinking and methods that people have been given no leadership toward thinking more broadly about these populist concerns.  Everything is couched in fighting terms (struggle, attack, defend, overcome, war,

insurrection), so the majority that elected Mr. Biden are not prepared to take these populist concerns seriously, and our media (both liberal and conservative) purposely use challenging, provocative headlines to garner attention (and money), making the divide worse.  We see no public evidence from our main-line churches of compassion and understanding for Trump voters and populists.

As an alternative, if we view the complaints of Trump voters and populists from a psychological point of view, we might find a basis for a more positive response from the rest of society.  My formulation of our human need structure (applicable to all persons in all societies) is as follows.

1-life maintenance and support (sufficient capacities and goal attainment to enable you to meet your basic needs at least adequately and to take care of yourself and those legitimately dependent on you)

2-having no more than a minimal or at least no more than a tolerable level of physical pain and bodily damage (recognizing that some amount of physical and emotional pain are normal aspects of human life and the human adaptation)

3-having some pleasure and pleasant emotion in your life (including feeling some amounts of happiness and hope, and ultimately some (for many people, small) amounts of satisfaction, contentment, and fulfillment), mainly through—

3a-having a good relationship with and good feelings toward yourself

            (which may include loving yourself, respecting yourself,

            accepting yourself, and treating yourself well, and which in

            large measure arise from being loved, respected, and accepted

            by others in early life and from creating good outcomes for yourself)

3b-having minimal or at least a tolerable level of emotional pain and

            internal conflict (though recognizing that some degree of

            conflict and pain is inherent in being human)

3c-feeling an adequate level of security

            3d-having gratifying relationships with others (see 5 below)

4-sex and procreation, including the desire to protect and raise children

5-gratifying relationships with others, including group acceptance for yourself, protecting and defending your groups (family, nation, etc.)          when necessary, and helping those of your groups in times of great need

All of the activities that we create in life are means for reaching these fundamental goals.

Most importantly for this discussion, we react strongly when our current satisfaction of these needs or the methods we use to meet these needs are attacked or threatened, and this is what has happened for many Trump voters and members of white identity groups.

Besides basic survival needs, the most painful when unfulfilled are our need to be valued (self-esteem and the esteem and basic acceptance of others), our need to be included as part of

relevant groups (family, social group, work group, nation), and our need to feel relatively secure (to be mostly free of significant fears).  These needs, for many Trump voters and members of white identity groups, are not met. 

Many of these persons are falling behind economically, and they see other groups to which they once felt superior being praised publically so that they themselves feel downgraded.  Our society has nothing to offer them, because we have always believed that people should take care of their needs through their participation in the economy, including finding their own jobs and finding their own better jobs if they wish to “move up.”  A significant minority of citizens are now in jobs that do not pay enough to live on, and research is showing that it is becoming less likely that people can actually move up class-wise in the U.S. than it was fifty years ago.

These groups are criticized for the practices they value but that are not valued by the elites and liberal media (valuing church and belief in God, liking guns, hunting with guns, being openly patriotic, being pro-life, identifying with sports heroes and teams, drinking in neighborhood bars, keeping family close, living near where they were born, disliking taking welfare).  Many persons who resist adding non-white immigrants to the country feel that they are losing social esteem and an accepted place in society since immigrants seem to them to have more rights than they do, and being white no longer is a justification for feeling good about oneself.  Globalization implies that their more near-to-home (insular?) worldview is no longer honored or honorable.  They don’t feel equipped to compete in the global market (and may not want to be) and so feel inferior.   They do have their families and social groups, but they do not feel welcome in the governance of the country.  They do not feel economically secure and therefore fearful, and the rest of the country doesn’t seem to care.  Their identities are not valued by the major forces in society, which also raises fears of displacement.  For these reasons, they feel marginalized and unable to assert their equality.  (These problems do not justify the violence last month at the Capitol, but they do explain the feelings and motives of many who were violent.)

There are good reasons, therefore, for them to gravitate toward Mr. Trump or a similar leader.  He validated their value (and deplores the liberal world) and praised their values and their way of life.  He talked as if he identified with them. He promised to stand up for them and get them jobs.  He assuaged their fear with his never-any-doubts optimism and his absolute refusal to lose or take criticism.  He gave voice to and legitimized their anger.  He projected the strength that they lack.

Given their value of loyalty and their lack of alternatives, these voters are unlikely to reject or give up on Mr. Trump or others like him until the system starts to provide them with some of the psychological benefits that Mr. Trump gave them.  The system, unfortunately, feels more punitive than compassionate toward them at the moment, greatly augmented by the mob attack on the Capitol building just before the inauguration, and mainstream media continue to find sensational “reasons” to criticize them.  The mob at the Capitol contained many of the kinds of voters this essay describes but also many members of the militias, sovereigns, and end-of-lifers.  Given the one-sidedness of our news outlets (on both sides), it is difficult for many of us to hold in our minds clearly that most Trump voters are not rioters and rarely make political statements at all.  They include many middle class, peaceful but fearful and concerned citizens.

Most Biden voters seem to want Trump voters to turn immediately to working together politically, but due to the utter rejection and degradation of Mr. Trump by liberal media over the last four years, this is not going to happen, since for these Trump voters this is a matter of emotion and honor and not of rationality.  Further criticizing and demeaning them will simply harden their feelings of victimization.  If Mr. Trump leaves the political scene, Mr. Trump’s voters are most likely to withdraw with the attitude they had before Trump came on the scene—that the system and the liberals had never done anything for them before, so why expect something different now?

To move forward, the elites and establishment must accept that there will be no healing until some of the populists’ humiliation and fear are alleviated.  Having lost the 2020 election will not lead to healing for these populists until those needs and feelings are addressed.  The populists cannot be viewed as alien or enemies to be shaped up but rather as citizens who have been in difficult straits.  It is reality that much of the country has “moved on” from the rural, hometown values and way of life of the populists, to city dwelling and internationalism, and the populists must accept that they will not prosper as much as those in the cities unless they evolve, too.  On the other hand, if they choose to stay with their hometown values and way of life, they must still be accepted and valued in the country, and their needs must still be addressed by the city majority.  There will be no healing unless both sides decide to live together amicably if not in harmony.

Doing something different is the key to the “unity” that Mr. Biden hopes for.  These Trump voters must see that Mr. Biden (1) respects them as citizens (and parts ways with any efforts to castigate and punish Trump voters simply for supporting Trump), (2) includes them as participants in the government deliberations and actions that will affect them, (3) takes action to make their economic situations better (infrastructure program? more manufacturing jobs with protective tariffs? large COVID relief package?), and (4) takes away some of their survival fears—both economically and psychologically—by providing jobs and by openly valuing some of their values.  Bear in mind that people change best in supportive environments, not in those in which power is being used on and against them.

It is likely that if you are of a liberal bent, after the fray of the election and the mob at the Capitol, you may find it hard to have sympathy for the Trump voters and white identity group members that are described here, but remember that the persons with the loudest voices in the media in support of Mr. Trump and the persons in the Capitol mob are only a tiny fraction of the 74,000,000 who voted for him.  Most of this 74,000,000 were sincere in their populist feelings and their feeling that only Mr. Trump would try to help them.  These are fellow Americans who deserve our continued concern.

Despite the differences, mainstream America still has more similarities to these populists than differences, and there is no reason to perceive these differences in values and way of life as a personal threat or as a threat to the progress of the nation as a whole.  People with different ways of life can work together in a country if the groups accept each other (requiring dealing on a large scale with the inherent fear that humans have of people who are different). The populists must accept and not vilify growing internationalism but work with government to make the situation work for them as best it can, while the elites and liberals must accept that the values of these populists (family, independence, hard work, religion) do have value.  Neither side can view themselves as “better than” the other if we are to live together amicably.  If we can see all of us as honorable parts of the country, then the rest of the country should be able to take an attitude toward the populists of togetherness, compassion, and forgiveness (uncharacteristic of humans as this might be!).