“Political psychology is, at the most general level, an application of what is known about human psychology to the study of politics“.
David O. Sears, Leonie Huddy, and Robert Jervis (2003, p. 3).
More, and more I am convinced that Donald Trump is using the principles of Terror Management Theory (TMT, Solomon, Greenberg, & Pyszczynski, 1991) to gain momentum in his presidential campaign.
Terror management theory is based primarily on the writings of cultural anthropologist Ernest Becker (1924-1974); this theory posits that self-esteem is the by-product of a protection against the overwhelming certainty and fear of death.
According to Terror Management Theory (TMT, Solomon, Greenberg, & Pyszczynski, 1991), an individual’s internalised worldview is the basis of that individual’s psychological security. Therefore, after a manipulation (even a subliminal one, see for example, Arndt, Greenberg, Pyszczynski, & Solomon, 1997) reminding individuals about their demise, their worldviews should be held more firmly and defended more strongly against external attacks as these worldviews offer a symbolic form of transcendence. In this sense, TMT helps us understand group adherences as it describes the consequences that reminders of mortality have on people’s emotions, cognitions, and actions. According to TMT, humans share with every other live species an instinct for survival; however, given our superior intelligence we know we are going to die and that our death might be imminent. Such certainty of human mortality activates a series of defence mechanisms that serve as a safeguard against the anxiety caused by this existential threat (Pyszczynski, Greenberg, & Solomon, 1997).
As reported by Politico:
Donald Trump unleashed a barrage of attacks on Hillary Clinton […] ‘If you choose Hillary Clinton, this country is gonna die. It’s gonna die,” Trump said during a rally in Redding, California […]
This is not the first time he refers to a sense of mortality. Large bodies of research show that reminders of mortality should intensify the desire for an individual to maintain faith in one’s own cultural worldview and defend it against any threat. TMT is relevant to national political issues given that the experimental manipulation known as Mortality Salience (MS; Rosenblatt, Greenberg, Solomon, Pyszczynski, & Lyon, 1989) has been related to an increase in people’s defence of a global positive view of their own nation. That is, research has shown that reminders of mortality increase the willingness of people to express and adhere to socially accepted attitudes because cultures offer a symbolic way to transcend the inevitable demise of human existence whilst at the same time offering a symbolic, yet secure, vehicle to immortality.
My own research shows that when people have been reminded about their mortality, their need for a particularly stable structure that can provide self-worth by means of identifying with a leader and/or group that shares their world-vision will increase. Unfortunately, Donald Trump seems to be playing that card and having huge success.