Trump’s ‘American jeremiad’

group psychology
Image by Gerd Altmann

Paradox (number 43)

My understanding is that randomness exists, but is a subset of Providence. Yeah, the only way to visualize such a thought is with the lens of paradox. I only raise this point because Providence was at work in my experience this week.




I stumbled upon a fascinating Scientific American [SA] article this week, “Trump’s Appeal: What Psychology Tells Us,” published March, 2017. I’m grateful to have the insights the article offersbetter late than never.

So, while you may have seen this SA article previously, perhaps long ago, Providence didn’t tee it up for me till this week. Please bear with me as I share some of the authors’ insights. I hope I can tempt you to read the article

In-groups and out-groups

With many others, I’ve previously observed that Trump’s big picture political-framing is a partisan us vs. them motif. Specifically, it’s an in-group vs. out-group vision. Trump’s pre-candidate parlance on these two groups in general had been: winners and losers (read: rich and not-rich).



An “American jeremiad”

The notion of an “American jeremiad” (cf. Bercovitch) as the core of Trump’s stump-speech rhetoric is intriguingand like many obvious things, plain once pointed out. This key insightillustrated by a fascinating unpacking of how a MAGA Rally works to create identitystruck me as very significant. In the SA article, Stephen D. Reicher and S. Alexander Haslam define Trump’s ‘American jeremiad’ as:

By definition, this form of rhetoric extols the notion that America has an exceptional mission in the world but is falling short and therefore needs to change to fulfill its original vision. What distinguished Trump’s version from the original Puritan one is, first, that the failings are a matter of power and wealth rather than of moral purpose and, second, that they are caused by the depredations of others rather than the weaknesses of the in-group (that is, his supporters).


In the SA article the authors observe that Trump’s Rally stump-speech is composed of three main components:

  • The first asserted that America, once great, is now weak and repeatedly humiliated by others. Thus, in the speech that announced his candidacy, given at Trump Tower in New York City on June 16, 2015, he asserted “Our country is in serious trouble. We don’t have victories anymore. We used to have victories, but we don’t have them. When was the last time anybody saw us beating, let’s say, China in a trade deal? They kill us.” 

  • The second element was that America’s decline was framed as resulting from the actions of its enemies. … More important, though, the argument went on to assert that these external enemies thrive only because of the actions of many enemies within. [e.g., politicians, lobbyists, the media, etc.] 

  • After identifying the problem and its cause, the third part of Trump’s argument went on to identify the all-important solution: himself. Throughout his speeches, Trump insisted that he is not like other politicians. He knows how to make a deal. He insisted that he has been so successful and become so rich that he cannot be bought.

The article finely nuances MAGA’s in-group/out-group dynamics. The key piece: The external enemy only thrives because of the enemies within. Historically, an external national enemy served to unite the people. Trump’s move uses the in-group/out-group dynamics to betray/exclude/demonize certain communities [e.g., immigrants, religious minorities, politicians, lobbyists, the media, etc.] and serves to divide Americans.

For Trump’s citizens-first MAGA campaign, he appropriated a nostalgia for a by-gone era of America (pre-1960sthe rights decade) and leveraged it to provide identity (read: status as an in-group member, e.g., Trump supporter) to those who, for economic and cultural reasons, perceived a loss of status for themselves and a loss of their preferences for society. From the SA article:

In simple terms, a Trump rally was a dramatic enactment of a specific vision of America. It enacted how Trump and his followers would like America to be. In a phrase, it was an identity festival that embodied a politics of hope.


naleck || CC BY 2.0

I  never dreamed I’d be making this comparison, but while the Grateful Dead and Donald Trump are mostly polar opposites, they are both identity entrepreneurs. With peace, love, and music, the Dead created a cultural space and a peopleDeadheads. With an American jeremiad, the depredations of an external enemy (aided by internal enemies), and Trump himself as the only solution, Trump created a cultural space and a peopleMAGAheads.

Oops, I’m out of space. See the SA article (here) for the deeper significance of crowd size, and other insights. 

Your thoughts?

I never know what I’ve said till I hear the response. What did you hear me say?

Note: This blog page has outlined Spiral DynamicsI used a serial format, introduction (June 30), first in series (July 1).

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Bonus video:



SD Worldview Color Key




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