"Trump is all dominance, all the time”: New research reveals "his most formidable political asset"

UC Berkeley professor M. Steven Fish explains the way Trump's "character defects manifest what looks like bravery"

By Chauncey DeVega

Senior Writer

Published May 21, 2024 5:45AM (EDT)

Former U.S. President Donald Trump speaks during the NRA ILA Leadership Forum at the National Rifle Association (NRA) Annual Meeting & Exhibits at the Kay Bailey Hutchison Convention Center on May 18, 2024 in Dallas, Texas. (Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)
Former U.S. President Donald Trump speaks during the NRA ILA Leadership Forum at the National Rifle Association (NRA) Annual Meeting & Exhibits at the Kay Bailey Hutchison Convention Center on May 18, 2024 in Dallas, Texas. (Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)

Despite his many policy successes both at home and abroad, President Biden is consistently losing to Donald Trump in the key Rust Belt battleground states polls. These are states that Biden will presumably need to win a second term in office. President Biden also appears to be losing support among key members of the Democratic Party’s base such as Blacks, Latinos and Hispanics, and young people.

Political scientist M. Steven Fish believes that the Democratic Party’s inability, despite their many policy successes, to conclusively defeat the Republicans and the larger “conservative” movement and American neofascists, is rooted in much bigger and systematic failings. A professor of political science at the University of California, Berkeley, Fish has appeared on BBC, CNN, and other major networks, and has published in The New York Times, The Washington Post, and Foreign Policy, among others. His new book is “Comeback: Routing Trumpism, Reclaiming the Nation, and Restoring Democracy's Edge.”

In this conversation, Fish warns that Donald Trump and the other Republican leaders use a high-dominance approach to politics and communication that allows them to set the agenda, which in turn puts the Democrats, who tend to be more passive and consensus-oriented, in a consistently weak position of reaction and defense. It is this failure of messaging and leadership style that has largely made the (white) working class so attracted to the Republicans and Trumpism.

Fish counsels the Democrats to learn from and model their behavior on such high-dominance liberal leaders as President Franklin Delano Roosevelt, President Kennedy, and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. who acted and spoke with force, clarity, moral vision, courage, and who actively sought to shape the terms of the debate and policy through the force of their personalities and clarity of vision.  

This interview has been lightly edited for clarity and length

How are you feeling given the state of the country, the 2024 election, and more generally with the world?

We haven’t seen a more serious threat to democracy and liberal values since WWII. But I also firmly believe that we can beat this threat back, too, just as we did then. We just have to be clear about the nature of the danger and act now to defeat it.

"Dominance is always a crucial aspect of politics, but it’s especially important in the Age of Trump. And the Democrats are definitely losing that game."

I’m a comparative political scientist who specializes in democracy and authoritarianism around the world. What I care about most is how people can get their freedom, if they don’t have it, and keep it, if they do. Democracy has been taking a hit over the past 20 years or so all over the world. The question is why.

There’s a standard story about how we got Trump. Basically, it holds that rising economic and cultural anxieties drove working-class voters to Trump. This story claims Democrats adopted neoliberal policies that exacerbated inequality and ignored the struggles of non-college-educated whites in favor of big business, minorities, feminists, and immigrants. It assumes white working-class bigotry escalated along with economic frustration. Now, as a result of believing this story, the Democrats’ main electoral strategy is to double down on progressive economic policies and to duck culture war issues to try to win these voters back—and this is a major problem in the fight against Trumpism.

What’s wrong with the standard story? What do you think the mainstream news media and political elites and opinion leaders have generally gotten wrong about Trump voters?

Economic conditions are actually as good for democracy as they’ve ever been. Of course, some people are hurting, but working- and middle-class incomes have risen faster in America than in other rich countries where democracy hasn’t come under threat. What’s more, long-term surveys show that white working-class voters’ perceptions of life satisfaction, job security, quality of employment, and personal opportunity have been pretty high and largely stable since the 1970s. In fact, Republicans have reported slightly higher satisfaction levels than Democrats.

Today the stock market is setting records and unemployment is lower than it’s been since the 1960s. Inflation is way down. To the extent that injustice still prevails, whether it’s on tax policy or union-busting or pretty much anything else, Republican machinations and intransigence, not some supposed abandonment of the working person by the Democrats, are to blame. The problem is the Democrats don’t get the political credit for their policies and the great things they’ve done that they deserve. That’s due to the Democrats’ poor messaging, not their policies.

What’s more, while Trump has special appeal among hardcore racists, they’re a diminishing minority of the population. Attitudes on race, immigration, and gender have liberalized dramatically in recent decades, including among working-class whites. Meanwhile, Trump’s support among nonwhite voters is rising fast. I document all this data and more in my new book.

How do these flawed assumptions hurt the Democrats with working-class voters? Definitions matter. How do you define “working class?” Specifically, the “white working class” that the news media, punditry, and Democratic Party are so obsessed over?

These days researchers generally define the working class to mean people who don’t have a college education. This tends to be an easier way to measure this demographic than occupation or income. It’s a diverse group—almost half are people of color. But as you point out, the political world has focused on the non-college-educated whites who mostly support Trump. This group makes up about 35 percent of the electorate. 

Everything about the standard story as it’s evolved in the wake of Trump’s rise strikes white working-class voters as baffling and condescending. The Democrats paint a dismal picture of these voters: Ignorant of their own interests, despairing to the point of self-destruction, desperate for government help, vulnerable to the appeals of racist demagogues—how can we win people over if this pathetic, ugly caricature is the story we tell about them?

This may explain why this group has voted Republican since Lyndon Johnson. The exception is Bill Clinton, who won them twice. Clinton’s policies were far more progressive than many on the left believe. But the way he talked about them tended to focus on getting people back to work and encouraging personal responsibility. He honored Americans’ bootstrap mentality, and while he felt everybody’s pain, he did it without the condescension that the Democrats often dish out today. He was wildly popular among Blacks and Hispanics, but he didn’t play identity politics and he didn’t give white working-class folks reason to think that he suspected they were inclined to racism. That all changed after he left office and especially—and perhaps ironically—with Hillary Clinton’s candidacy.

Trump-like figures have been coming to power all over the world. Is there a larger pattern here, and if so, how can it inform how we think about the democracy crisis in the United States?

In the bigger global picture, what I’ve found is that everywhere they’ve won power, democracy’s adversaries—from Orbán to Modi to Putin and the Philippines’ Rodrigo Duterte—have convinced people that they’re the toughest guys on the block and they can get things done. The specifics don’t matter. What impresses voters is that these leaders can work their will, whatever it may be. They shape opinions and tell folks what they want them to believe, rather than what they think they want to hear. They savor conflict and treat politics as an us-versus-them game. They take big risks and play to win.

"The problem is that the Democrats don’t unmask Trump’s essential cowardice and overmatch his dominance game."

They also never neglect the power of narrative and nationalism and always hammer away at their own supposed superiority as lovers and protectors of the nation. They play to voters’ emotions more generally, rather than just appealing to their material interests. They use entertaining, provocative parlance. In a word, they embrace what I call a high-dominance political style.

Liberal leaders today are often more comfortable in the role of petitioners and followers of public opinion than as commanders and shapers of public consciousness, so they’re always taking the public temperature and adjusting their messaging—and even policy stances—to polling. They’re conflict-averse and prefer compromise to combat. Us-versus-them framing and “othering” seem unnecessarily polarizing to them.

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Rather than exude iron self-assurance and unqualified optimism about their countries’ futures, liberals fret about the complexities of governing and social problems. Nationalism makes them uncomfortable. They treasure norms of civility and distrust provocative, aggressive language. Generally speaking, then, they have adopted what I call a low-dominance political style.

Not only are the liberals’ low-dominance ways costing them elections. They also often seem to confirm the authoritarians’ claims that democracy itself is “weaker” than authoritarianism—and that playing by the rules is for chumps. Of course, getting people to believe that is every autocrat’s and would-be autocrat’s aim and the key to ensconcing himself in power forever.

Your recent New York Times guest essay focused on dominance behavior and how Donald Trump and other members of the right wing are masters of it. What is Trump doing that is so vexing and challenging to Democrats and many others outside of the MAGAverse and Trumpworld?

Donald Trump is all dominance, all the time. My research finds that his dominance game, much more than his policies or appeals to racism, is his most formidable political asset. He largely ignores the polls and tells you what he thinks, while low-dominance leaders tell you what they think you want to hear. His disdain for optics and polls isn’t a sign of real courage. Instead, they’re products of his narcissism combined with a lack of impulse control. But his congenital political gift is that the way these character defects manifest what looks like bravery, at least to a substantial minority. It’s what creates the perception that he’s his own man (however sociopathic) and acts on his own convictions (even if they’re nothing but ego-driven ambitions and resentments).

Trump’s dominance style is what separates him from every other politician and explains the ardor he elicits among those who thirst for strong leadership. And it’s what’s enabled him to retain his grip on his party, even as he’s proven to be a liability in elections. To many people, it makes him look indomitable—and other politicians like panderers by comparison.

The problem is that the Democrats don’t unmask Trump’s essential cowardice and overmatch his dominance game. Liberals often seem to think that people just need to evolve past their need for dominant leaders and get on with creating a world in which everyone gets along, and nobody seeks to dominate anybody else. But as the eminent psychologist Dan McAdams notes, our desire for commanding leaders is baked into our DNA. It isn’t all we seek in our leaders, but seek it we do, and that isn’t going to change anytime soon. McAdams argues that no American president has tapped into what he calls “the primal psychology of dominance” as effectively as Trump has. In fact, McAdams suggests that Trump has little but dominance going for him.

"If Democrats can beat Trump on dominance, his area of greatest strength, we can crush the Trumpian menace before it crushes our democracy."

Trump’s high-dominance style taps into a complex combination of emotions. You’ve smartly written about how he triggers his voters with his horror movie strategy. Trump then piles on with narratives of self-pity, rage, and resentment. But what truly sets him apart, even from other Republicans, is his extreme high-dominance style that reassures his triggered followers that he will fix everything. Trump’s constant norm-breaking and crass behavior, which are also part of his high-dominance style, also makes his followers feel accepted and part of his group. And no one “owns the libs,” who they think look down on them, like Trump does.

Of course, many voters are repelled by Trump’s style. But overall he has gained more than he has lost because of his high-dominance strategies.

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Finally, Trump’s exuberance and humor not only keep his followers entertained but often disarm even his critics. After all, how bad can he be if we can laugh and be charmed by his antics? Few American politicians have ever been able to tap into so many emotion centers as ably as Trump does—and his dominance style is what pulls it all together. If Democrats can beat Trump on dominance, his area of greatest strength, we can crush the Trumpian menace before it crushes our democracy. This does not mean they have to emulate Trump. Our greatest liberal heroes have been high-dominance, but in distinctly liberal ways and to liberal ends, whether it be Frederick Douglass and JFK, or Nobel Laureate Maria Ressa and Eleanor Roosevelt.

Is dominance behavior unique to men and traditional forms of masculinity? In your New York Times essay, the examples of high-dominance leaders you referenced were all men.

Thanks for asking this, and the answer is absolutely not. A raft of recent studies, including excellent work by scholars like Deborah Jordan Brooks and Nancy L. Cohen, show that women can wield dominance no less effectively than men. Ovarian fortitude can beat the testicular variety in politics no less than in all other realms of social interaction.

One of my new liberal high-dominance heroes is Democratic Rep. Jasmine Crockett, the glamorous second-term congresswoman from Dallas. She revels in skewering MAGA loonies like Reps. Anna Paulina Luna and Marjorie Taylor Greene with a mix of lawyerly analytic mastery and gleeful gut punches wrapped in down-home—and often transgressive—language. Michigan Governor Gretchen Whitmer’s personal style differs from Crockett’s, but she’s another example of effective feminine high-dominance leadership. Whitmer doesn’t limit herself to protesting MAGA hardheartedness; she flips the script and owns her MAGA opponents. That helps explain why she won re-election in 2022 by beating her MAGA opponent by double digits in a state that swung to Trump in 2016, and her leadership helped flip the Michigan state legislature from red to blue. Then, of course, there’s Nancy Pelosi. Nobody ever owned that boss.

How are the Democrats losing the struggle over strength, dominance, and leadership? What do we know empirically?

Dominance is always a crucial aspect of politics, but it’s especially important in the Age of Trump. And the Democrats are definitely losing that game. In Gallup’s most recent poll, 57 percent said they saw Trump as a “strong and decisive leader,” compared to an abysmal 38 percent who said that about Biden. What these numbers suggest is that overwhelming numbers of independents, and even some Democrats, see Trump as stronger than Biden. Now, Biden is seen as more likable, caring, and honest. But people value “strength” in their leaders more than how much they care about people like them, or how knowledgeable they are, and so on.

And it isn’t just Biden; the Democrats more generally are losing the dominance game. In a 2022 CBS News survey, the term most frequently cited to describe the Democratic Party was “weak.” Fifty-one percent ascribed that quality to it, while 41 percent said it applied to the Republicans. Thirty-eight percent saw the Democrats as “strong,” compared to 46 percent for the Republicans.

"The liberal heroes we know by their initials—FDR, JFK, LBJ, and MLK—were high-dominance paradigms who defended democracy."

The Democrats have grown pathologically poll-driven, risk-averse, and allergic to engaging on every hot-button issue except abortion. Rather than embrace the fight and give as good as they get or better, the Democrats cry foul. They’re ever basking in umbrage and acting offended by Trump when they should be ridiculing him and playing offense. They complain that Republicans are bullies—then leave them in charge of the playground. They even hesitate to claim credit for policy successes for fear the Republicans will attack them and polls will turn against them. This makes them look weak and craven, and makes Trump seem like the only real leader in American politics.

One of the most embarrassing and pathetically idealistic statements of this political era was “when they go low, we go high.” Am I being unfair? At the time I wrote and publicly stated in interviews that is a recipe for disaster and defeat. You sometimes must get in the mud with the pig to beat him or her in a fight.

I hear you and agree that you’ve got to get down in the mud with the pig to beat him in a fight, but that doesn’t mean you need to be a pig yourself. You can be a lion instead and help yourself to a heaping, tasty portion of BBQ Trump pork.

Illiberal pigs use dominance politics to pursue corrupt, oppressive, authoritarian ends. Liberal lions employ it for democratic ends. The liberal heroes we know by their initials—FDR, JFK, LBJ, and MLK—were high-dominance paradigms who defended democracy against racists, fascists and Stalinists. They also leveraged their dominance skills to muscle into existence every progressive program, from Social Security and Medicare to color-blind immigration policy and voting rights, that we’re fighting a rearguard action to salvage today.

Another obvious difference is that high-dominance illiberals like Trump, Putin, Xi Jinping, and Narendra Modi always make it about themselves. As Trump says, only I can do it. Here he’s just imitating his Kremlin master—and, for that matter, Hitler. China has become a shrine to Xi. As Obama accepted his party’s nomination for president at the DNC convention, the crowds lifted their hands and roared their campaign slogan, along with Obama, “Yes we can!” During Trump’s RNC acceptance speech in 2016, the Republicans pointed to their hero and chanted “Yes you will!” Figures like FDR, JFK, and MLK could easily have tried to erect personality cults, but none of them ever did. Ditto for Eugene Debs, the preeminent socialist leader of the early 20th century. The way they told it, only the entire justice-seeking people could be the agents of change. Their own job was just to help organize the effort and help history along.

What lessons in leadership are today’s Democrats not learning from the greats such as FDR, Brother King, and JFK?

They made opinions using their powers of persuasion rather than just reading polls and then telling people what they thought they wanted to hear. King didn’t care that his crusade against the Vietnam War diminished his popularity; he just kept hammering home his message that America could not possibly fulfill its magnificent mission in the world as long as it was engaged in what King cast as a senseless, imperial war.

Kennedy knew that his brave stand against George Wallace’s segregationist actions could cost him part of the South in the reelection campaign that he was beginning in 1963 prior to his assassination; he gave the speech and pushed the legislation anyway. FDR proudly asserted that the plutocrats had never hated a presidential candidate like they despised him, then roared “And I welcome their hatred!”

These great democratic leaders also framed the struggle with their opponents in stark, us-versus-them terms, and they used the language of good and evil without equivocation.

By Chauncey DeVega

Chauncey DeVega is a senior politics writer for Salon. His essays can also be found at He also hosts a weekly podcast, The Chauncey DeVega Show. Chauncey can be followed on Twitter and Facebook.

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