Trump’s presidential victory and the underdog syndrome

Donald Trump is a phenomenon. He was rejected by the party hierarchy, scorned by the media, derided by the aristocrats, spurned by the wealthy, riled against by the Establishment, yet he won the presidential election held on November 8, 2016.

Trump will be the first president of the United States of America who neither served in the military nor the public service before emerging president.

The odds were stacked heavily against him and he knew it. He was presented to the American public as unfit for the highest office in the land. President Barak Obama said it, Hilary Clinton echoed it, the Republican Party hierarchy ricocheted it and the media amplified it. He was harangued as a man with no respect for any woman; a businessman whose interest is his business and money, a rich man who did not pay tax, an office-seeking person who was out to destroy the system. Most of the people who enjoyed visibility in the society were visibly against him. Yet, when it came to the crunch, he won the election.

The exit polls gave him no chance of winning, neither did the forecasts. The analyses and the permutations were not in his favour. He did not get major endorsements, either from the leadership of his party or the major observers. He was completely written off by the institutions and most of the corporations. He was described as being miserly with his election advertisement budget. But when the American people were to decide, they picked him above a woman who has had a very close romance with the White House as the First Lady, the Oval Office as the Secretary of State, and Washington as a Senator; a woman who understands power and its deployment.

Trump had been sketched as a man who only wanted to undo all that Obama had done; he never minced words about repealing and replacing Obamacare. He was caricatured as bereft of foreign policy knowledge and economic management. He was cartooned as having no idea of how to create employment opportunities. He was pictured as divisive; pitching a race against another. However, when the American people were left to make a choice, they chose him.

So, what was the Trump attraction?

President-elect Donald Trump might not have had any attraction other than the sympathy of the people for him as a reaction to the way he was treated by those who had unhindered access to the public space. Every negative thing about Trump was blown out of proportion, yet there were undisguised attempts to hush up every untoward thing about Hilary Clinton.

The issue of Trump’s non-declaration of tax payment became global news. No effort was spared to clothe him with the garb of a deceitful billionaire, feeding fat on the sweat of the poor without giving the state its due. But the issue of Hilary’s destruction of emails after being subpoenaed was not given the same prominence. Even the late attempt made by the FBI to investigate the matter was doomed to fail right from the outset because it was embarked upon not so much to get to the root of the matter but to assuage Trump’s feeling. So, when the verdict of ‘not guilty’ was returned, it was not a surprise.

Similarly, when the news of Trump’s unguarded statement about women broke, it became a major issue and everyone who mattered went to town with it. He was presented not only as uncultured and uncouth but also unsuitable to lead the free world. While the video clip was played on international television channels, his apology over the matter did not enjoy such treatment. However, when the issue of the Clinton Foundations broke, there were concerted efforts to take it off the airwaves.

So, going into the election, Donald Trump was disadvantaged. He was the underdog. He even admitted that he was behind in the election. His campaign manager, Kellyane Conway, about two weeks before the election, had said, “We are behind. She has some advantages but we’re not giving up. We know we can win this (election).”

Trump also played up the underdog status to the hilt. He was always saying that the election was rigged against him. He once tweeted thus, “Of course there is large scale voter fraud happening on and before election day. Why do Republican leaders deny what is going on? So naive!”

The President-elect never left anyone in doubt that he was obviously the disadvantaged one in the election. While Trump’s position about the election being rigged could have been a strategy to prepare his supporters for the eventuality of losing the election, it obviously worked in his favour because, apparently, some people believed him and that could have swayed the votes in his favour because the natural human tendency is to align with the underdog. This resonated with the electorate who were disenchanted with the Establishment that did not care for them and they opted to vote for one of their own who was opposed by the Establishment. It did not matter to them whether Trump was a billionaire or a pauper, what was important was that, like them, he was being deprived by the Establishment. With that, there was a common ground for them and they queued behind him.

But why do most people always go for the underdog? It is because many people see themselves in the underdog. As a matter of fact, they see themselves as underdogs.

The social identity theory propounded by Henry Tajfel in 1979 says that the group to which an individual belongs is his source of pride and self-esteem and he will always protect the interest of that group. This is a sense of belonging to the social world. This is why a Yoruba man will protect the interest of his tribe and a Fulani will do the same for his tribe. In the same vein, the favoured will protect the interest of his ilk while the disadvantage will also take sides with their like.

After two different researches carried out in 1991 at Bowling Green State University, Jimmy Frazier and Eldon Snyder published a paper which they titled “The underdog concept in sport.” In their studies, the authors had presented a hypothetical scenario to over 100 college students thus: Two teams, A and B, were meeting in a best-of-seven playoff series for some unidentified sport, and Team A was “highly favoured” to win. Which team would the students support? The result showed that 81 per cent of the students chose the underdog.

The researchers then went ahead to twist the scenario and asked the students if they would still support Team B if it were to turn out that somehow it managed to win the first three games of the series. A half of those who first picked Team B now said they would support Team A.

The sympathy of the majority is always for the underdog.

Speaking on why people always seem to prefer the underdog, Malcolm Gladwell, a writer and researcher, says it is because it makes the world seem more just, or at least, a bit more hopeful. He adds, “If the favourite always won, then there’s no point, right? There’d be no point in fighting. We’re instinctively thinking of future situations where we will be outmanned and we want to make sure we still have some kind of chance.”

Also speaking along this line, Daniel Engber, a New York Times Magazine columnist, said, “We have all struggled and appeared small, vulnerable, or weak in comparison to another. Perhaps we’ve been teased, taunted, or even bullied? At the least, we’ve faced significant challenges at one point or another. Seeing the underdog, we empathize with their plight. Their chance to win becomes our chance to win. Maybe, in some way, the underdog’s victory helps us overcome a psychological wound from long ago. This might present an opportunity for us to use personal courage – to face something in ourselves – to use our character strength of bravery.”

Being an underdog has often given victory to the least expected candidate in major elections. It happened for President Truman who was believed to be the underdog in the 1948 election between him and Governor Thomas Dewey. Truman came from behind to defeat Dewey. It also worked in favour of Ronald Reagan against Jimmy Carter in 1980. Reagan against all odds defeated Carter. The latest beneficiary of the syndrome is Donald Trump.