While Trump’s approval rating has inched up during the COVID-19 outbreak, a majority of Americans disapprove of his handling of the crisis. Given his initial reluctance to acknowledge the severity of the problem, the administration’s testing debacle, and his daily errors and misstatements at his news briefings, many voters might assume that Trump’s chances of winning this fall are dwindling.
But a widely studied psychological phenomenon suggests the opposite: that, with the grimness of death hanging in the air, anxious Americans might actually be more likely to support Trump in November because of his dominant leadership style and his claims of offering protection.
One of the most germane areas of theory and research on this matter is called terror management theory. The theory’s original inspiration was anthropologist Ernest Becker’s Pulitzer Prize-winning 1973 book, The Denial of Death, which argues that humans are uniquely cursed by our innate dual capacities to a) really, really want to survive and b) know that we will one day die. This existential reality is, quite simply, terrifying, so humans tend to go to great lengths to deny, deflect and dispose of this fact in order to manage it. Becker went on to claim that much of what humans do throughout our lives—our work, our family life, our religious beliefs, how we vote—is organized around our profound need to manage this most basic terror.
In the 1980s, three prominent social psychologists took this idea into the lab to study it. Since that time, they and their colleagues have conducted hundreds of experiments and field studies to investigate the premises of Becker’s work—in particular, the effects of what they call “mortality salience,” a state of awareness of the cold fact that we are going to die. One of the main findings of this research has been that when humans are reminded of their own mortality—such as during a pandemic—they are much more inclined to cling tightly to their cultural worldviews, to derogate and even harm those who are seen as threatening these views, and to support brash, charismatic leaders who claim to protect them. This means that as Americans begin to fixate more on their own mortality, they are likely to become more nationalistic, socially conforming, prejudiced against outgroups and aggressive. They also are more likely to favor dominant leaders who model these inclinations.