Controversial politicians are nothing new in American politics, but no politician has ever utilized controversy as often, or as well as Donald Trump. His recent electoral victory is exhibit A in just how influential the high-conflict politician can be. And still, many wonder what makes these high-conflict individuals so appealing, and how they’ve managed to seemingly argue their way into the most powerful of positions. We talk to two political experts about high-conflict politicians and how they’ve been so successful.
Bill Eddy, the president of the High Conflict Institute and the author of Trump Bubbles: The Dramatic Rise and Fall of High-Conflict Politicians, explains that a high-conflict person (HCP) is an individual that exhibits a repetitive and narrow pattern of behavior, an all-or-nothing attitude, and intense emotions that often distract them from engaging in rational problem-solving. The pattern of high-conflict behaviors becomes increasingly predictable. But, as Eddy states, often the HCP must do something perceived as damaging before observers easily identify the behavior.
And even then, high-conflict figures tend to attract an audience, and, as Eddy notes, high-conflict figures are especially appealing in times of turmoil or unrest because they’re able to make nuanced issues appear simple.
Other factors in the success of these types of personalities gaining popular support: the system of communication between them and the public and the figure’s ability to manipulate that system. High-conflict politicians are often able to appeal to a large audience and increase their overall support by identifying and exploiting various methods of eliciting strong emotional responses from their followers.
Lauren A. Wright, PhD, is a political scientist and the author of On Behalf of the President: Presidential Spouses and White House Communications Strategy Today. She says the research shows that, in addition to being able to hear a person speak, being able to observe the speaker’s facial expressions makes viewers more inclined to support that figure and their ideology. Because of this, visual media, namely television, is thought to be a major driving force behind the popularity of high-conflict personalities and their political aspirations.
But how exactly is a high-conflict persona advantageous to a political figure? The experts say the unconscious absorption of expression, something we all do (whether we know it or not), allows high-conflict politicians to easily spread angry sentiments among their political base. At the same time, they’re able to establish a close, “loving” relationship with their followers, despite never actually interacting with them individually. The result: passionate and loyal supporters who now feel emotionally invested in the subject and their political fate.
- Bill Eddy, president of the High Conflict Institute and author of Trump Bubbles: The Dramatic Rise and Fall of High-Conflict Politicians.
- Lauren A. Wright, PhD; political scientist and author of On Behalf of the President: Presidential Spouses and White House Communications Strategy Today.