Social scientists have long been familiar with the important concept of the reference group — a group individuals use as the standard against which to compare their own behavior and self-perceptions, whether a part of that group or not.
President Donald Trump has, in recent months, given evidence that his reference group is shifting to the minority of the U.S. population he characterizes as his “base.” In a series of tweets in August, he opined, “Hard to believe that with 24/7 #Fake News … the Trump base is getting stronger!” and, “… Supreme Court pick, economic enthusiasm, deregulation & so much more have driven the Trump base even closer together,” and, “The Trump base is far bigger & stronger than ever before …”
A selective focus on only a portion of the population as one’s reference group is an attractive and tempting alternative for any politician. It reduces the cognitive dissonance that accompanies attempting to deal with the fact that the entire population is more negative than positive (Trump’s current overall job approval rating is 37%), and it produces a stream of positive feedback from that base (as was the case in President Trump’s recent speeches in Phoenix and Springfield, Missouri).
At the same time, a selective choice of a relatively narrow reference group for a president has significant implications. The main consequence stems from the finding that the public, taken as a whole, wants less partisanship, less polarization, and is ultimately not in favor of a strict position of sticking to principles at the cost of getting things done.
Keep in mind that government and the way it operates today is, in the public’s mind, one of the most important problems facing the nation. Although this concern has multiple causes, a good deal of it comes from the belief that government — mainly Congress — is too focused on infighting, bickering, adherence to intransigent partisan allegiances, enslavement to special interests and those with money, and a general lack of willingness to compromise in order to get things done for the public good.
In this sense, Trump’s explicit announcement of the use of his base as the reference group governing his behavior (rather than using the nation as a whole) runs the danger of exacerbating, rather than ameliorating, the public’s concerns…..