Something peculiar has been happening with President Donald Trump’s popularity. In the early stages of his response to the coronavirus pandemic, Trump’s approval rating soared, reaching a pinnacle not too long after he declared a national emergency. He had never been more popular among Americans, not even when he won the presidential election of 2016. This comports with a phenomenon documented by political scientist John Mueller in a 1970 paper and colloquially described as the rally round the flag effect: during times of crises, leaders enjoy greater popularity and support even among constituencies that were ambivalent or unsupportive in the past. The theory helps explain the increased popularity of leaders around the world during this pandemic.
But since then, Trump has seen a consistent decline in his approval ratings, down to precoronavirus levels. Why did his popularity slump as swiftly as it surged?
A social psychological theory of status suggests an answer. According to this theory, a leader’s status can be based either on dominance or prestige. Leaders associated with dominance are assertive, controlling in getting their point across, and willing to be coercive and aggressive if necessary. Those identified with prestige are helpful and humble. They get their point across by sharing knowledge and letting others see the wisdom in their methods and expertise. The theory says a leader can win followers by dealing in the currency of either control or mutual respect….
But dominance does not always serve a leader—even in a crisis. In follow-up work, we investigated the maxim “the higher you are, the harder you fall”—the popular idea that high-status leaders suffer greater ignominy and censure after alleged revelations of misconduct. Across a series of archival and laboratory studies, we showed this maxim to be only partially true. We found that the falls of high-status dominant leaders were “harder” than those of leaders associated with prestige. Dominant leaders’ misconduct was considered deliberate and intended to benefit themselves, while prestige-based leaders were much more likely to be given the benefit of the doubt. As a result, dominant leaders were condemned more harshly.
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