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Tuesday, July 12, 2022

Donald Trump and the rationalization of transgressive behavior: The role of group prototypicality and identity advancement

Davies, B., Leicht, C., & Abrams, D.
Journal of Applied Social Psychology
Volume 52, Issue 7, July 2022
Pages 481-495


Transgressive leadership, especially in politics, can have significant consequences for groups and communities. However, research suggests that transgressive leaders are often granted deviance credit, and regarded sympathetically by followers due to perceptions of the leader's group prototypicality and identity advancement. We extend previous work by examining whether these perceptions additionally play a role in rationalizing the transgressions of a leader and whether deviance credit persists after a leader exits their leadership position. The present three-wave longitudinal study (N = 200) addresses these questions using the applied context of the 2020 US Presidential election. Across three survey waves administered during and after Donald Trump's election loss, Republicans perceived three transgressive behaviors (sharing false information, nepotism, and abuse of power) as less unethical when committed by Donald Trump than when the same behaviors are viewed in isolation. Perceptions of Trump's identity advancement, but not his group prototypicality, predicted the extent to which Republicans downplayed the unethicalness of his transgressions. Decreases in identity advancement across time were also related to increases in perceptions of Trump's unethicalness. Implications for the social identity theory of leadership, subjective group dynamics, and the broader consequences of deviance credit to transgressive leaders are discussed.


This study aimed to understand how followers of transgressive leaders rationalize their leader's behavior, to what extent group prototypicality and identity advancement encourage this rationalization, and whether these effects would persist after a leader exits their leadership position. Specifically, we expected that Republicans would downplay the perceived unethicalness of behavior by Donald Trump relative to the same behavior when unattributed, and that this downplaying would be predicted by perceptions of Trump's group prototypicality and identity advancement. We also expected that, following his election loss, Donald Trump would be perceived as less prototypical and less identity advancing, and concomitantly as more unethical. In partial support of these hypotheses, we found that Republicans did indeed downplay the perceived unethicalness of Donald Trump's behavior, but that this was only predicted by perceptions of his identity advancement, and not his group prototypicality. In contrast to expectations, perceptions of Donald Trump's prototypicality and identity advancement, after controlling for his encouragement of the Capitol riots, did not decrease after his election loss, and neither did perceptions of his unethicalness increase. However, we found that intra-individual drops in perceptions of Trump's identity advancement (but not group prototypicality) did correspond with increases in perceptions of his unethicalness for two of the three transgressive behaviors. Evidence from the cross-lagged analysis is consistent with the interpretation that initial perceptions of identity advancement influenced later evaluations of Donald Trump's unethicalness, rather than the reverse. Overall, these results provide an important extension of previous deviance credit theory and research, highlighting the role of identity advancement and presenting the rationalization of a leader's behavior as a novel mechanism in the support of transgressive leaders. The applied and longitudinal nature of this study additionally demonstrates how social psychological processes operate in real-world contexts, providing a much-needed contribution to more ecologically valid behavioral research.

Editor's note: Contemplate this research as you watch the J6 committee findings today and in the future. I wonder if these perceptions will change after the J6 hearings, in their entirety.