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Many political observers point to America’s long, dark history of racism and bigotry to explain the rise of US president Donald Trump. However, social psychology’s theory of “othering” offers an alternative way of understanding Trump’s appeal – one that focuses on humans’ innate need to differentiate themselves from others. In this fascinating article for Foreign Affairs, political scientist Jeff Colgan stresses the need for leaders to accept these tendencies and find ways to channel them more constructively.

About the Author

Jeff D. Colgan is the Richard Holbrooke Associate Professor in the Department of Political Science and Watson Institute for International Studies at Brown University. 



A phenomenon social psychologists refer to as “othering” helps to explain the bigotry, racism and anti-immigrant sentiments that surfaced during US president Donald Trump’s election campaign. The theory of othering states that groups can strengthen their internal cohesion by defining themselves in contrast to what they are not. Dimensions of difference might include external appearance, such as skin color, or socially derived distinctions.

In national politics, othering has three key qualities. First, the “other” must occupy a prominent role in a nation’s foreign affairs. During the ...

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