Mental health experts explain why ‘fearful’ Trump supporters are still clinging to the president — despite his many failures
A looming question in today’s political climate is: Why do Donald Trump’s devotees continue to support him despite the carnage of his well-documented failures? Although we are in the middle of a deadly pandemic that is surging and not contained, Trump seems to maintain a base support of 35% to 40%. What are the psychological factors that influence or underpin his supporters’ attraction to him? And might this provide some perspective on how to change these supporters’ minds?
Rebelliousness and Chaos.
Over my lifetime, especially in my younger years, I used to cross what I referred to a “red line” that seemed to flash briefly in my eyes whenever I become so angry that I crossed that line and felt the urge to speak and act no matter what the consequences.
Not unlike slugging the bully back with the realization that whether the rock hits the pitcher or the pitcher hits the rock it will go badly for the pitcher.
Some Trump supporters have a strong desire for rebelliousness and chaos, and view Trump as the perfect vehicle for achieving their personal goals. These supporters tend to become “anti-establishment and anti-government,” even when it is against their best interest. Many are unhappy with their station in life and believe chaos in the political system will bring them important gains. They seek immediate and sweeping changes and believe a rebellious attitude and rebellious behavior are what is necessary. They would rather have chaos, even dangerously or regressively so, than the status quo.
These supporters believe in Trump’s professed anger and rebelliousness, while often ignoring the content of the issues at hand. Trump’s talk of “draining the swamp” and of eschewing “political correctness” is attractive to them. They react emotionally and irrationally in embracing Trump’s decisions to create chaos, such as by sending federal troops into American cities to provoke hostile conflict with protestors.
They enjoy and thrive upon Trump disavowing norms, rules, and laws. Rebelliousness and chaos can be a major psychological influence, but it can have serious negative consequences such as undermining the chance for real change. – Blotcky and Talmadge
I grew up side a culture whose religiosity assumed that said culture was “the one true and living church on the face of the earth.” At a point in my early forties, I realized that there was a personal smugness and superiority in the idea of belonging to a belief system that hat the truth with its capital. Everything perceived within that wall of mental illusion was defined by the implications of that capital T truth.
How much are individual lives shaped by inner scenarios based on assumptions someone has been taught to accept as absolutely true?
Such a person may live an inner myth that reflects how he or she has been taught the world “is” rather than how they might discover the world to “be”?
One’s personal mythical scenario is always on and is always running. Sam Keen has described myth as referring to
“an intricate set of interlocking stories, rituals, rites and customs that inform and give the pivotal sense of meaning and direction to a person, family, community or culture.
The myths we carry around inside include unspoken consensus, the habitual way of seeing things, unquestioned assumptions, and our ‘automatic stance’.”
A society lives on its own unconscious conspiracy to consider a myth the truth, the way things really might be. Many Trump supporters belong to a minority who are literal without thinking; men and women who are not critical or reflective about the guiding “truths” – myths – of their own group?
The Dunning-Kruger effect. Some people are under-informed and misinformed and are completely unaware of their lack of information. They tend to overestimate their level of knowledge and hold onto that position. They develop “illusory superiority” from their inability to recognize their true lack of knowledge.
In other words, some people think they know more than they do and hold firmly to their opinions. These people are resistant to change their political thinking because they believe they are the knowledgeable ones. Trump and some of his supporters have this psychological phenomenon in common; they are unable to remedy their own limitations of knowledge and their inaccurate thinking -Blotcky and Talmadge
Shared omnipotence often comes with believing something or someone has that capital T truth. If one’s own talents and work cannot resolve issues perhaps a complete dependency on someone else’s magic/authority will rescue. Perhaps we can project our hopes, fears and so-called psychic or spiritual power with a dependency or the “right” leader.” Such is, for example, a social mindset in the Bible Belt and the Utah Corridor.
While this dynamic is often seen in romantic relationships, especially during the early infatuation period, this exact same dynamic can be seen in political relationships as well. In this case, some people believe that Trump is the “right” leader who can take them to a place of harmony and never-ending happiness and success. This is an infantile fantasy that is unrealistic and unachievable because it is not rooted in the real world of adult life. Even so, a childhood fantasy can be intense and not easily given up.- Blotcky and Talmande
As Keen implies,
” To a tourist in a strange land, an anthropologist studying a tribe, or a psychologist observing a patient, the myth is obvious. But to the person who lives within the mythic horizon, it is nearly invisible.”
When the horizon is invisible it may become very difficult to separate magical thinking, gut feelings and conscious or unconscious hopes that someone is capable of rescue from a dilemma that recognizes no authority, celebrity or propagandized promises.
[Magical Thinking] is the belief that one’s thoughts, feelings, ideas, or words can bring about effects in the world. Or, similarly, that one’s thoughts, feelings, ideas, or words can cause something to happen. Magical thinking presumes a causal link between one’s internal, personal experience and the external physical world.
This often emerges from an inability to distinguish fully between emotions and logical thoughts. Relying totally on emotion or “gut reactions” results in magical thinking. Trump engages in magical thinking almost constantly. This is especially dangerous regarding the pandemic: “It will disappear very quickly,” “We have it under control,” “We may have some embers or some ashes…”
Many supporters engage in magical thinking and are encouraged and validated by Trump, leading them to align strongly with him. -Blotcky and Talmadge
Which brings us to Fear and it’s ugly irrational consequences
We in fact are a vital part of a system of checks and balances that must function in order to protect the integrity of what constitutes democracy in America.
On the one hand, military devotion to duty, courage in the line of fire, and obedience regardless of agreement or disagreement with command decisions ought to be the highest measure of patriotism.
On the other hand, civilian devotion to the American democratic process is equally vital in making sure ulterior motives and secret special interest agendas are not placed ahead of the safety and well-being of the citizens.
When either of the dominant political parties in this country makes an assertion that patriotism and loyalty are defined within that particular party, we disenfranchise ourselves if we blindly buy into that notion.
Particularly dangerous is the circumstance where we as citizens find politicians attempting to exploit what they believe to be our own personal politics, philosophy or economic outlook with highly emotional rhetoric in an attempt to stampede us into acting without thinking.
What has devolved is a conflict around who is patriotic and who is not.
The fundamental truth of the matter is this:
Neither party has the monopoly on patriotism.
Neither party is empowered to define for you and for me what it means to love your country and what a patriotic act looks like.
The politician who says that those who do not support the President are then in support of terrorists is deliberately denying that which is at the heart of democracy.
The politician who declares that dissent and disagreement with national leadership is not patriotic and in fact is a betrayal of the country is deliberately denying that which is at the heart of democracy.
Brain reactivity to threats. Research shows that some people have an exaggerated fear response to threats. When presented with specific perceived threats–immigrants, democrats, protestors, socialism–conservatives’ brains light up in activity and experience a need to seek safety. Trump actively encourages his supporters to experience exaggerated fear responses, such that their brains remain energized.
Fear mongering. Terror management theory explains why fear mongering works. When people are reminded of their mortality, which happens with fear mongering, they reflexively defend those who share their world view and their natural and ethnic identity. Tribal identification is an outgrowth of fear mongering. Racism and bigotry are related to fear.
Conspiracy theories. Certain people are attracted to conspiracy theories because of their vulnerable personalities and even by mental illness. Life is complex and perplexing and at times dangerous. It is not simple or safe. Research shows that feelings of anxiety make people think more conspiratorially. A conspiracy theory can provide comfort by identifying a convenient scapegoat and thereby making the world seem much more straightforward and controllable.
Fantasies that remove fear and doubt can be especially attractive, even if they are unrealistic and irrational. People who believe in conspiracy theories are more likely to overestimate the likelihood of co-occurring events, to attribute intentionality where it is unlikely to exist, and to have lower levels of critical thinking.
Social dominance orientation. People who score high on social dominance orientation prefer an established societal hierarchy. They are attracted to Trump because he promotes and normalizes the belief that high-status people and groups should be dominant over low-status people and groups. Trump’s clear distinction between groups on top of society (Whites) and those “losers” on the bottom (immigrants, Blacks, and Latinos) is a classic social dominance view. Individuals who are high on social dominance orientation are typically domineering, tough-minded, disagreeable, and relatively uncaring seekers of power. As such, these individuals have an attraction to authoritarianism.
Authoritarianism. Several traits characterize authoritarianism: deference to authority, aggression toward outgroups, a hierarchical view of the world, and the belief that the world is dangerous and threatening. Some people believe in having an authoritarian leader because they feel protected and safe by a strong, powerful presence. Trump’s authoritarian leanings are highly attractive to these supporters. Interestingly, research studies have shown the joint power of authoritarianism and social dominance orientation to predict far-right-wing voting in the United States and Europe. – Blotcky and Talmadge