I had an interesting conversation with a Trump supporter the other day. As I listened to her try to articulate her views, I noticed a few things. First, there was a lot of fear under the surface. Second, she doesn’t really like or trust the President. Third, there is a lot of unresolved hostility toward the Clintons and Barack Obama. Fourth, there is a fundamental lack of trust toward government institutions. Fifth, there is a fatalist/apoplectic view of our system as being in decline and that Trump is the last hope there is for the country. I have no idea if these things are typical of Trump’s supporters, but I suspect they are.
There are books that could and I’m sure will be written about the psychology of Trump’s supporters. I have been listening to podcasts that explore the possibility of the Republican right as a kind of political cult. The argument is that people who are born into and raised in authoritarian homes are susceptible to cults and other forms of authoritarian exploitation. It is hypothesized that the rise of Trumpism is the creation of the largest cult the world has ever seen and that the damage this man has done and will do to the country is without precedent. All the while, these victims/enablers/cult members eat up the lies and faux confidence of their abuser in a frenzy of patriotic zeal. It is an extraordinary thing to watch people cheering and talking about patriotism and hope for the future as the country’s institutions are weakened and our allies look on in horror as our reputation and resolve crumbles on the world stage. Desperate to see Trump as a kind of gladiator of epic proportions, cloaked in an American flag and triumphing over “the swamp” of D.C. elites; they fail to see the dangers that will bring down our Republic if we don’t do something soon.
I suspect Donald Trump to be a narcissist, although some of the podcasts I have listened to suggested sociopathy or psychopathy. They gave compelling reasons for their assessments, but as I am most familiar with narcissism, it is easier for me to see him from that lens. I don’t make the claim lightly. I don’t wish to attack the man, only to understand and protect myself and others against him. Narcissists are cunning creatures. They appear to be what you want them to be. They cast themselves in the drama of your life as the person you have always wanted to meet. My ex brother-in-law was a narcissist. He swept my sister off her feet in a whirlwind courtship full of sexual attraction and blind trust. It was only two and half years later when his lies were revealed. Nothing he had pretended to be was true. The man she had married had skillfully crafted himself as a noble victim while blaming others for his misfortune. He was a gigantic diamond in the rough that had a glorious future ahead once he was rescued from the heartless people around him. Even his parents warned my sister not to marry him. She took that as proof of what horrible parents they were. “Who would do that to their son?!?” It made his sorrowful story seem even more plausible to her.
By about two years into their marriage, David had successfully isolated her from everyone who had any interest in her welfare. His lies became her mantra. Her decision to choose him over everyone else in her life gave him tremendous power over her. Then the abuse ramped up. Fortunately, she was able to escape, but the memory of David and his deceptions are triggered by Trump. It is very hard for me to dispassionately watch the party I once considered myself a part of fall under the spell of this con man.
He has isolated his followers much like David isolated my sister. He discredits anyone who tries to expose the truth of what is happening. First it was Democrats and “establishment Republicans” but now it includes career law enforcement professionals like Andrew McCabe, James Comey, Robert Mueller, and the whistleblower. It also includes all “Never Trumpers” like myself. Sadly, as we’ve seen from the increasingly abysmal hearings, it now includes career nonpartisan professional diplomats like Bill Taylor, George Kent, Marie Yovanovich, and anyone else with the courage to shine a light on the corruption spreading like an inky dark stain. There is no person so noble or credible that the Trumpers will not throw under the Trump Train. Why?
Why was my sister so desperate to believe the lies she was told even when everyone around her who had ever cared for her was telling her differently? The answer is, it’s very complicated. Trump’s takeover of the Republican Party and his ability to bend it to his will is frightening to behold. Abuse always is. I’ve never seen it on this massive scale before. Millions of people support this President and believe his lies. Credible professionals, politicians, and other leaders are doing his bidding. Most troubling to me is that we have now fallen out of the category of “full Democracy” on the Democratic Index. We are now categorized as a “flawed Democracy” on the scale which you can access here. Eighty-nine other countries declined on the scale in 2017 and forty-two declined last year. There is some evidence that the trend is ending, but worldwide, we are less free than we were five years ago around the globe. The authoritarian trends we are seeing are largely responsible for this decline. What is authoritarianism?
I just took a quiz and it ranked me as a 28.41% on the authoritarian scale. If I had taken the test twenty years ago, I probably would be above 50%. Many of the people in my church and community would likewise have much higher scores. There are both right wing and left wing authoritarians, but the right wing variety seems to get the most attention. Right wing authoritarians tend to be very religious and hold to dogmatic traditions. They believe that things were better, “in the good old days.” They like to see the world simplistically and resist nuance. They are more likely to use a lot of physical punishment in their parenting. Left wing authoritarians want to silence opposing political views on campuses. They wish to restrict free speech with political correctness codes. They insist that the only way to achieve social justice is by taking resources by force and redistributing them. When I was in college, I saw examples of left wing authoritarianism that mirrored the right wing variety I was more used to. All authoritarians are very moralistic in their views believing there to be clear lines between right and wrong and that those who violate those standards should be punished. There is a clear, “us verses them” and a need to force people to conform in order to belong.
Authoritarian parenting conditions people to accept abuse and expect it to be used to control and subject people both within and outside the family. The hierarchy of such a family mirrors an authoritarian state. People who are raised in this kind of environment are vulnerable to abuse like what we are seeing in Trump’s America. My sister and I were raised in a strictly authoritarian home. Looking back, it is not surprising that my sister became a victim of spousal abuse.
When my sister finally cut contact with me, I constantly worried about her. I feverishly researched David’s legal records to find the smoking gun that would at last wake Tiffany up to the horror of the situation. Looking back I know that nothing I said or did would have made a difference. In order for abuse to end, the victim has to decide it isn’t worth it anymore; that the cost they are paying to keep the illusion alive is not worth the benefits of living in the lie. The victim wakes themselves up. If anyone else does it for them, it won’t last.
And so the rest of the world waits for the Republican Party to decide it is done with the abuse of Donald Trump. I thought surely when Trump requested China to open an investigation of Hunter Biden that it would be over. Nope. I thought that his craven betrayal of the Kurds would turn the tide against him. Nope. It will only end when the Republicans decide they have had enough, and for now, they are standing by their man.
Circling back to the conversation I mentioned at the beginning of the post. The current lie Trump is telling his victims is that he is a warrior against corruption and that he is making enemies of those who want to continue to profit from a corrupt system. He feeds on the cynicism and distrust of government that is fundamental to conservative belief systems. The problem is, our system is not very corrupt and it isn’t that hard to see why. We have a robust free press that is regularly bringing down powerful men and organizations or at the very least tarnishing their reputations. Our system is not perfect; Donald Trump’s success is evidence of that. Still, compared with a nation like Ukraine under Yanocovitch, we have a stellar reputation on corruption. We have, at least until very recently, had a remarkable tradition of an apolitical justice department. The most significant departure from this tradition would be the Nixon Presidency. The Washington Post and deep throat saved us from the Nixon Presidential crime syndicate.
What is corruption? I remember researching corruption when I was in college. I found a website that gave politicians grades on corruption and I was surprised to see that Republicans were overall much more corrupt than Democrats by the site’s grading system. I looked closer at the evidence that the score was based on. I found things like, “Politician was instrumental in giving a government contract to a company affiliated with his brother.” Things like that are not technically illegal, but look fishy. Was the contract awarded to that company strictly on merit, or was there some nepotism there? To protect our system from even the appearance of corruption, there have been government ethics watchdogs and standards and norms. Donald Trump’s Presidency has violated so many of them, it would take me hours and hours to enumerate them.
So the question is, if he is supposed to be the warrior against corruption, why doesn’t he actually follow the rules and ethical guidelines himself? Instead he tramples ethical norms while pointing the finger at past administrations and officials claiming to be a victim of unreasonably hostile and corrupt people. This is not fighting corruption. Fighting corruption would be championing campaign finance reform, advocating for ranked choice voting, securing our elections, and ensuring that his own administration is free of self-dealing. If he were fighting corruption, why would he speak favorably of Victor Shokin and smear Maria Yovanovich in his call with Zelensky? Shokin was terribly corrupt and Yovanovich had been making wonderful progress helping Ukraine to do better. He claims to fight corruption while supporting the corrupt and smearing those who are fighting it. That is not fighting corruption.
There is much blustering about the corruption of former administrations and officials by Republicans. This is a bad faith argument. The corruption and scandals of past administrations pale in comparison to what we are facing with this one. Deflecting to past corruption either in Ukraine or in the United States while ignoring blatant violations by Trump and his administration happening in real time is nothing more than whataboutism.
So Trump sells the lie that he is fighting corruption at home and abroad while leading the most corrupt administration in modern American history. In my opinion his behavior, is more dangerous and damaging than Nixon’s was because his abuses of power are flagrantly in clear public view. He is the living embodiment of the worst interpretation the Clintons ever had in the fetid conspiracy theories of the conservative fever swamp.
The big question is, when will Trump supporters choose to wake from the illusion Trump has made for them? When will the snake oil be seen for the sugar water it is? When will the charlatan be exposed? No sooner than the victims decide to end the abuse. In the meantime, they will stand by their man.