A neuroscientist explains why the belief that Trump is the messiah is rampant and dangerous
Psychologists have explained quite a lot about Donald Trump ’s political invincibility and the unconditional allegiance of his followers. One well-supported explanation is that the president keeps his base loyal by keeping them fearful. Through persistent fear-mongering, with scary messages like, “Illegal immigrants are murderers and rapists,” and “Islam hates us,” Trump gets to play the role of the great protector.
But there is another major reason why Trump loyalists do not waver no matter how he behaves or what scandals come to light. For most evangelicals, it is not only fear that keeps them in line, but it is also faith. As a cognitive psychology researcher who has been writing about the science underlying Trump’s unshakable support since he began his presidential campaign, I have learned—through comments, emails, and discussion forums—that a significant portion of his supporters literally believe the president was an answer to their prayers. He is regarded as something of a messiah, sent by God to protect a Christian nation.
As obvious as this might sound to some, it is something I did not give serious consideration to initially. As someone who is not particularly religious, it did not occur to me that anyone might actually believe that a politician would be sent by an all-powerful supernatural deity to change the course of human history unless it was in a highly abstract or purely metaphorical sense. It is simply not built into my hardwiring to see someone that way. That kind of thinking is precisely why dangerous cult leaders are able to rise to prominence. Nothing good can come from putting any single person on a spiritual pedestal. No one is infallible, no one is free from bias, and no one is honest all of the time, no matter how hard they may strive to be. Because of this fact of human nature, we must always scrutinize our leaders, and always question their decisions and motivations. What makes a good president is their ability to survive our constant scrutiny and the scrutiny of the free press. Through this process, which is critical, we can get a better sense of whether a politician is trying their best, and whether or not they generally have Americans’ best interests in mind.
I am not saying that Donald Trump does not have the bests interests of some groups of Americans in mind. He has certainly done a lot to help the wealthy with tax cuts. I’d like to believe that he genuinely wanted to make America safer from real threats, like ISIS and violent gangs such as MS-13 (whether he has truly done so remains to be seen). The problem with Trump is that his desire to win and amass power is a priority above all else. He surely knows that most Muslims and most immigrants are not dangerous and want to see America prosper. But he quickly found out, through trying various strategies, that fear was effective as a political tool, especially for someone who lacks substance. When he learned that, he quickly abandoned his morals and chose to demonize innocent people and to promote blatantly false conspiracy theories like #PizzaGate, which put lives in jeopardy. When he chose to invent or exaggerate threats to take attention away from personal scandals, he acted against the best interests of millions of Americans—particularly those who were not white and Christian.
Of course, this only served to further strengthen evangelicals’ belief that he was their savior. What is most ironic about it all, but I suppose not entirely unexpected, is the fact that Trump’s behavior and positions are far more un-Christ-like than those of the average politician on either side of the aisle. The many infidelities, the lack of compassion for the less fortunate, the lewd comments, the blatant lying—the list of ‘ungodly’ acts is a long one. But because they believe he was an answer to their prayers, they are willing to excuse every bit of it. It doesn’t matter if he confessed to grabbing women’s vaginas because “when you’re a star, they let you do it. You can do anything.”
When you believe that someone is truly a godsend, you can excuse anything. It all becomes “for the greater good.” And when that happens, it is a slippery slope to abuses of power that would never be tolerated otherwise.
In previous articles, I predicted that Donald Trump would win the presidency and that the nationalist surge would sweep through rural America. No, I am not an expert when it comes to politics, nor do I have psychic powers. But I did have a crystal ball, and it’s called science. By looking at the underlying neuroscience and psychology, I could make accurate predictions based on factors that many pundits and journalists were likely to overlook. Anyone who paid special attention to how Trump was stoking fears could clearly see that he was creating mass hysteria and a solid fan base at the same time.
I’d like to make a new prediction, based on the psychology described above, although, like the others, I would sincerely prefer to be proved wrong. I believe it is highly likely that more scandals involving the president will surface, likely as a result of the Mueller investigation, and they will be more damning than those from the past. But like those in the past, they will not diminish Trump’s support. He will result in even greater abuses of power to suppress the information or action against him, but none of that will matter to his base, who believes he is on a divine pursuit. And it will be a clear demonstration of how quickly a group of people can be brought to a collective mental state under which they would follow their leader off a cliff.
Of course, not all Americans will continue to support Trump if he is disgraced, and that should give us hope. There continues to be an anti-Trump movement within the conservative community. These people must be commended, despite their fundamentalist views, because at least they have a consistent moral code that they stick to, even under intense pressure from their party’s majority. As for his loyal base of supporters, we can only hope that when he falls from grace, which to me seems inevitable, they will realize that Trump was a false prophet and a con-man. Unfortunately, as has been shown in the past, even when a charlatan is exposed, there will often be a few followers who continue to drink the Kool-Aid.
Bobby Azarian is a neuroscientist affiliated with George Mason University and a freelance journalist. His research has been published in journals such as Cognition & Emotion and Human Brain Mapping, and he has written for The New York Times, The Atlantic, Psychology Today, and Scientific American. Follow him on Twitter @BobbyAzarian.