Why loyalty to Donald Trump is often unbreakable: neuroscientist

Why loyalty to Donald Trump is often unbreakable: neuroscientist

In the fiery theater of modern politics, few phenomena are as bewildering — and electrifying — as the ironclad loyalty of Donald Trump's followers.

Despite numerous political, legal and personal controversies, Trump is almost as popular as ever. On Thursday, he was hit with a 37-count indictment, which follows a Manhattan indictment, a federal indictment and a court branding him liable for sexual abuse. Looming still are the results of yet another federal investigation and separate Fulton County, Ga., probe.

And yet, Trump’s faithful fan base does not waver.

So, the psychological puzzle is, why hasn’t any of this hurt him? Not only has his popularity not been diminished, it seems that these events may have even strengthened his support.

Remember this classic Trump quote from 2016? “I could stand in the middle of 5th Avenue and shoot somebody and I wouldn't lose voters,” the then-presidential candidate said. Chillingly, this bold proclamation seems to be truer than not, and that should disturb all of us, because that kind of blind loyalty poses a real threat to our democratic values and signals a trend toward authoritarianism.

To get to the heart of this enigma, let's put on our Sherlock Holmes hat and step into the world of psychology and neuroscience. A popular theory from social psychology known as terror management theory will shed some light on this puzzling human behavior.

Terror management theory is more relevant than ever because it provides an explanation for tribalism, which is really at the core of this mystery. The theory suggests that existential terror — which can be triggered by anything that is perceived to pose a threat to one’s existence — is the reason we adopt cultural worldviews, such as our religions, national identities or political ideologies. In an attempt to mitigate our fears, we latch onto philosophies that give our lives meaning and direction in a chaotic world.

But how does this explain tribalism, exactly?

When we're fearful or threatened, we rally around those who share our worldviews. We become aggressive toward those who don't. More alarmingly, perceived threats or existential fear — immigrants, transgender persons, gun grabbing, government conspiracies, humiliation at the hands of "liberal elites" — can stir up nationalism and sway voting habits toward presidential candidates with authoritarian personalities. For example, a study found that when primed to think about their death, American students who self-identified as conservatives showed increased support for drastic military interventions that could lead to mass civilian casualties overseas. Another study found that after the 9/11 terror attack, support for then-President George W. Bush spiked, ultimately resulting in his re-election.

In 2016, an experiment was carried out specifically to see whether existential fear was fueling support for Donald Trump, and that’s precisely what was found.

Then-President Donald Trump gestures to supporters following a campaign rally on October 28, 2020 in Bullhead City, Ariz. Isaac Brekken/Getty Images

One-hundred fifty-two students at the College of Staten Island were divided into two groups. The experimental group was given a series of exercises designed to trigger thoughts about mortality, such as, “Please briefly describe the emotions that the thought of your own death arouses in you” and “Jot down, as specifically as you can, what you think will happen to you as you physically die and once you are physically dead.” The control group was given similar exercises that related to pain and not death.

Later, all participants were given a series of questions designed to assess their support for Donald Trump and willingness to vote for him in the upcoming election. The results show that the people who wrote about death showed increased support for Trump compared to those in the control group, regardless of their political leanings. These findings support Terror Management Theory's prediction that thoughts about mortality shift voters to the right politically, and cause people to favor patriotic leaders with nationalist, xenophobic messages.

Now we can start to make sense of Trump's political invincibility. Viewing Trump as an invincible champion of their worldview, his fans are more than willing to overlook his missteps, especially when the world feels as chaotic as it does right now. In a time of increasing polarization and division, the desire to feel safe can eclipse any number of legal or moral blunders. Seeing him as an unbeatable guardian of their worldviews and identities allows many of his fans to turn a blind eye to his flaws. Not only that, the more he is attacked by those deemed the enemy, the more they will bolster their support for him, even if he stands credibly accused of lying, cheating and threatening national security.

This spells trouble for our democracy. When a leader is viewed as infallible, the very tenets of a fair society — accountability, transparency and checks and balances — risk being undermined. It's essential, then, to try and understand what is happening from a psychological perspective. There may be nothing we can do to drive a wedge between Trump supporters and their political messiah, but we may be able to educate those who haven’t already been radicalized, so that future generations of voters are not susceptible to the same kind of manipulation by politicians looking to exploit our fears. It is only through learning that we ensure the mistakes of the past aren’t repeated. And electing Trump as the president of the United States of America is one mistake we can’t afford to repeat.

Bobby Azarian is a cognitive neuroscientist and the author of the book The Romance of Reality: How the Universe Organizes Itself to Create Life, Consciousness, and Cosmic Complexity. He is also a blogger for Psychology Today and the creator of the Substack Road to Omega. Follow him on Twitter and Instagram @BobbyAzarian.

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