Election 2016

Explaining the Cult of Trump

Trump has an instinctive sense for manipulation: he uses fear to make crowds become putty in his hands.

Photo Credit: Gino Santa Maria / Shutterstock.com

Fear makes for bad decisions. So says a body of research in social psychology called terror management theory (TMT), which was brought to my attention by Sheldon Solomon at Skidmore University. Dr. Solomon and his co-authors theorize that the awareness of death and perceived threats to well-being create a need to reinforce self-esteem and social status. An “any port in a storm” effect takes over at moments of real or perceived threat in which critical thinking is suspended in favor of quick solutions that may be without merit.

When researchers show experimental subjects a photo or phrase that reminds them of terrorism, war or death, this triggering actually changes voting preferences and political opinions among the study participants, as confirmed in several experiments going back to the early 1970s. Specifically, research subjects preferred authoritarian figures over more knowledgeable or skilled politicians when they had previously been primed with visual or verbal cues (photos of bombings say, or World Trade Center or 9/11) related to violence or threat, whether the politicians were real-life political figures or invented ones. Solomon and his colleagues apply terror management theory in a forthcoming chapter in a book explaining the Trump election.

The Trump rally speeches go through a litany of perceived threats to the American worker: the immigrants taking “our” jobs, the terrorists who want to kill “us,” the media who want to silence “us." Trump is no social psychologist, but he has an instinctive sense for crowds: the purpose of this rhetoric is to tear down the listener to a point of malleability, at which point, he “alone” supplies the answer (as in his “I alone can fix it” speech at the Republican National Convention in the summer).

He drowns the listener in fear and then reaches out a helping hand from the threat that he, himself, has conjured. This verbal waterboarding breaks down the Trump fan into a panicked rage and then channels that fear and anger into the pretend solution of a giant wall or jailing Hillary Clinton, which not incidentally, also places Trump at the center of power and control over his fans’ lives. Fear actually short-circuits rational thought and gets the rally-goer to accept the strongman as the only way to avoid the perceived threat.  

Note the “in” group and “out” group structure of Trumpian discourse. The in-group is implicitly or explicitly white, straight, male, and Christian, or holders of what Ta-Nehisi Coates recently called in the Atlantic, a “badge of advantage.” Others may be accorded honorary status (there are black, female Trump supporters), but only through identification with or fealty to the true members of the in-group. Out-group members, those who do not hold the badge or do not appropriately wield it (“cucks” in the lexicon of the alt-Reich), must be subjected to extreme vitriol, thus reinforcing in-group membership on the part of the aggressor. The crisis inflicted on the psyche of the Trump supporter is magically solved by the ceremonial or ritual humiliation of the out-group. The litany of the Trump rally, “Lock her up!” and “Build the wall,” its call-and-response, re-affirms and celebrates membership in the cult of whiteness/America/Trump.

Any form of difference can be morphed into hatred and channeled for religious or political ends. The Troubles in Northern Ireland pitted Catholics against Protestants. The Rwandan genocide turned Hutus against Tutsis. In every conflict, the parties are not equal in power: there are winners and losers in everyday violence and massacres alike. Both sides suffer, but one side suffers disproportionately. When Trump says that he is a winner and will make his followers winners, he refers to longstanding, indeed founding American prejudices, especially against immigrants, indigenous people, African Americans, and Jews. Yes, there will be trouble, there will be violence, but the Trumplings will be “winners,” i.e. perpetrators and not victims. The implicit threat here means that you must either support Trump or prepare to be violated.

All of this is in keeping with American tradition, in which some people have always been more equal than others. And yet gains have been made in the 20th and early 21st centuries, by women, the labor movement, African Americans, LGBTQ people, indigenous people, and environmentalists. Trump promises to turn back the clock on these gains on any number of fronts, making his sect into the state religion and making his cronies into high priests. By a bait-and-switch, his followers will be left with nothing to show for their fidelity to this religion: in fact, they will be left with less than nothing, because the shell game, the collection plate will take their wallets as well as their wits.

That is to say, unless something major changes.

We can still resist the cult of Trump. Indeed, every person who cares about freedom of religion, freedom of the press, freedom of speech, women’s rights, the natural environment—indeed anything except for corporate profits and the billionaire class—has a duty to oppose this incoming, illegitimate regime in any way possible. We cannot, in the name of a false and undesirable unity, allow the rights of minorities to be trampled, the rights of women to be taken away, the environment to be further despoiled. We have to fight now to stop the racist and misogynist corporate takeover of our government by this toxic death cult. The Republican Party will not resist Trump. The Democratic Party will resist Trump only feebly and half-heartedly.

The people must once again take power into their own hands and unravel the cult of Trump.

As an amateur naturalist, I have often had the chance to observe a phenomenon among birds. When a hawk approaches the nest of a mockingbird, the mockingbirds, although they are much smaller and less powerful, will collectively peck and harass the hawk, driving it away, squawking as they go. The hawk, like a human recoiling from a bee’s nest, forgets its power and flees.

In this dangerous political moment, people of conscience must band together and chase away the hawk of Trump-ism, so that our children and grandchildren will have a livable future. We must replace this faux populism, this cult of power and privilege, with a genuine people’s movement that crosses over various issue-based forms of activism. Our country needs us to be bold, the people of the world need us to be bold, and the earth itself needs us to be bold.

Natural alliances already exist that can shake this government and demand not just reform around the edges but fundamental change (i.e., revolution, yes, that dreaded and idealistic but most necessary word).

We can replace the Star-Spangled Banner—a symbol of oppression, imperialism and racism for many—with the red, black and green of the Pan-African flag, giving that symbol a new iteration. We bring together three distinct movements to divest this country of its obsession with white power, patriarchy and anthropocentrism. Red stands for socialism (democratic for you Bernie fans), which insists upon economic equality. Black stands for the Black Lives Matter movement, which continues the proud tradition of the Civil Rights Movement, yet to reach its conclusion. Green stands for environmentalism, more necessary now than ever, to safeguard the planet's wildlife and preserve clean air and drinking water, to protect the world from the dangers of anthropogenic climate change.

These three strands have the potential to serve as a curative force in the United States, though not without turmoil, struggle and risk. Those who rally behind such a banner will be accused of seditious behavior, as were the abolitionists, the suffragists, the Wobblies, the Black Panthers, and for that matter, Catholics, Jews, immigrants, and pretty much anyone who questioned the status quo in the history of this country. Trump has gone a bridge too far, or several bridges too far, and perhaps the one blessing that comes out of this mess is the stark realization that for too long, our government has been held captive by moneyed interests, under both Republican and Democratic parties. Reform and working within the system only slows the drift toward militarism, misogyny, ecocide, and kleptocracy. The time has come for a reset, and the cult of Trump has provided the occasion and impetus for such a move.  

David Dillard-Wright is an associate professor of philosophy at the University of South Carolina, Aiken. His academic work focuses on animal and environmental ethics, and he has written several books on meditation and natural health.