Sheila Markin is a former Assistant US Attorney. She helps people to understand in plain English what is going on in US politics today. Subscribe to the blog so you don’t miss a post!
We have watched the “rise” of Trump from the time he descended the escalator at Trump Tower and began his campaign for presidency, insulting and assaulting anyone in his way. A masterful brander and the ultimate “mean girl”, he has used Twitter as a weapon and still does. His campaign rallies have had an undercurrent of violence, revenge and grievance. His loudmouth exhortations and mean jokes deeply resonate with his followers. They have cheered when they heard “Lock her Up!” and laughed at thinly veiled attacks on minorities and women. Trump continues to incite his cult followers at rallies. There is a deeply felt synergy between Trump and his audience at these events. He has created a bond, an unbreakable bond, with those people who are his cult followers. They will never leave him. Even if he shoots someone on Fifth Avenue. They would, instead, make excuses for him, claiming, “That sonofabitch got in the line of fire! as Trump was minding his own business shooting his weapon on the streets of New York, which is his Second Amendment right, damn it!” To the minds of his followers, it would be the fault of the victim if Trump’s shot happened to kill him. “That guy should have ducked faster”, they’d say.
For those of us who disapprove of Trump (which is currently clocking in at 53% of the electorate) one of the most baffling aspects of Trump and his cult followers is why they cling to him. Why do they do this? There is robust debate on Twitter and in Facebook groups about whether Trump voters would ever change their minds about him.
To us he looks like a version of Hitler. The Zero Tolerance policy at the border looks a lot like Nazi concentration camps. Most Americans see the resemblance. And for good reason. Trump embodies a paranoid gestalt. We need to unpack this concept and the implications for our politics.
What is a paranoid gestalt? It is a pattern of group behavior that arises from traits that are baked in the cake, deeply embedded in us as human beings. All people are born with a natural potential to feel fear. We fear being hurt. We fear falling or getting bitten. We must look out in life for what could “get us”. Our fears begin when we are children. When people feel powerless and afraid, people also feel they could be victimized and they look for something or someone who will protect them.
What we are afraid of can be experienced by us individually and can also be experienced as a group phenomenon. A group that is feeling threatened is preprogrammed and ready to respond as an aggrieved in-group. That aggrieved in-group which is afraid for its own well-being, will hunt for an object of suspicion, a “paranoid object”. This objectified group is feared because it is deeply believed to be destroying what the other group holds dear.
Make America Great Again is a thinly veiled call to return to an era when white people were in power, unchallenged by a changing culture: the browning of America, the women’s movement. The solution to the problem experienced by a paranoid group is obvious—ward off, “kill off” the “evil”, get rid of the bad group that threatens us or at least suppress them. We are good. They are bad. If we rid ourselves of the bad in the world, we will return to our happy place and regain inner peace- a utopian vision.
Zero Tolerance at the border is an example of the effort to defeat and ward off the “bad”. When immigrants are emotionally and physically hurt, children taken from parents, caged, warehoused in internment camps, and their belongings stripped from them, including the intentional cruelty of taking their little beloved stuffed animals, or the religious objects of faith these people have carried on their perilous journeys for months, that causes those of us who are not in the paranoid group to feel shock and rage because we have empathy for the immigrants seeking asylum. We don’t experience the immigrant as a bad or threatening group. But Trump’s followers do.
When immigrants are abused, Trump’s core paranoid in-group feels a sense of victory in their war to rid their world of the paranoid object, the “evil” that they have identified. Every pain felt by the objectified group gives the paranoid in-group a shot in the arm. Trump’s followers are getting what they want. Revenge. A greater sense of safety. For them it is “get back time”. They feel at least temporary relief from their existential terror.
In Donald Trump we have the perfect leader for a paranoid group of people who want a strongman to protect them and also beat up on the “bad guys”, namely, the rising tide, the browning of America the uppity women who want to control their own lives and have access to abortions, so they can time when they have their families, or the inner-city blacks who are characterized as gun toting MS-13 thugs.
Trump is the perfect paranoid group leader because he himself is paranoid, feeling aggrieved and misunderstood, yearning for revenge and wanting to “get even” with his enemies (the press, Hillary Clinton, Barack Obama). He shares the deeply felt angst of the older white man in American who is losing his grip on life and his position of power. Trump is himself a member of this paranoid group and has the narcissism and grandiosity to want to be the leader of it as well.
According to accounts of Trump’s childhood, he was raised by a mean and nasty father who humiliated him. That dynamic is a set up for the child growing up with a deep psychological wound and a desperate need for approval. Trump was also mocked by the New York elites. New York banks eventually refused to fund his real estate projects because of his mismanagement and failures. Trump eventually turned to Russian oligarchs for funds, which led to Trump becoming the Russian go-to guy for money laundering (already widely reported by journalists, but not yet prosecuted.) Trump has a built-in affinity for Russians because they accepted him, whether or not he is also compromised by Putin. Russians are also white people. They are not existential threats to Trump and his followers because they are not part of the scary “out” group that is evoking their paranoid existential fear.
Trump’s cult will never leave his side. They need him as much as he needs them. They profoundly need Trump to feel safe and vindicated. He desperately needs them to approve of him and feed his enormous narcissistic hunger.
It is unlikely that Trump or his base have any real understanding of the psychology that is driving this love affair. The Trump people I have met and seen interviewed are not evidently self-aware and do not value self-reflection.
What are the political ramifications of this reality?
First, there is no way that core Trump’s followers with a psychology that meshes with the need for a paranoid out-group to objectify will change their minds about Trump. We see them as having gone to the dark side. They see progressives as potential objects of their paranoia, namely, another despised out-group, the café latte drinking elites who are ruining the world for them. This is a depressing state of affairs, but it is our current reality. We need to acknowledge that it is a waste of time to try to court this group of people. Give up on that fool’s errand. Ignore them. We will have to co-exist with them.
Second, once we understand the psychology of the Trump base, we can also make some predictions about the best way to win elections in 2018 and beyond (because this group will still be with us until they either die off or have experiences that alter their underlying fears- like interacting with those in the feared group who they can experience as non- threatening which might help tamp down the paranoid fantasy.)
The best way to beat Trumpism is to
1) Get out the vote of the 72% of Americans who are Independents and Democrats. Independents make up the largest group of voters at around 44%. They are not wedded to Trump the way the paranoid hate-group followers are. We can talk with them about their needs and how to meet their needs.
2) Do nothing to interfere or get in the way of Trump’s unraveling which is happening in real time before our very eyes. He is going to explode.
Trump has taken off his presidential training wheels at this point. He has chucked the original team of mature advisors who were going to hold him in check and speak truth to power. He no longer listens to Mattis, Kelly or Coats who are still there but whose days may be numbered. He has surrounded himself with “yes” men. He is doing whatever he damn well pleases because he is a “stable genius” who knows better than anyone else.
We are beginning to see the fall-out from “Trump undiluted”. As predicted by Kelly, Trump is bringing himself ever closer to his own downfall. The folly of meeting in private with Putin in Helsinki, inviting Putin to come for a lovely visit in the Fall to see a military parade so that Trump can show off his power to his Vladdy, (yes, Vladimir IS Trump’s stand in father figure who approves of him, finally! Unlike those latte drinking Europeans and Canadians), the folly of dissing our NATO allies, and the folly of considering Putin’s inspired idea of interrogating American diplomats like Michael Mc Faul, who criticized Putin—all of this is causing a reaction even from some Republicans who seem to have awakened from a deep deep slumber. Suddenly the Senate comes together to vote 97 to 2 to support NATO. Suddenly the Senate comes together to vote 98 to 0 to reject Putin’s interrogation of Ambassador McFaul. Why did this happen? Because Republicans are getting more worried about the deep damage Trump is doing to their brand in the run up to the mid-terms.
Many Independent voters (not in the Trump paranoid haters cult) whose ranks have grown as more and more Republicans leave the Republican Party (see my posts about the GOP melting like the Wicked Witch of the West and 90% approval means 25% of the electorate), are not happy about Trump’s reckless decisions. They are beginning to experience the effects of his idiotic tariffs not to mention the disaster this administration is making of their health care. We are beginning to see more interviews on CNN of farmers, union workers, and lobster fishermen who are throwing in the towel on Trump. They had hoped he would be an improvement. They can see that he is not.
In addition, the next few weeks should be very eventful. Paul Manafort’s trial will begin or he will decide to turn state’s evidence. Michael Cohen will probably be charged. We will probably learn more about the content of other taped conversations between Cohen and Trump. We will be hearing more about the Russian invasion of our country using the NRA as a conduit as the Maria Butina trial gets under way. And Mueller’s report is probably right around the corner. All of this is part of the coming Trump train wreck. Stand by. Take cover. This guy is gonna crash and burn.