Martin Westerman 5/21/20
The white Christian men in charge of our governments and corporations have failed the white Christian men who voted for them and bought their products. Now, those voters and buyers are angry with – people who aren’t Christians, and aren’t white Christians.
They’re proud to not connect cause and effect. Kelly Ann Conway introduced the world to “alternative facts” on NBC’s “Meet the Press,” January 22, 2017, when she defended Sean Spicer’s lie about the crowd size at Trump’s inauguration. Whether they’re in the Trump inner circle, Administration or Congressional sycophants and hangers-on, or MAGA hat wearers, they assert: “Trump didn’t say that. And if he did, he didn’t mean it. And if he did, he was just being sarcastic. And if you thought he was serious, you didn’t understand. And if you did, it’s no big deal. And if it is, others have said worse.”
“Trump’s tendency to deny his past statements has become more glaring during the coronavirus” reported CNBC’s Kevin Breuninger and Christina Wilkie on May 1, 2020.
“Everything is an act for him,” tweeted Leah McElrath March 11, after Trump’s COVID address. “He has no sense of the gravity of the situation because he lacks the capacity for empathy.” He only seems able to mimic what is socially appropriate. Trump complains that he can’t lead rallies during COVID. “…apparently it hasn’t occurred to him that his cultists would be endangered if they were crammed into an arena shouting at the top of their lungs, and expressing micro-droplets all over each other in the process.” (Joshua Holland, Alternet, May 20, 2020)
Feb. 6, 2020, journalist Eric Black wrote he was horrified that “selective perception” and “confirmation bias” have replaced objectivity in official pronouncements and news reporting. “There’s a part of human nature that, rather than wanting to know what’s accurate and true, wants to believe certain things, whether true or not.” Black considers Donald Trump a genius “in understanding that feature (or bug) of human nature.”
From the moment Trump won the Republican nomination July 19, 2016, researchers have been analyzing conservative and Trump supporter brains and behaviors. They echo studies done all the way back to the end of World War II, about how “normal” people could have supported fascist and Nazi governments, let alone gone to war for them. All authoritarian governments since, including Trump’s have been morally- and ethically-challenged. But it’s not about politics or logic, it’s about values.
Trump’s base “recognizes his legitimacy and follow him not because of who he is or what he does, but because of what they think he believes — and what they think that says about them,” wrote Derek Newton (Feb. 11, 2018, NBC’s THINK). Studies show this attitude dates all the way back to the rise of fascists and Nazis in the 1930s.
Trump supporters are like members of religious and fraternal organizations, says Andrew Gray, emeritus professor of Public Sector Management, Univ. of Durham (UK). They operate in the “communion mode,” where people recognize legitimate authority “based on an appeal to common values and creeds, and shared frames of reference.” They only consider actions “legitimate” if they’re consistent with communal values.
In contrast, the “contractual mode” is based on an agreement that sets out obligations and rewards; the “command mode” is based on a rule of law “emanating from a sovereign body, and delivered through a scalar chain of superior and subordinate authority.”
Communion governance relies on regular in-person meetings, call and response rituals (like Trump rally “Lock her up!” and “Drain the swamp!” chants) and shared experiences. Their members tend to associate and bond only with people similar to them, and view outsiders with suspicion and hostility. Their group bonds are stronger than those between followers and a leader because, where politics are transitional, values are long-lasting.
That makes persecution a key unifier (e.g., “the war on Christmas,” attacks by the “deep state” or “fake news media”). When members face opposition, or see an attack on their leader, they take it personally, as an attack on themselves and their values, and on their values leader – whether it’s on Trump, or the pastor holding religious services vs. virus lockdown. Any threat or assault by larger, stronger forces on the group increases their commitment to both group and leader. When reporters ask, “Do you still support Trump?” they hear, “Do you still support your own values?”
How to break the communion cycle? Betrayal. When the group feels betrayed, they turn on the betrayers. Newton wrote that inroads to Trump’s base are more likely to succeed if they avoid the supporters’ values or symbols, and find ways to target Trump for betraying them. The Lincoln Project Republicans are taking this tack.
Gray notes that followers who no longer see their values reflected by a communion leader become receptive to finding a new one. So it’s pivotal to demonstrate that Trump no longer does (or never did) share his followers’ values.
Unfortunately, other leaders who emerge to pull supporters away from Trump’s base may have to reflect shared values more passionately, by showing that Trump isn’t tough enough on immigrants, or terrorists and/or trade. And any values-based replacements for Trump must come from within the structure, not outside of it, given the group’s insularity and resistance to outside criticism. Followers must believe that the leader believes in the shared values more than Trump.
Fortunately, even if the new leader(s) emerge, it’s unlikely that the replacement(s) could take over the Trump base as much as fragment it.