Ever since his win in 2016, Donald Trump and his escapades have been an incessant topic of discussion on talk shows and social media. After the initial shock of his election/selection, many of us on progressive Left comforted ourselves with the idea that once his weaknesses and failures became apparent, and he had done enough damage, the “responsible” leaders of society would step in to remove and replace him.
Much to our confusion and dismay then, three and a half years later, we are still waiting for that to happen. Despite our claims to be one of the most enlightened, innovative, wealthy, and powerful nations in the world, we seem paralyzed and powerless to change course — brought to our knees by a malicious, inept, know-nothing in the guise of a 70 year old businessman.
Although Trump has never had majority popular support, he does have a base of loyal followers who seem willing to ride the train down to Hell with him if necessary — and to go to extreme lengths to show their willingness to do so.
This of course puzzles and frightens we “rational”, “reasonable” types on the Left. We tend to conclude such people simply don’t have enough of the right information, or haven’t been adequately educated in the proper modes of thinking and logic. So we endeavor to “set them straight”. Yet it never seems to work.
I have friends who regularly catalog and post each new Trumpian offense and outrage on social media. “See! See! Look what he did/said this time! NOW do you still support him?” And their Conservative friends respond by slapping another “Gun Owners for Trump” bumpersticker on their vehicles.
This situation persists because Lefties are generally looking at the matter through the wrong lens. Being relatively more educated, the Left tends to think of the problem as a lack of information, coupled with faulty reasoning. While that may be true in many cases. the psychodynamics run much deeper. I believe there are two key factors at work: 1) the “sunk cost” principle, and 2) fundamentalism (though not necessarily of the religious variety).
In economics, the “sunk cost fallacy” refers to an investment or gamble that is going badly, yet rather than pull out and cut one’s losses, the investor reasons: “Well, I’ve invested so heavily into this already, that I can’t let that be for naught — therefore I must keep investing.”
There is likely a similar dynamic at work with many diehard Trump supporters. “I’ve put all my chips in with this guy, despite all of the offenses, embarrassments, and outrages. To pull out now will be an admission that I was a fool to make this investment — and further, that all of the criticism and ridicule I’ve endured was deserved.”
One of the most profound observations I’ve heard was made at a conference on the roots of violence, by retired UC Berkeley professor Michael Nagler. He suggested that “fundamentalism is the last way-station before oblivion”.
In other words, for people on the lower rungs of the social ladder; those who may feel inferior, inadequate, fearful, looked down upon, denied opportunity and dignity, who feel hopeless about their lives — when such people find one last thing that may give meaning to their existence, they tend to cling to it with the ferocity of a drowning man. Take that away and the alternative is … well, “oblivion”.
People in such circumstances commonly find that last handhold in religion. Yet fundamentalism does not exist only in a religious context. It can manifest in any discipline (sciences, politics) where principles are embraced purely on ideology — even in the face of contrary evidence.
That is why political Conservatism so often runs alongside religious fundamentalism. In both cases, naive ideals (e.g. “America”) are clung to despite all of the surrounding economic, social, and ecological collapse.
Martin Luther King Jr. once observed that “a riot is the language of the unheard”. The same principle appears to be at work in Trump’s support base. People who feel excluded, disregarded, disparaged, and left behind from the promise of America, now finally have a champion who can express their pain and rage. Someone who can not only force the indifferent “elites” to listen, but can actually make them cry and tremble with fear. The formerly powerless now feel some measure of empowerment.
An Alternative Course
There is a solution to the above, but it does not lie in the direction of shaming, blaming, or “educating” Trump supporters. Nor is it about enacting stricter measures of law, order, and control.
Rather, it is to enact social, economic, and political policies that once again provide the formerly hopeless with newfound hope for a life of security, dignity, inclusion, and opportunity. People are disinclined to be indifferent to or entertained by destruction when they feel a personal stake in the enterprise in question. Why not provide them with one?
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It is becoming clear that the march of civilization has reached a critical fork in the road. One path leads downward to eventual destruction, the other up toward a future that may be too wonderful to presently imagine. Hopefully we will make the right choice.
Originally published at https://www.dailykos.com on June 6, 2020.