Sunday, December 29, 2019

Why Do They Follow Him So Blindly?

A friend of mine posed a question to the hive mind: is it possible to change someone's mind about donald trump? That is, can you persuade a trump supporter to become NOT a trump supporter?

The short answer? No.

The long answer? No, because of tribalism.

Regardless of your feelings about trump, it must be admitted that he knows his audience and is a master at manipulating that audience. His support has gone from endorsing a politician to something resembling a cult. He is able to tell these people anything and have them believe him. Not just believe him, but adhere to him with the same ferocity and devotion usually afforded to religious extremists.

In other words, if you wanna piss him off bigly, tell him that his tactics are virtually identical to those used by ISIS: relentless demonization and dehumanization of those you perceived to be enemies of the cause, demanding that his version of ... well, anything ... be accepted as absolute truth regardless of whether or not it actually reflects reality, and create a climate of unending panic.

So let's take a look at these three factors and see how he has employed them.

Demonization and dehumanization
One need only look at his Twitter feed to see this in action. Anyone who is not trump-approved is never addressed by their true moniker, they are given demeaning nicknames. Sleepy Joe (Biden). Crazy Nancy (Pelosi). Crooked Hillary (Clinton). Lyin' Chuck (Schumer). As tempting as it is to dismiss these as nothing more than infantile insults, they are really shaping a narrative in the minds of his followers: that these people are all "less than" in some form or fashion and therefore can be dismissed as being unserious in some way.

What is surprising about this is just how malleable and fluid all this is. Recall during the 2016 election, trump launched attacks against Ted Cruz (who was at that point a front-runner for the Presidential nomination): he was given an diminutive appellation ("Lyin' Ted"); he disseminated a (completely baseless) conspiracy theory that Cruz's father had actually been involved with the Kennedy assassination; he attacked Heidi Cruz for, essentially, being less attractive than Melania (purely subjective ... I'm sure Ted thinks his wife is gorgeous). Fast forward to the present, and Cruz is one of trump's most ardent defenders in the Senate -- despite calling him a classless bully on the campaign trail -- and trump views him as a loyal consigliere.

Strange bedfellows, and all that.

The approach used by trump, and the approach that is embraced uncritically by his followers, is that anyone who opposes him is less than human and is therefore fair game for any sort of attack. Where this becomes a problem is that his followers can take this to extremes (the Charlottesville attacks being the most public example), and he will give either implicit or explicit endorsement of these actions.

Malleable truth
During the vice-presidential debate in 2016 between Mike Pence and Tim Kaine (and yes, I actually had to look that up; shows how memorable he was), Pence was asked by the moderator how he would respond to trump's characterizations of Mexicans as "rapists, bringing crime, bringing drugs." Pence's response?

"He never said that."

Even though there was a video record of trump saying precisely those words, his followers accepted Pence's statement as undeniable truth ... and (often successfully) shouted down and bullied anyone who would dare contradict this.

This sort of denial of reality in favor of the leader's preferred opinion of it is but one indicator of the fierce tribalism present among trump's supporters. It has become a part of the identity of his adherents: they are trump supporters. Not in action or words, but in being. It is not enough to for one to say that they support trump, or to attend a rally here and there, or even to vote for him. In order to be part of the tribe, one must accept his version of the truth, his vision of reality, without question ... even merely postulating an alternative is enough to be branded an outcast, one of the "deep state."

Constant panic
A common refrain heard from the trump universe is that someone "not trump" is going to take away/destroy/invalidate something dear to his supporters. The actual "what" of this changes on a daily, sometimes hourly basis, based on the whims of trump himself, but the pattern holds regardless. Democrats are going to take away your guns. Liberals are trying to take away Christmas. Illegal immigrants are stealing your jobs. None of these are objectively true, but in trump's world truth doesn't matter as much as effectiveness... in this case, agitating his supporters enough to get behind his latest cause du jour.

In the past couple of months it has been impeachment. During the hearings in front of the House Intelligence Committee, Republican members did not ask any substantive questions. Instead, they attempted to follow the trump playbook: deny the wrongdoing happened, insist that whatever happened has been deliberately misinterpreted by Democrats as a way to "undo the election," attack the credibility of the witnesses; gum up the works with legitimate-sounding but completely baseless complaints about process. However, because these people are not donald trump and do not have his talent for reckless demagoguery, they ended up sounding ridiculous: Jim Jordan yelling the same completely baseless points over and over again; Matt Gaetz quite literally screaming at witnesses; Devin Nunes' bizarre and unhinged conspiracy theories.

All of these tactics are designed to accomplish one thing: keep supporters in a state of perpetual fear. The reason for this is simple: if they weren't constantly shrieking at shadows, some of the downright insanity of some of these things might start filtering through.

Take the stance regarding impeachment. One narrative that has been pushed repeatedly -- by Representatives, by Senators, by Fox News, by trump himself -- is that it was Hillary Clinton with whom the Russians were actually colluding. The way this line of reasoning goes is this: Hillary brings Putin into the election to rig it in trump's favor, causing her to lose, thus giving her -- and, by extension, all Democrats -- the excuse she needs to impeach him.

Any reasonable person looking at this is going to instantly scoff, and with good reason. It is not often that someone spends millions of dollars, commits numerous violations of campaign finance laws, and violates the Constitution of the United States, expressly for the purpose of losing an election so that they would have an opportunity to destroy their opponent after he takes office. This line of (for lack of a better term) "reasoning" is so insane, so patently ludicrous, that it is impossible to conceive of anyone taking it seriously.

(Or, as an acquaintance of mine once said, "It's all bullshit. I could lose an election for absolutely free, and the Russians wouldn't have to get anywhere near it.")

It is a testament to the blind fervor with which his adherents attend to his every whim that there are over 30 million people in the United States who believe this is a valid theory ... and what's more, anyone who states differently is an enemy. Not a "difference of opinion," not an "opponent." An enemy. As in, "one who must be destroyed in a very literal sense." And it is because of this fervor that we have seen things like a trump supporter trying to send mail bombs to Democratic lawmakers, or the resurgence in white nationalist rhetoric, among other things.

To be fair, these incidents were outliers in and of themselves, but the fact that trump either did not condemn these actions at all, or mounted at most a tepid response, is very telling.

Unfortunately, for so many of trump's adherents their personal identity has become so intertwined with their support for him that renouncing him has become tantamount to renouncing the self.

Equally unfortunately, there is no easy solution for this. For those who truly believe in trumpism, even undeniable, concrete evidence of his wrongdoing (such as was obtained in the Intelligence Committee testimony) is not enough to sway them -- they will instead look for any possible pretense to deny the validity of it. Even someone like Gordon Sondland, who gave trump $1 million for his inauguration and is, by any other measure, a textbook supporter, is now part of the "witch hunt" because he dared contradict the account put forth by trump -- even though the account put forth by trump is almost complete fabrication.

So no, we cannot change someone's mind and make them no longer a trump supporter. There could be a videotape of trump beheading an immigrant child and urinating into the neck stump, with the entire Supreme Court as eyewitnesses, and trump himself could go on national television saying he did it, and he would not lose one whit of support.

It is more than a bit frightening that one of the only true statements trump said during the 2016 campaign (and, for that matter, since) is that "I could stand in the middle of 5th Avenue and shoot someone and I wouldn't lose any votes."

Sadly, this is as true, if not more so, than when he said it in 2016.

I gotta lie down.

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