Why Donald Trump’s Supporters Stay with Him No Matter What
With the vote of the Electoral College confirming the election result of Joe Biden’s win, many are asking: How do we heal the country? Notably, how do we help the Republican Party break up with the abusive personality that has held the GOP in a cult of personality for the past five years?
Extracting individuals from an abusive relationship or members from a gang or cult involves similar psychological interventions. These are difficult situations because it is not a matter of speaking about facts or appealing to logic. Victims of abuse and cult members are emotionally “hooked” into the relationship or organization, making removal very difficult. This explains why abuse victims so often stay in toxic relationships far longer than they should, given what may be obvious to outsiders about the harm that is being done to them.
The problem begins with the start of the relationship. Abusers and antisocial personalities are often very skilled at emotionally seducing victims into their web of coercion and control. In interpersonal relationships, this is often labeled the idealization phase, or “love bombing,” because the abuser turns on the charisma and charm to make their target feel special and adored. She enjoys the love and attention and bonds with the abuser emotionally. It is usually only later that the emotionally or physically harmful behavior begins, and by then the victim has already invested too much in the relationship to pull out easily.
Donald Trump, of course, loves his rallies because he gets his narcissistic supply, but also because he can make his followers feel special at these events and bind them to him. The chanting of phrases such as, “Stop the Steal,” the flag-waving, and the wearing of paraphernalia all act to bond individuals to the group. In the same way, gangs use “colors”, monikers, tattoos, and initiation rituals to build loyalty. In poor neighborhoods, belonging to a gang can make the initiate feel powerful, included, and unique.
Cult leaders have always used the emotional hook of telling followers that they are in the know and have special knowledge that others do not have. By making an average person feel better about oneself, the leader ensures not only an adoring fan to boost his own emotional needs, but the follower also gets to feel good about oneself. In abusive relationships, this pattern appears when the perpetrator says things like: “No one will love you like I can,” or “Only I can fix things.”
The problem is, this toxic bond makes de-coupling Trump and his MAGA-hat followers more difficult. These are not just voters who lost an election, but they are at risk of losing the feelings of grandiosity and entitlement that assuaged their feelings of inferiority. Giving that up will be like an addict giving up a drug.
This is why the disastrous bungling of a pandemic does not matter. The United States has 1160 times the death rate of South Korea, when we have only 6 times the population, and 5 times the average death rate of the world, which includes all low-income countries with few resources. Still, Trump received votes in larger numbers in 2020 than in 2016.
Cuckolding His Followers
This is also why his attempts to overturn democracy and the will of the people only fire up their support. Trump blitzed the nation with baseless claims that a “rigged election” robbed him of victory, filed five dozen frivolous lawsuits, and incited violence when the Supreme Court rejected his bid to overturn Biden’s victory. Still, they cheer him on, without ever imagining that he is cuckolding them for his benefit, causing them to send him enormous amounts of money and even be ready to go to battle for him.
Those who are especially susceptible to abusers’ luring and predation are those who have been victimized in the past: “the forgotten men and women.” Eventually, the magnitude of the deception conspires with their psychological protection against pain to cause them to avoid seeing the truth. It is much easier to believe that the person to whom one has pledged undying devotion is worthy of such fealty, than to face the fact that one has been defrauded. Psychological abuse is powerful, and perhaps the most pernicious form of abuse, as it takes over one’s agency and critical faculties.
Interrupt a Dysfunctional Cycle
Clinicians often have to break the powerful spell of false reality the abuser has cast by highlighting the negative aspects of the relationship. In the same way, the correct course of action against Trumpism is to interrupt this dysfunctional cycle, not to indulge it. We have both written about the psychological benefits of holding Trump and his co-conspirators accountable through the rule of law. If Trump is brought to justice, he will no longer appear so grand. His followers will be disappointed, but it will break the spell they have fallen under. The MAGA crowd will be forced to acknowledge that they, too, are not so special and part of an inner circle of power and knowledge. Reality may be difficult to face, but it is the first step to recovery and restoration of health.
Merely having Trump out of the White House will help break the spell. In addition, the news media should cease giving him exposure, other than to cover major developments, such as an arrest or court appearance. Disconnecting from narcissistic abusers so that they no longer gain attention and relevance is a primary method of combatting their dangers. Then, emotional support and education will be necessary to prevent former cult followers from latching onto another abuser.
Holding Trump accountable is essential, not just to help prove that the rule of law still matters, but to help release his cult followers from the abusive relationship they are victims of. They may not recognize it now, but they are in an abusive relationship, and it is our responsibility as a country to expose the cult-like arrangement as destructive and dangerous to our citizenry and our democracy.
Harper West, M.A., L.L.P. (harperwest.co) is a licensed psychotherapist, award-winning author and developer of self-acceptance psychology. Both she and Dr. Lee (bandylee.com) spoke at the recent town hall, “The Continuing Dangers of Donald Trump.”