I have not written on this blog for three months. With the insanity and vitriol around COVID-19 mask protests and the presidential election denunciations, it just didn’t seem that the effort to write a cogent article would make enough difference to be worthwhile. Now that Donald Trump’s refusal to accept his electoral defeat is not decreasing even several weeks after the election, I’ve decided it’s time to buckle down and comment.
In a recent book, The Dangerous Case of Donald Trump, 27 mental health experts concluded that Donald Trump has several severe personality disorders that make him dangerous. I summarized the book beginning with this article, but I would encourage everyone to read the book. Trump has malignant narcissism, a paranoid personality, a sociopathic personality, and an authoritarian social dominator personality (see more detail). His public behavior demonstrates that he dehumanizes, bullies, lies, and is misogynistic, racist, and self-aggrandizing. Many of these malignant character flaws began very early in Trump’s life making it extremely unlikely that he will change. However, none of this would be dangerous to America if it were not for his election as president by his fanatically zealous admirers.
What will it take for people to see Trump’s dysfunctional and dangerous character traits? Trump appeals to and manipulates people who are authoritarian followers . These misguided, unenlightened, gullible individuals are truly dangerous to our democratic nation. Many of them are not stupid. They just don’t think critically. They have an inordinate desire for certainty, security and control. A democracy requires a well-informed public. It thrives on a diversity of opinions and the freedom to express them, but citizens must be well enough educated to make logical, reasonable decisions and to distinguish fact from fiction.
It is truly terrifying that almost 74 million people voted for Trump this year. In spite of losing by about 7 million votes and by 74 electoral college votes, many of his voters continue to deny that Trump lost the election. Trump’s team has lost 59 out of 60 legal challenges, including one to the US Supreme Court. Top election officials in EVERY state have testified that the election was fair. The persistence of such delusional thinking by his supporters is shocking. I have personal experience with how unremitting a delusion can be, even in the face of overwhelming, undeniable evidence presented by a trained professional, but that is in someone with a diagnosed mental disorder. I would not expect it in so many ordinary citizens.
Trump and his most rabid, threatening supporters seem like violent gang members. They instill understandable but excessive fear in normally reasonable people. They seem truly ruthless because they feed off of and feel justified by their mob comrades. Many of them evidently feel oppressed and defeated by their life circumstances. They eagerly seek someone to blame besides themselves. Their fear is often converted to anger and violence focused on anyone seen as “other” – different racially, ethnically, politically. Followers seek out leaders they see as strong and powerful, even tyrannical. Trump is a master at exploiting those preconceptions. He has been a racist and bigot all his adult life, and he appeals to and promotes those prejudices in others. He promises to protect them from their fears (build a wall, stop immigration, return to a safer America–MAGA, etc.).
According to decades of research by psychologist Dr. Bob Altemeyer, authoritarian acolytes readily submit to authority, view the world as dangerous, think illogically, endorse inconsistent ideas, maintain double standards, are blind to their own self-righteousness, are profoundly ethnocentric, maintain dogmatic certainty, tend to be religious fundamentalists, and resist recognizing these descriptions in themselves. On the good side, most want to be normal and to fit in. It’s helpful to expand their association with diverse people by finding some common ground to work on a common cause, by encouraging higher education and non-discrimination laws that provide more diverse contacts, and by modeling healthier behaviors and attitudes for them.
Dr. Altemeyer has found that “Social Dominators,” such as Trump, want you to be disgusted with politics, to feel hopeless and to be out of their way. They want democracy to fail, they want your freedoms stricken, they want equality destroyed as a value, they want to control everything and everybody, they want it all. And their army of authoritarian followers will try to make it happen, if you let them. Research (and our recent election) shows most people are not in this army. If you are the only person you know who grasps what’s happening, then you’ve got to take leadership, help inform, and organize others.
How do you tell the difference between a lie or conspiracy theory and the truth? First, learn to manage your fear. We do not think clearly and rationally when afraid. Looking for someone to blame and attack is not the best choice. Fear-based violence is not a good solution.
Learn to be skeptical and to live with uncertainty. As Dr Valerie Tarico says, “I would rather live with unanswered questions than unquestioned answers.” We all have false beliefs, but rational people change their beliefs when presented with contrary evidence. Demand evidence for any claim. Do not use lack of evidence as proof of the cleverness of a secret, all-powerful force. When someone asserts that they have information that no one else has or that is being suppressed by powerful agencies, be skeptical. When someone claims to be the only one who can solve your problem, be skeptical, especially if their solution has a price. The most powerful test of a claim is what would disprove it. If there is nothing that would disprove a claim, be VERY skeptical. Conspiracy theories claim to be irrefutable. All contrary evidence is argued to be further proof of the cleverness of the conspiracy. False information is often said to be widely accepted – “Everyone knows X, Y, Z.”
According to Politifact, Trump has lied more frequently and more consistently than any US president in recent history. Even before Trump was elected, he claimed that Obama was not a US citizen and, therefore, not eligible to be president. He has also claimed that climate change is a hoax. He has repeatedly said that he has the corona virus under control, starting with his very first statement about the virus, and that the US is rounding the corner in the COVID-19 pandemic in spite of 300,000 COVID deaths. Ignoring those lies has led to dangerous lies about election fraud, undermining of confidence in our democracy and elections, and violent threats by Trump supporters against election workers.
Pay close attention to any pattern of lies that are provably wrong. Trump claimed that his inauguration crowd was “a million and a half people.” He also said it was “almost raining” but then “God looked down and said ‘we are not going to let it rain on your speech.'” He said the rain stopped as soon as he began giving his inaugural speech. Photographic evidence showed both statements were wrong. Trump’s crowd was obviously smaller than Obama’s inauguration crowd or the crowd at the Women’s March. Rain started as Trump began to speak and continued throughout his speech.
Anyone who refuses to ever apologize or admit a mistake or a failure cannot be trusted. Trump’s business failures include his university, airline, magazine, steak business, Taj Mahal Casino, a luxury travel site, and many others. He was proven completely wrong on the Central Park Five crime in 1989. DNA evidence and a confession by the guilty person exonerated the five boys wrongfully convicted. Trump has never apologized for his role in convicting them in public opinion nor admitted he was wrong. He also never admitted he was wrong about Barack Obama’s birth place and US citizenship.
Other signs of prevarication include incessantly using superlatives for your own accomplishments – biggest, greatest, best, tallest, most beautiful, etc. Also, describing whatever group is being disparaged with the word “big” – “Big Pharma,” “Big Agriculture,” “Big Government” – is a red flag for propaganda. Using supposedly “Anti-Establishment” sources because they provide “alternative sources of truth” is another red flag for dubious claims.
Trump has so much power over others because he fights viciously with no regard for civility and because so many of his devoted followers prefer mindlessly following a leader to thinking for themselves. His disciples are profoundly ethnocentric and strongly associate with people with whom they agree. Many grew up in families that emphasized “us versus them.” They strongly agree with leaders who say what they want to hear regardless of solid evidence of insincerity or contradictory statements. That makes them much easier to con and lie to. That has allowed Trump to become more and more careless with the truth. He has learned that he can say the first thing that comes to his mind, regardless of anything he said before. Dogmatic followers agree with the statement, “There are no discoveries of facts that could possibly make me change my mind about the things that matter most to me.”
Our democracy is withstanding one of the greatest assaults in its history. Enough people maintained their democratic principles and acted as intelligent citizens that we outnumbered the extremists by at least 7 million people in the election. But this was too close for comfort, and it followed four years of nearly devastating tyranny. We must do better at teaching critical thinking and challenging people who do not think rationally.