A Deliberate Political Madness?

There must be a path back from the derangement, delusion and denial in which millions of Americans have ensconced themselves

A Deliberate Political Madness?
Demonstrators gather during a protest outside the U.S. Capitol building in Washington, D.C. (Sipa USA/Alamy, with added illustration by Joanna Andreasson)

Listen to this story


Immediately after the November 2022 U.S. midterm elections, the idea that Americans had “voted for democracy” was being celebrated. The New York Times columnist Michelle Goldberg wrote that it felt good to be brought back to reality after being taken in by the Republicans’ fantasy — and her own dread — about the red wave that was supposedly imminent. Many Republicans blamed former President Donald Trump for the party’s lackluster performance in the midterms; Trump’s star seemed to be fading quickly, and the buzz about Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis as the GOP’s future was ubiquitous.

Fast forward to today. Trump has not vanished and the movement he crystallized is more alive than ever, and moving under its own power. Media pundits and Republican strategists were writing Trump’s political obituary in the aftermath of the midterms, but the fever has not broken. Trump is the front-runner for the Republican nomination and could even return to the presidency in 2025. Not only among MAGA devotees in the U.S. House of Representatives but also in the Ottawa County Commission in rural Michigan, right-wing rage shows no signs of calming down.

But let us be clear: This is a self-consciously minority movement. As Ari Berman, author of “Give Us the Ballot: The Modern Struggle for Voting Rights in America,” has noted:

In the past decade, the GOP has dropped any pretense of trying to appeal to a majority of Americans. Instead, recognizing that the structure of America’s political institutions diminishes the influence of urban areas, young Americans, and voters of color, it caters to a conservative white minority that is drastically overrepresented in the Electoral College, the Senate, and gerrymandered legislative districts.

Minority rule — their aim is to skew the 2024 vote so as to enact their authoritarian agenda. As Colorado Rep. Lauren Boebert made clear in her sermon-like speech to the Conservative Political Action Conference in 2022, this is intended to be white Christian rule.

Boebert was speaking for and from a genuine mass movement. Her effusions reflect a base that encourages and supports such fury. The movement is propelled not by economic needs but by a defiant sense of grievance and resentment, indeed by a rage that seems remote from class interests. From the hostile rejection of public health measures to the “Big Lie” about the “theft” of the 2020 election and the openly phantasmagoric cult of QAnon, this is a movement built on derangement, delusion and denial.

Its features begin to make clear what Trumpism is not. For one thing, despite a knee-jerk determination of many on the left to address the supposedly “real,” class-based, economic sources of Trumpism, its rage never focused on America’s runaway inequality or even deindustrialization. Trumpism was not a working-class protest against becoming downwardly mobile or economically insecure. Nor was its origin, despite the reflexive assumption of many journalists and New York Times readers, explained by asking the patronizing question of how many years of college a person attended.

Instead, members of this increasingly emboldened mass, belonging to no single social or economic class, had various reasons for the alienation and anger that motivated them to follow Trump.

What were those reasons? We learn much about Trumpism’s most militant members in the statistical analysis of the Jan. 6 mob by the Chicago Project on Security and Threats at the University of Chicago, headed by the political scientist Robert A. Pape. Their close study of the several hundred people arrested after the Capitol insurrection reveals the main features and core ideas of the MAGA base. Two essential beliefs motivated the insurrection: that the 2020 election was stolen, and that violence to reverse it is acceptable, even necessary. Equally telling is the demographic analysis of the mob. Roughly 25% of them have college degrees (among the general population 30% have college degrees), and they were neither members of extreme right-wing groups nor especially young. Rather, except for an unusually high proportion of former military and current and former police officers, they belong very much to the mainstream of white America. Among the insurrectionists the researchers found middle-class and, in many cases, middle-aged people without obvious ties to the far right.

The report continued: “They work as CEOs, store owners, doctors, lawyers, IT specialists, and accountants. Strikingly, court documents indicate that only 9 percent are unemployed.” In other words, these people are neither economically nor socially marginal — but they were motivated to storm the Capitol. Also interesting is that they frequently come not from red states but from Biden-voting counties where the proportion of white people is declining. Ideologically, more than anything they tend to believe the conspiratorial “great replacement theory” that Democrats are bringing in nonwhite immigrants to reduce native-born white people to a minority. Other surveys show a high correlation between racist beliefs and the idea that the 2020 election was stolen.

Pape contends that no fewer than 21 million Americans share the belief that the election was stolen and accept that violence is necessary to undo it. This vast group, he writes, “signals the existence of significant mainstream support in America for a violent insurrection,” especially considering that 63% of them agree that “African American people or Hispanic people in our country will eventually have more rights than whites” and 54% agree that a “secret group of Satan-worshiping pedophiles is ruling the U.S. government” — a key belief of the QAnon movement.

The Big Lie, the great replacement theory, QAnon, denial of the pandemic, fear of Black and Brown domination, the fury about mask mandates: What is behind the delusional character of this movement’s watchwords and issues?

Sen. Mitt Romney of Utah was condemning only one aspect of this right-wing derangement when, after the 2020 election — as a virtually lone voice within the Republican Party — he rejected Trump’s Big Lie as “madness.” But by the 2022 midterms, many journalists and commentators came to decry the “craziness” of the election deniers. When Republican members of Congress hectored President Joe Biden during his State of the Union address this past February, it became abundantly clear that Trumpism’s widespread “craziness” has legitimized behavior and perceptions that have redefined what is considered normal.

The National Institute of Mental Health definition of psychosis speaks of “loss of contact with reality.” That is what is happening. The clinical understanding of these behaviors is less important than their social and political meaning, which should be understood plainly at this fateful historical moment. Masses of people, whether unable or unwilling to recognize reality, are substituting nightmarish fantasies generated within their movements, making these into a political force moving millions. However, as Alex Shephard recently pointed out in The New Republic, while their leaders casually promoted falsehoods and opportunistically sought to benefit from the “post-truth” environment that currently prevails in Republican politics, delusions now take on a life of their own, beyond the control of their original instigators. Millions of Americans have become ensconced — or ensconced themselves — in a self-validating right-wing bubble that seems impervious to contrary evidence, and there is no easy path back.

If they are delusional, it is not because they somehow “lose” contact with reality but because they break it off, intentionally. They have become incapable of recognizing reality because they have made themselves unwilling or unable to do so and choose to organize their reality around something else — loyalty to the leader, the bubble of “us” versus “them.” Factual information doesn’t matter; evidence doesn’t matter. It is a movement of people who are going crazy on purpose.

Trump touched a nerve, or better, he focused a mood of alienation and resentment that had been building for over a generation. The election of Barack Obama as president was a turning point, triggering the Tea Party’s call to “Take America Back!” Trump gave these impulses a specific narrative shape with the “birther” chimera — a (literally) nativist crusade fusing anxieties about foreignness, belonging, religion and race — and then took it to the electoral stage with his 2016 campaign for the Republican nomination.

Trump rallies became community gatherings, entertainment events, love fests between the man and his followers, group hate rituals aimed at political opponents (“Lock her up!”), the media (“enemies of the people”) and all those in the “elite” who criticized or made fun of Trump and his people. Trump rallies also became racially coded warnings against Others who are threatening America: drug dealers, rapists, killers and thieves among would-be Mexican immigrants (“Build the wall!”) and terrorists among Muslim and Central American asylum seekers. These were undisguised assertions of “us” versus “them.”

Early on, Trumpism channeled intense hatreds that went beyond the realm of normal politics (conflicts over economic policies and class interests), framing things as “our” way of life being overwhelmed by “them” — referring not just to Black people, Latin Americans, “shit-hole countries,” Asians and Muslims but, perhaps most angering, those other white people — educated, scientific-minded, progressive in outlook, who are welcoming and going to bat for these minorities and foreigners.

Let’s be clear: This is not simply an economic or political disagreement over, say, dividing up the pie, or health insurance, or labor unions, or regulating business, or taxes. For progressives, the slowly consolidating, multiracial liberal majority does not represent a radical left-wing political rupture. Yet many Americans hate it with a passion, along with the Democratic Party they blame for it.

Image from the report “American Face of Insurrection: Analysis of Individuals Charged for Storming the US Capitol on January 6, 2021” issued by the Chicago Project on Security and Threats at the University of Chicago.

Who is this “us” that is most perturbed by this perceived threat? While the University of Chicago study indicates that most Jan. 6 rioters belong decisively to the mainstream — disproportionately as Trump voters living in Biden areas where the white population is declining — many MAGA individuals may see themselves as “left behind,” in the language of sociologist Robert Wuthnow’s 2019 study, “The Left Behind: Decline and Rage in Small-Town America.” The first meaning of this is geographic: Red America consists of a vast land area, 80% of American counties. With nearly half of the U.S. population, it is strikingly distinguished by being far behind the rest of the country in economic growth — in technology, productivity, educational resources and media. The 20% of U.S. counties that voted for Biden, on the contrary, are responsible for over 70% of the country’s economic activity, according to the Brookings Institution Report on the 2020 election. Deindustrializing factory towns, struggling small cities and declining or shrinking small towns, along with rural America in general, have been losing population to the booming areas keyed into higher education, the latest technologies and the global economy. They lack many of the resources and opportunities needed to keep their young people home and attract new residents. As Wuthnow demonstrates, people in these regions think of the rest of America as leaving them behind.

There is of course a class dimension to some of this. American social values also seem to be skewing away from ordinary working people. Particularly those without higher education find themselves increasingly trapped by what the political philosopher Michael Sandel calls “the tyranny of merit.” As much by Democrats as by Republicans, America is increasingly proclaimed a “meritocracy” where the goal is for everyone to compete on a level playing field with everyone else. But what does the enormous increase in the social, cultural and economic weight given to higher education say to the two-thirds of Americans without college degrees? Labor unions once mattered as a way for workers to assert their social and economic value to themselves and society. But today it feels more like isolated and atomized individuals have only themselves to blame for their social irrelevance. Democrats are seen as having abandoned their commitment to a working class whose social contribution they once espoused, as well as to the New Deal’s social-democratic concern for the average American’s material and social well-being. As Sandel points out, the flawed and disingenuous idea that America is a meritocracy has never been more pervasive. But this is not being confronted because the moral and social resources it would take to combat the myth are shrinking.

A sense of not making it in America inevitably takes on a racial meaning. Although Obama’s success seemed to send the message that Americans could rise according to their ability, most Americans simply can’t. The goal of advancing through ability and hard work imposes a tyranny of self-accusation on all those who don’t. Individual success for racial minorities, so important to proving to many Americans that we are on the right track, may provoke feelings of personal failure among less successful white people or a sense that the system is rigged against them.

But lacking the tools to criticize the fetish of upward mobility or the will to demand policies geared toward everyone’s well-being — that is, constructive political anger or class consciousness that could lead to something like a new New Deal — many who felt left out by the Obama-era meritocracy seem able only to nurture racial resentment. Unable to confront issues like material inequality, factory production moving offshore or the economic system’s indifference to their fate, their “us” versus “them” makes them ripe for mobilization around the belief that others have somehow cheated. Thus the deranged response: Obama wasn’t born in the United States. Or no less racist: Take our country back! Or wearing patriotic costumes and evoking the past. Or even crazier: We’re being discriminated against for being white! Or the explosion of gun culture in the face of one mass shooting after another.

This points to the mood of white people in Louisiana’s bayou country, whose lives the sociologist Arlie Russell Hochschild explored before Trump’s election. Waiting patiently for help from what they used to see as their government, they can only see it giving advantages to assertive Black people over themselves, letting them “cut in line” ahead of them. As she writes in her much-discussed 2016 book “Strangers in Their Own Land: Anger and Mourning on the American Right”:

They also felt culturally marginalized: their views about abortion, gay marriage, gender roles, race, guns, and the Confederate flag all were held up to ridicule in the national media as backward. And they felt part of a demographic decline. … They’d begun to feel like a besieged minority.

Fifty years earlier, Southern white Democrats who refused to accept Black equality collectively left the party they held responsible for civil rights and voting rights legislation. They became Republicans, demanded tax breaks for whites-only private schools and opposed policies such as cross-district busing and affirmative action. By 2009, in addition to whatever individual meanings it signaled for many white Americans, the presidency of a Black man, Obama, also held a more ominous political significance. Obama was elected by a multiracial majority including many young people. But his support included few (increasingly embattled) white and Christian conservatives.

Demographic trends show white people becoming a minority by the 2040 or 2050 U.S. census. Their children are already a minority in public schools nationally. Outnumbered and left behind, millions have witnessed these demographic, cultural and economic changes. This helps to explain why so many white people, alienated and isolated, found their way to Trump, a man who clearly did not belong to the sophisticated and articulate urban liberal elite, who shared their alienation, “got” them and indeed professed his love for them.

Among the many who have been left behind and have built up resentment about their treatment and the country’s direction is a distinct and coherent group of white Americans always mentioned “by the way” but rarely given appropriate attention: evangelical Christians. In a sense, rather than being “left behind” by forces beyond their control, they took themselves out of the mainstream by design. They have a long history in America, especially in the South, supporting first slavery and then segregation, denying evolution and opposing secularism. They expanded their presence greatly in response to the upheavals of the 1960s. By the 1980s, with mainstream Christianity dwindling and the evangelicals becoming the majority of white Christians, they entered politics. They were determined to reshape the country as its “moral majority,” the mass base of the Republican Party.

Evangelicals were always opposed to the civil rights and the women’s rights movements, to what they saw as the permissiveness of the youth culture, to homosexuality and gay marriage, to modern science — especially the teaching of evolution in schools — and to secular education that they saw as undermining the inerrancy of Scripture. In the 1970s, opposition to abortion congealed as one of their central causes.

All these rejections of the liberal culture of modernity are significant enough, but just living in a secular society is a source of resentment no less deep. As the COVID-19 pandemic demonstrated, the default authority of scientific reasoning and its role in public health imposes constant demands and humiliations on those who believe otherwise. No one has to be intentionally disrespectful; the facts themselves are disrespectful. They say: Your literal Biblical-based belief is irrelevant during our public health crisis. Thus the various protest signs and slogans about “Freedom” since early 2020. Similarly, the university culture that has become pervasive in modern society, and even more in its meritocracy, allows no authority for biblical literalism or religious dogma.

In 2016, 81% of white evangelicals voted for Trump. Nearly as many did in 2020. And 83% voted for Republicans in the 2022 midterms. In Georgia, which is demographically split between the Old South and one of America’s most rapidly growing urban areas (Atlanta), one-third of voters in the runoff Senate election in December 2022 were white evangelicals.

Overwhelmingly Republican, 88% of them voted for their party’s choice, who just happened to be Herschel Walker, a Black former football star, and against Democratic incumbent Raphael Warnock, a Black Baptist minister. In Georgia and nationally, evangelicals made up over 40% of Trump’s vote in his two presidential runs.

For those who are well off, voting Republican has always been understood as transactional as well as cultural. But what motivates the others? The hatreds and resentments I’ve been discussing, the deep sense of grievance Trump mobilized on Jan. 6, still on display today — these are the defining passions of this chapter in American political history. As I’ve suggested, it’s not what we usually understand as the focused (and rational) anger of workers on strike, or the kind of confident, determined anger we saw among Black South Africans against apartheid. One might imagine that kind of a progressive movement among the millions of Americans who find themselves left behind socially, economically and geographically or who have been sidelined by the “meritocracy” — and many on the left are constantly on the lookout for such a movement. But instead of purpose, righteous indignation or rational demands, the field of opposition has been dominated by hatefulness and violence, rooted in a rage that feels bottomless and misdirected.

At the root of this resentment and sense of grievance, as Philadelphia Inquirer columnist Will Bunch noted shortly after the 2022 midterm elections, is a feeling of impotence. Never in our lifetime, he wrote, “has the hate speech been so open and so over the top, nor has the threat of political bloodshed felt so palpable.” Why is this?

The antisemitism, the homophobia, the violence … this isn’t the American right flexing its muscles out of strength. Quite the opposite. The forces of 400 years of white supremacy culture are like a wounded bear right now — lashing out, and extremely dangerous because its proponents know they are a seriously endangered species.

Endangered culturally, endangered historically, endangered demographically. The threats continue after Obama, and indeed even after Trump. For racist white people, especially for evangelical Christians rejecting the present, what is the way out?

For those in white Christian America who cannot see themselves becoming a minority and cannot accept being “left behind,” Trump himself showed the way. He acted out two paths — the tried-and-true American one of imposing minority rule, which soon mingles with the second one of increasingly loosening any connection with reality. “Stop the steal” starts with lying, then believing lies, and continues by denying reality, then producing new realities, and then living in those realities. The themes mingle and are manipulated by the leadership of the Republican Party as it seeks a solution to its increasingly minoritarian status. The all-out project of right-wing minority rule is a response to racial minorities and their allies becoming a majority, but in America today it is driven by a refusal to accept larger realities of historical and cultural change. Trumpism and the movement it spawned are that refusal, and can stay alive only by becoming more irrational and more violent.

Thus we see an endless variety of manias stirring the grassroots — not only white Christian nationalists but also 2020 election holdouts; anti-vaxxers and anti-maskers; anti-LGBTQ militants besieging libraries; and the make-believe parallel universe of QAnon. Steeped in these derangements, a whole section of society is going mad.

And we know that the issues are too deep, the racist and reactionary forces are too many, with roots that are too strong to be easily defeated or to simply surrender or go away. As Bunch observes, much of this is tied to the 400-year legacy of white supremacy. The “wounded bear” is a minority nationally, even as it manages to dominate many parts of the country. Given my analysis of the sources of its insanity and rage and the profound trends at work, a many-sided and protracted struggle lies ahead over the meaning and direction of American society.

Amid this daunting complexity, the 2022 midterms point us in at least one clear direction of battle. It turns out that in November 2022, despite the fears expressed by Goldberg, Americans were rescued by an unexpected human barrier to the seemingly unstoppable force of right-wing rage: An effective majority among us voted for majority rule. Despite the system’s built-in weaknesses and unfairnesses, and against blatant efforts to undermine it — including people running for office on the “stolen” 2020 election and hinting of violence to come — the rest of us wound up acting decisively in the small way available to us. With the experiences of 2016 and 2020 very much in mind, a majority voting bloc took shape, self-consciously standing in the way of minority rule. Still, this was no time for celebration. We knew that it was too close for comfort and that the next time it could go the other way.

Given America’s racist history, we are still fighting over the meaning of one-person, one-vote governance. Many on the right increasingly reject democracy and talk about a “republic” that legitimizes minority rule. As the rest of the country responds, there will be battles ahead — over voting rights, voter ID laws, voter suppression, gerrymandering and the undemocratic structure and powers of the Supreme Court along with many of its specific decisions. The democratic majority will have to mobilize against the undemocratic makeup of the Senate and the Electoral College. America’s anti-democratic minority is not going away soon — but neither is the democratic majority.

This article was published in the Summer 2023 issue of New Lines’ print edition.

Sign up to our mailing list to receive our stories in your inbox.

Sign up to our newsletter

    Will be used in accordance with our Privacy Policy