The Mass Psychology of Trumpism

In the minds of his most ardent supporters, the ex-president is both more and less than a person

The Mass Psychology of Trumpism
A digital billboard supporting Donald Trump in Times Square, New York City, in 2016. (Drew Angerer/Getty Images)

Americans today see two contradictory futures looming in the middle distance: In one scenario, Donald Trump is convicted of serious crimes and sent to prison. In the second, he returns to the presidency in 2025.

The urgent uncertainty of it all may be a reason why, in recent weeks, Trump has summoned forth some of the most incendiary rhetoric ever employed by an American presidential candidate. He has called for the execution of the former chair of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. He now urges police to shoot shoplifters. He has begun characterizing his political adversaries as subhuman “vermin” who must be “rooted out.” Parroting the Third Reich while claiming (no doubt truthfully, in this case) that he has never read “Mein Kampf,” Trump has declared that immigrants from Latin America, Africa and Asia “poison the blood” of the United States.

And yet Trump is cruising to a third consecutive Republican presidential nomination, and many national polls show him beating Joe Biden in November. With ominous foreboding, the entire January/February issue of The Atlantic magazine was dedicated to one momentous question: “What if Trump wins?” Jeffrey Goldberg, the magazine’s editor, characterizes Trump as an “antidemocratic demagogue,” one “completely devoid of decency.” If Trump wins again, warns Mark Leibovich, author of “Thank You for Your Servitude: Donald Trump’s Washington and the Price of Submission” (2022), then we Americans will need to let go of the soothing notion that “this is not who we are.”

“Who is ‘we’ anyway?” Leibovich asks. “Because it sure seems like a lot of this ‘we’ keeps voting for Trump.”

How is it possible that a twice-impeached former president facing 91 criminal counts can now be favored to return to the Oval Office? Why do his supporters not recoil when Trump promises to unleash an authoritarian regime as president and to assume the role of dictator on Day One? What explains his enduring appeal?

Questions like these have been raised ever since Donald Trump began to gain political traction in early 2016. Back then he claimed, quite presciently, that he could shoot somebody on Fifth Avenue in New York City and not lose a single vote. Since then, countless observers have puzzled over the unshakable hold he exerts on a vast swath of the American electorate. Many factors — economic, political, cultural, psychological — are surely at play in shaping Trump’s abiding relationship with his supporters.

My argument, as strange as it might sound, is that Trump’s enduring appeal stems from the perception — his own and others’ — that he is not a person. In the minds of millions, Trump is more than a person. And he is less than a person, too.

In 1962, a prominent Harvard psychologist published a scholarly paper titled “The Personality and Career of Satan.” Henry A. Murray examined how, for over 2,000 years, Western theologians and other writers have depicted the mythical figure of Satan, projecting onto him human traits perennially designated as evil.

It is worth noting that Murray’s characterization of Satan bears an uncanny resemblance to the psychological portrait of Trump painted by many psychologists today. A malignant narcissism rages at the core of Satan’s personality. Cast out of heaven for his overmastering pride, Satan wants to be God, resents the fact that he is not God and insists that his supreme worth entitles him to privileges that nobody else should enjoy while undergirding his reign as sovereign of the mortal world below. Wholly self-centered, cruel, vindictive and devoid of compassion and empathy, Satan nonetheless possesses substantial charisma and charm. Completely contractual in his approach to interpersonal relationships, he has perfected the art of the deal, as when, in the Gospel of Luke, Satan tempts Jesus with earthly powers and riches in return for his adulation: “If thou will therefore worship me, all shall be thine.”

Situated in a middle ground between God and human beings, Satan is a liminal figure. He is like a person but not quite a person. For one, he is gifted with superhuman powers of the sort, Murray writes, that children have always imagined they might possess in the furthest reaches of their wish-fulfilling fantasies. But he does not possess certain qualities that adults especially value and recognize as part of the human condition. He lacks wisdom, for example, and love. He is not troubled by a complex inner life, by the doubts, ambivalences and moral quandaries that routinely run through the consciousness of mature humans. He is instead like the modern conception of a superhero. Satan is one-dimensional and mythic, an idealized personification, rather than a fully articulated person.

Donald Trump sees himself in the same way. While Trump insists that he is a force for good rather than evil, he truly perceives himself to be qualitatively different from the rest of humankind. He has often compared himself to a superhero. He has famously described himself as a “stable genius” who has never made a mistake. He is not lying when he makes these outrageous claims, for Trump truly believes them to be true, just as he believes he won the 2020 election.

At the same time, Trump is incapable of describing an inner psychological life or of identifying traces of reflection, emotional nuance, doubt or fallibility. Even though he talks about himself all the time, Trump has never been able to explain his inner world or to narrate stories about how he has come to be the person he is, as frustrated interviewers and biographers have repeatedly noted.

In my book “The Strange Case of Donald J. Trump: A Psychological Reckoning” (2020), I argue that Trump lacks a narrative understanding of himself in time. A well-established line of psychological research shows that human personhood is tied up with narrative and storytelling. People understand their lives as narratives evolving over time. But Trump is the curious exception, in that there seems to be very little by way of a story in his head about who he is and how he came to be. He is instead what I call “the episodic man,” living outside of time in the eternal moment, fighting in the here and now to win the battle at hand, episode by episode, day by day. At the center of Trump’s personality lies a narrative vacuum, the space where the self-defining life story should be but never was. As such, Trump is rarely introspective, retrospective or prospective. There is no depth, no past and no future.

The New York Times television critic James Poniewozik has observed that the “real” Donald Trump is a television character. In trying to predict what Trump will do, Poniewozik cautioned, “The key is to remember that Donald Trump is not a person.” What Poniewozik meant is that Trump’s behavior is not driven by the strategies, motivations and beliefs that we typically attribute to full-fledged people. If you want to gain insight into Trump, ask yourself this: What might happen next on television? What would a TV character do?

Trump played himself as a TV character for 14 seasons on “The Apprentice.” Millions of Americans came to know him through that show, establishing what the cognitive scientist Shira Gabriel and her colleagues have described as strongly emotional “parasocial bonds” with Trump. But even before that, going back to the 1980s, Trump honed his character to play a distinctively Trumpian protagonist in life, so much so that over time he has become a heroic character: Trump is the mighty role and nothing else. You feel it in his presence, as did Tom Griffin, in 2006, after negotiating a real estate deal with Trump in a Scottish pub. “It was Donald Trump playing Donald Trump,” a befuddled Griffin noted afterward. He found the encounter very strange. Indeed, Griffin seemed to experience something like ontological confusion. Did I see the real Trump? Or was he playing a role? The answer to both questions turns out to be “Yes!” That was the real Trump. The real Trump is the role. There is no other Trump.

Trump is like a golden god in his mind and in the minds of many of his supporters: a superhero, able to do things that no other human can do; a warrior who fights furiously to win every battle, completely immersed in the moment. His very identity is the supremely heroic role he plays on TV and in real life. The role is charismatic and mesmerizing, but it is limited, too, as any single role must be, because most people are more than a single role.

Trump loyalist and right-wing provocateur Steve Bannon once described Trump as “the Rain Man of nationalism.” Bannon was referencing the 1988 movie about an autistic savant, played by Dustin Hoffman. Like the Rain Man, Trump may be perceived as deficient in certain basic human aptitudes. By embracing the Trump persona wholeheartedly, Trump implicitly concedes that there are realms of human experience, some of which he may write off as weaknesses, that are completely foreign to him. These include most of the duties of parenthood and close friendships, showing sympathy for others in times of need, expressing fidelity to a cause beyond the self and apprehending complexity and ambivalence in life. As such his personhood is limited, constrained, restricted, incomplete. But no matter, for the Rain Man has awesome special powers — be they godlike or the work of the devil.

An AI-generated image. (The Hartmann Report)

Many of Trump’s supporters perceive Trump the way Trump perceives himself. In their minds, he is a liminal figure, superhuman in some ways but also lacking certain qualities that most people, for better and for worse, possess. A liminal figure who is more than a person, but less than a person, too, may not be subject to the rules and contingencies that pertain to regular people. Conventional norms of rectitude and decency do not apply.

In the eyes of his supporters, Trump possesses extraordinary powers that are wielded for good and against evil. Who cares if he is flawed? So what if he lacks certain distinctively human qualities? What does it matter that he is rude, authoritarian or even a criminal?

Indeed, Trump’s flaws or deficiencies are part and parcel of his wonderfulness. They show that he is the special case for whom exceptions must be made. They may even indicate that he is formed for a special destiny or that he is the instrument of a divine plan.

Donald Trump professes no religious faith. He knows almost nothing about Christianity or any other religion for that matter. He virtually never attends church. He has dedicated his professional life to amassing material wealth and burnishing his fame, bereft of any charitable instincts or sense of the transcendent. Demarcated by three marriages, his personal life reads like a sordid soap opera, filled with sexual scandal and multiple affairs. Nobody has ever mistaken Donald Trump for a choirboy or a righteous man of God.

Yet the man who is arguably the least religious president in American history continues to command supreme support from white evangelical Christians, 84% of whom voted for Trump in the 2020 election. They are his most devoted followers. To the delight of evangelicals, Trump appointed conservative judges who support religious freedom and oppose abortion, and he welcomed evangelical leaders to the table as president, paying them respect and soliciting their views. Trump also shares their worldview — up to a point. He agrees that we live in a fallen world, a dangerous and sinful world full of vicious people. “For all have sinned and come short of the glory of God,” evangelicals believe, quoting Romans 3:23. Trump gave expression to the same sentiment in a People magazine interview back in 1981: “Man is the most vicious of all animals, and life is a series of battles, ending in victory or defeat.”

In a 2019 Fox News poll, 1 in 4 Americans reported that they believed “God wanted Donald Trump to become president.” Even in the first months of his administration, evangelical leaders began to see a higher purpose in the Trump presidency. In a public forum in 2017, the Christian televangelist James Robison told Trump: “You are, in fact, an answer to prayer. … I think you have been designed and gifted by God.” Jonathan Cahn, a charismatic New Jersey preacher and the author of best-selling prophetic books, likens Trump to Jehu, the Old Testament king who led ancient Israel away from idolatry. Cahn argues that Trump, like Jehu, is a “flawed vessel” who is being used by God for purposes that go well beyond Trump’s own comprehension.

Other evangelicals see Trump as akin to the ancient Persian King Cyrus the Great, who freed a population of Israelites even though he was not one of them. Yet others see him as their David fighting against the Goliath of the liberal mainstream. It is good versus evil, the righteous army of God versus the vicious force of the devil. God works in mysterious ways, many Christians believe, choosing the unlikeliest agents for divine purposes. If an unsuspecting virgin can give birth to the son of God, and if Christ’s inveterate persecutor (Saul) can ultimately be transformed into a Christian saint (Paul), then what is to keep God from choosing a crude, self-centered adulterer for yet another divine mission?

Capitalizing on this sentiment, Trump recently shared a video on Truth Social that proclaims, “God made Trump” to be a “shepherd for all mankind.” The video’s narrator intones: “God had to have someone willing to go into the den of vipers, call out the fake news for their tongues as sharp as a serpent’s, the poison of vipers is on their lips. … So God made Trump.”

From the standpoint of many evangelical supporters, Trump’s divine mission is to defend Christianity, and the traditional values and practices associated with it, from the onslaught of godless secularism. It is to restore the United States to its (mythic) Christian identity. It is to fend off the elite agents of modernity — the media, the intellectuals, the deep state, the libs — who denigrate good people of faith. As Tim Alberta writes in his recent book “The Kingdom, the Power, and the Glory: American Evangelicals in an Age of Extremism” (2023), evangelicals feel that they are under siege, that their faith is under assault and their country is being taken away from them. They desperately need a warrior to save the day. In the words of Robert Jeffress, the pastor of First Baptist Church of Dallas, “I want the meanest, toughest son of a gun I can find.” When Peggy Young Nance was asked why she, as a devout evangelical and president of the Concerned Women of America, could, along with her evangelical friends, vote for a brutish man repeatedly accused of sexual predation, she had a ready retort: “We weren’t looking for a husband,” she said. “We were looking for a bodyguard.”

In the apocalyptic battle of good vs. evil, evangelicals have chosen their warrior. “There has never been anyone who has defended us and fought for us, who we have loved more than Donald J. Trump,” proclaimed Ralph Reed, the evangelical luminary and influential political consultant. Evangelicals love Donald Trump because he promises to save them from their enemies. For many evangelicals, their love for Trump may resemble, in some ways, their love for Jesus. While the theology here is complex and manifold, Jesus is also a liminal figure, part God and part man, or perhaps God in human form. Jesus is more than a person, endowed with powers that no person has ever had, as suggested in the story of the resurrection. Christians do not hold Jesus to the same standards they hold other persons. By virtue of his liminal status, Jesus is an exception to all the rules. Evangelical Christians see Jesus as their savior. He is an integral part of the divine plan, the ultimate instrument of God (who happens also to be God). They will never quit loving him.

On the eve of the 2020 election, The New York Times ran a front-page story featuring Jonathan Rempel, a young farmer from Nebraska. Mild-mannered and thoughtful, Rempel told the reporter that Trump’s ascension to the presidency in 2017 ushered in a new chapter for his own life. For the first time ever, Rempel said, he felt a sense of belonging in the United States. Trump made him feel that he was part of something larger, something noble and exalted. Walking through rows of corn, Rempel remarked: “Welcome to my life, where people are good.”

It is well recognized that a key to Trump’s appeal, especially among working-class white Americans, is his ability to channel and give voice to inchoate rage, resentment and grievance. Last spring at a rally in Waco, Texas, Trump told his loyalists: “I am your warrior. I am your justice. And for those who have been wronged and betrayed, I am your retribution!”

But what has often been missed about Trump rallies and about the emotional effect Trump exerts on many of his supporters more generally is the sense of enjoyment and thrill he evokes. The New York Times columnist David French is one of the few observers who has underscored the positive feelings — the folksy fun and silliness, the thrilling sense of belonging — that people often experience at Trump rallies. In French’s words, Trump functions as a “godlike, muscular superhero” who has the magical power to make good people feel good. In his essay “Brand(ish)ing the Name; or, Why Is Trump So Enjoyable?” the anthropologist William Mazzarella employs the French word “jouissance” to convey the same Trump effect, connoting a kind of delicious enjoyment that borders on farce and shamelessness, “the raw, jaded fun of knowingly cultivated outrage, the more cynical the better.”

French suggests that the camaraderie and good feelings sit side by side with expressions of anger and hate, as when the crowd breaks out into “Let’s Go Brandon,” which is code for “Fuck Joe Biden.” Yet even this obscene invective is often uttered in a light-hearted way, as if it were a school chant at a college football game. Mazzarella argues that jouissance often feels like a guilty pleasure, feeling good while doing something that is vaguely bad. The fun Trump invokes is of the taunting kind, a “making fun” of others (the enemy) while reflexively making fun of the self too — as if to entertain, for just a moment, the possibility that I myself am not good, that I may even be “deplorable,” in Hillary Clinton’s infamous phrase, that my enemies may be right — but then again, so what? The enemy is totally worse, so let’s party and kick their ass!

Authoritarian leaders make their followers feel good by repeatedly and forcefully proclaiming that the latter are good people, and that their enemies are bad. The opening move of the authoritarian dynamic is the stark division between the good in group and the bad (evil, disgusting, poisonous) out group. Going back to Mussolini, authoritarian strongmen have presented themselves as liminal figures endowed with special powers to protect the in group from an evil world, often by restoring the in group’s lost greatness. In her book “Strongmen: Mussolini to the Present” (2021), historian Ruth Ben-Ghiat notes that the common attributes of authoritarian leaders, as perceived by their adoring followers, include proof of masculine virility (Trump’s sexual exploits work in his favor), a primal ferocity focused on winning at all costs and the invocation of a providential mission (being an instrument of God) during a time of national crisis.

But beyond the characteristics of the leader himself, authoritarianism is also about the special dynamic that exists between a leader and his followers. What psychologists call “the authoritarian personality” is a set of beliefs and values that people who are attracted to authoritarian leaders readily endorse. They include strict adherence to the conventional norms of the (good) in group, submission to (and adoration of) authorities who personify or reinforce those norms and antipathy — to the point of hatred and aggression — for those who either challenge in group norms or exist outside of them (“bad” out groups, who are often demonized or dehumanized).

In the 2016 Republican primaries, scores on a measure of these authoritarian attitudes proved to be the strongest statistical predictors of voting for Donald Trump over other Republican candidates. As Trump doubles down on fascist rhetoric and threatens to take on the role of America’s first dictator, he will continue to win support from those followers who welcome the authoritarian embrace. Trump’s comment in a December Fox News town hall that he would be a dictator on “day one” of his next term sparked the usual brouhaha in the media, but not among his supporters. “I love it,” one woman in her 50s told The Washington Post. A poll conducted in February by the University of Massachusetts, Amherst found that 74% of Republican voters think it is either “definitely” or “probably” a good idea for Trump to be a dictator for a day. Attempting to convince hardcore Trump supporters that their hero is a dangerous authoritarian is an exercise in futility, the journalist Amanda Marcotte observes. “They know — it’s why they like him.”

Whether Trump’s enduring support will be enough to return him to the White House remains, of course, the big open question. He has never, after all, won the popular vote. During his time in office, moreover, Trump’s approval ratings never reached as high as 50%. Just as he seems to enjoy everlasting appeal, there exists, on the other side of the great divide, everlasting repugnance. But this much is certain: Whatever happens, Donald Trump will continue to live on in the minds of millions of Americans as a remarkable liminal figure, the kind of personified entity around which mythologies are made — much more than a person could ever be, and much less.

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