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Lying to the public implicates President Trump’s supporters in his offensives, strengthening their association with fellow followers and closing them off to outsiders, thus making for a stronger and more cohesive movement.
Criminal gangs and militias often force prospective members to commit heinous crimes before being accepted. Drug gangs have been known to force their members to kill innocent civilians, for this shows a willingness to kill indiscriminately. But the killings also show their prospective members are not with the police and it defines them once and for all as criminals. Several African militias have taken this logic a step further, abducting children and forcing them to kill their parents, for once they have done so, they can never go back to their villages and must make a substitute father of their leader.
Voting for Trump involved a similar, if milder, rite of passage. To vote for Trump was to assent to his political agenda, but also to the racist and sexist rhetoric in which it was wrapped-up. And this quickly came to define his supporters as racists and sexists in the eyes of family and friends. For it was a transgressive act against women and minorities, but also against basic norms of decency.
The day they voted for Trump was the day they came out of the closet en masse. Now the more he lies and issues extreme decrees, the further they become implicated in his offenses, like the members of some criminal gang who have committed too many crimes to turn back. Trump seems to relish defining his supporters against what he has often referred to as his “enemies,” which seems to include most anyone who challenges his agenda.
And this only pushes them further into a cultish movement, whose cost of leaving grows with each offense. To support Trump in his most delusional and irrational assertions is to gain membership in a new elite. To stand by him as he utters his most racist and sexist offenses is to lend to your own insecure identity a newfound sense of definition.
It doesn’t so much matter that electoral experts find virtually no cases of undocumented immigrants voting in California’s election, for instance; that the claim is so outrageous that the question of whether or not to call it an outright lie has evoked an identity crisis among journalists; that even Fox News challenges the claim; that the administration cannot even concoct an argument to justify it. The more outrageous the lie, the more it binds together supporters and pushes them to be loyal.
All of this was on vivid display when Trump commanded his Press Secretary, Sean Spicer, to hold an aggressive news conference in which he attacked the press, lying about the size of Trump’s inauguration crowd. It seems that Trump questioned Spicer’s loyalty, but in pressing his lies, he assured Trump of his loyalty and became further implicated in his effort to deceive the public. And all of this made him ever-more reliant on his boss, for it set a wedge between him and more mainstream Republicans.
If you can get someone to support you in your most irrational lies, you will have won their allegiance twice over: You win their support and you win their solidarity, because in supporting you they become members of your own irrational subculture. And in the age of social media, shared participation in an irrational subculture is the ticket to a constantly reinforced identity. For the more the members of an irrational subculture are challenged, the more tightly they will band together, concocting their own fabricated sources of information and bolstering their own weak arguments—exactly what so many supporters of mass movements seek in the first place.
Thus, Trump’s need to bolster his own fragile ego through ever more outrageous claims seems to paradoxically bolster the fragile egos of his supporters. If this analysis is true, we should expect his supporters to do everything in their power to avoid rational discussion, for it is in the most reasoned and civil challenges that they will find their identities most deeply challenged. When confronted with such discussions, we should expect them to freak out, lash out, duck out, and play nice—anything to put a halt to the challenge. And this is exactly what they seem to be doing.
There is a flippant sort of nihilism to the movement Trump built. It is a movement that revels in attacks on the media, minorities, and even fellow Republicans. But it is a movement that does not seem to care much about its impacts. And this too seems to be tied up with the protection of identity: If I can destroy something that makes me feel bad about who I am, then I have defeated an existential threat and reasserted my own sense of self—even more so if, in doing it, I can tell myself I do not even care.
The point is rather how it makes his supporters feel. Trump has inherited the hedonism of the counter-cultural 70s—if it feels good, do it—and applied it to reactionary politics, divorcing reason from platform in an effort to collapse whatever institutional pillars stand in his way, all in an effort at social survival.
Trump’s supporters have been challenged by a culture they do not understand and in which they cannot function. But by banding around the most irrational bully, they have been able convince themselves of an alternate reality in which the most feel good assertions are true, because they will make them true through sheer force of will.
It is the kind mythos that lies behind the strength of every fascist movement, but it is a bubble that can be popped by the hard realities of the complex world in which they will find themselves stymied at every turn.
Author: Theo Horesh
Image: Video Still/CNN
Editor: Travis May