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Noon on January 20 was a “ding-dong the witch is dead” moment for many. Defeated in the election, discredited by the invasion of the Capitol, and impeached for a second time, Donald Trump disappeared into his Mar-a-Lago mansion. His hold on the Republican Party and the nation seemed over.
But though we took a short step back from the abyss, the abyss is still there.
Millions of Americans, not a few of them armed and organized, still believe that the “election was stolen.” Millions still credit the QAnon fantasies. They believe that efforts to fight Covid-19 infringe on their Constitutional rights, and they insist that Kamala Harris and Joe Biden hope to impose socialist tyranny. Republicans in Congress still support their new Congresswoman Marjorie Taylor Greene despite her tweets supporting the execution of Democratic leaders.
The myth of the “stolen election” is Donald Trump’s signature conspiracy theory, his “Big Lie,” as the House impeachment managers stressed at his Senate trial. As Trump insisted to Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger in their now-infamous phone call, “We won this election by hundreds of thousands of votes. There’s no way I lost Georgia,” Trump repeated again and again. “There’s no way. We won by hundreds of thousands of votes.”
I am a clinical psychologist. To a mental health professional, Trump’s frequently repeated belief meets the standard definition of a delusion: a “fixed belief that is not amenable to change in light of conflicting evidence.” We know a lot about the psychology and neurobiology of delusions. A person who cannot tolerate certain realities minimizes the disturbing feelings those realities create by consciously and unconsciously trying to change reality in their mind. They resist facts and evidence that might question their beliefs and they tune out anything other people might say to ensure that the unbearable reality does not upset them.
But the “stolen election” delusion is not Trump’s alone. It is a mass delusion, shared by millions of his followers.
Shared delusional systems are a familiar story in history, and a dangerous one. Hitler rode the myth of the stab in the back to power. In America, the myth of the Lost Cause underlaid the violent overthrown of Reconstruction and the rise of Jim Crow, the myths of Manifest Destiny inspired ethnic cleansing of Indians, and the myth of American exceptionalism justified post World War II imperialist interventions around the world.
Modern psychiatry has names for delusions in an otherwise normal individual (Delusional Disorder) and for delusions shared with one or two others (folie à deux). They have long understood that there is a difference between questionable beliefs held by an individual and those that are shared by thousands or millions of people: it is hard to call beliefs shared by a large part of the population “abnormal” or “signs of mental illness.” And unlike the individual delusions found in some mental illnesses, collective delusions are not necessarily accompanied by other signs of cognitive or emotional or behavioral disturbance (e.g., depression or generally disordered thought processes), and they can’t be treated by anti-psychotic medications, suggesting a different neurobiological mechanism is involved.
But despite their potential to profoundly affect history, psychiatrists, psychologists, and philosophers still have trouble explaining mass delusions. The problem emerges clearly when psychiatrists confront religious beliefs: if we adhere to the standard definition of delusion, most Protestants would have to call the Catholic idea of transubstantiation (that the wafer and wine used during the mass literally become the body and blood of Christ) delusional. Jews would have to call the whole Christian belief in the Trinity delusional. But dismissing the religious beliefs of the millions of people who do not share your own religious beliefs as “delusional” is a recipe for religious war.
Modern psychiatry has sought to avoid this trap by simply defining the problem away. In the psychiatrists’ diagnostic bible, the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorder, “delusion” is arbitrarily defined to exclude beliefs that are ordinarily accepted by other members of the person’s culture or subculture, such as an article of religious faith.
Content aside, why are some beliefs held by some people with such ferocity, even in the face of overwhelming evidence?
In The Future of an Illusion, Freud distinguished between “errors” on the one hand, “illusions” and “delusions” on the other. Errors, he argued, simply reflect lack of knowledge or poor logic. Aristotle’s belief that vermin form out of dung was an error. But illusions and delusions are based on conscious or unconscious wishes and fears, as well. Columbus’s belief that he had found a new route to the Indies was based on his wish that he had done so.
Although Freud is out of favor with many contemporary psychologists, contemporary cognitive psychologists use a modernized version of Freud’s idea that ideas may be are determined by wishes: motivated cognition. The tenacity of many beliefs in the face of evidence, rational arguments, and common sense suggest that these beliefs are qualitatively different. They are not merely alternate interpretations of facts or simply “errors” in cognitive content and information processing, but are instead rooted in conscious and unconscious wishes and fears.
Many motivations influence our beliefs. We need to maintain a positive self-image, to stave off anxiety and guilt, to see the world as predictable, and to preserve social relationships. We want to see the world as just, with good actions rewarded and bad ones punished. We seek to maintain coherence and consistency in our beliefs. And we pay more attention and give more credence to information and assertions that confirm what we already believe.
We are still left with the problem of why the beliefs are shared. How is it that millions of people come to share a common delusion and how does it come about that they share their beliefs with a powerful leader? The case of Donald Trump and his followers provides a test case.
Psychiatrist Bandy X. Lee suggests that a narcissistic leader, desperate to compensate for his inner lack of self-worth, projects both a need for adulation and a sense of grandiose omnipotence. His followers, made needy by the impact of societal stress on psychologically vulnerable individuals, seek solace from a parental figure. The emotional bonds between the leader and his followers spread the leader’s own pathologies and delusions and paranoia and propensity for violence to his followers.
Personality, vulnerability, and socially created need must coincide in order to become a follower. Two well-studied personality patterns, “right-wing authoritarianism” and “social dominance orientation,” each possibly rooted in unease with cognitive or emotional ambiguity, are two metrics that underly vulnerability to right-wing mass delusions. People high in “right wing authoritarianism” value social uniformity and order. Violations of traditional (often religious) social norms and values and disrespect for and disobedience of societal authorities provoke anxiety. Those high in social dominance orientation desire that their group dominate. They see social hierarchies based on factors such as income, race, or gender as benign or even good. People who are high in social dominance typically believe that some groups of people are superior to others and that equality is not a valid social goal. Rather, inferior groups must be kept in their place.
For people with these characteristics, the economic, social, and cultural challenges of the last decades were threatening. There was the disintegration of rural and small industrial town communities, rapidly growing immigration, challenges to traditional authority by women and by people of color, and rapidly changing social norms relating to sexuality. These and other cultural changes created a pervasive and unpleasant sense of anxiety and resentment, mixed with fear. For many, there was an element of sadness, too, for the loss of what they see as the “good old days.”
For many of his supporters, Trump was experienced as an omnipotent, protective parent. No matter that the parent he represented was not always loving and kind. It was his power; his anger at the same things that his followers were angry at; his willingness to rage at the political, economic, and cultural elites that they felt as contemptuous towards them; and his willingness to be inappropriate that they loved him for. They felt he understood them. “I love the poorly educated,” he told an adoring audience in Nevada, and they loved him back. And they were ready to believe the worst of any who challenged their love.
Trump also expressed parts of his psychology that some of his supporters would not express openly. Like the religious person who feels that “as a follower of Christ, I am virtuous,” identifying with Trump made his followers feel stronger and less powerless. With Trump there was the joy of collective anger. As the New York Times’ Michelle Goldberg put it, his pronouncements were “shocking and thrilling.”
The symbiotic relationship joining Trump and his followers was nowhere more clear than in the widespread belief of his supporters that he “tells it like it is.” Shortly before the 2020 election, seventy-nine percent of likely Republican voters told pollsters that “Trump is honest.” For those who trust in Trump, the truth of what he says is shown by his mere utterance of them. Then they credit him because what he says is “true,” because he “tells it like it is.” Against this, the Washington Post’s tally of 22,247 false or misleading statements made by the President in his first 45 months in office carries no weight.
In a similar vein, Trump repeatedly told his followers that they should not believe anything his critics said about him. The media was “unfair;” its charges were part of a “witch hunt” based on “fake news.” His supporters then rallied around him because their idol was being treated so unfairly by the media. Similarly, as the election neared, to protect his own ego should he lose, Trump’s had to believe that defeat was literally impossible unless the election was “rigged.” When it became apparent to outsiders that he had, in fact, lost, he could only conclude that it was because he had been cheated, that the election had been “stolen.” In fact, the only evidence that the election was actually dishonest was Trump’s own narcissistic belief that he could not have lost otherwise. But repeated endlessly by Trump, and his media and Congressional supporters, the belief that the election was “stolen” became yet another reason for his followers to support Trump.
In short, Trump’s “honesty,” the unfairness of the press, and the rigging of the election were not causes of support for Trump. Rather they were consequences of support for Trump, relabeled as “causes.”
At the same time, for many of his followers, membership in the “Make America Great Again” crowd became a primary source of their own identity. People define themselves not only by their individual identify (“I am John” or “I am Mary”) but as group members (“I am an American, a white man, a Catholic, etc.”). That is, they define themselves by their social identity. Once they categorize themselves as belonging to a group, they perceive and evaluate the world in terms of that group.
For many, self-identification as a Trump supporter helped make sense of who they were to themselves and of their situation. It provided a sense of belonging, of pride, and a feeling of security and power. The stronger their identification as a Trump supporter, the more they sought to ascertain the values and beliefs that define the group. Conformity to the beliefs of the group come to define their own interest, even when the group’s interests conflicted with their own self-interest. Conversely, the interests of other groups often excited scorn, and breaking with their newfound consensual reality represented a threat to their sense of solidarity with others, as well as to their very identity.
When people become aware, however dimly and in however incoherent a way, of their own weakness or feelings of powerlessness, they need someone and something to blame. They scapegoat, blaming others for their own feelings of inferiority or marginalization. Nietzsche and later existentialist philosophers and psychologists have described how “ressentiment” is one result of this process. When a group becomes resentful, they exaggerate and universalize the blame, generating a rigid moral system. They deny or devalue the legitimacy or morality of the perceived sources of their weakness and glorify, exalt, romanticize, and exaggerate the value of their own moral culture.
And so, Trump supporters treasured his and their own ignorance of facts and faith in intuition rather than reason to defend their beliefs. Conversely, they disparaged the ideas and culture and values of “coastal elites,” “experts,” and “mainstream media.” And when those same elites and experts and media proclaimed that their candidate for President has lost, even though they and everyone they know had voted for him, the ground was fertile for nourishing the idea that the election must have been stolen.
Arguing with a deluded individual does not shake his or her beliefs. Arguing with participants in a mass delusion is equally unlikely to bear fruit. For some, Trump’s complicity in the January 6 invasion of the Capitol broke the spell, but for most of his true believers, Trump did nothing wrong. The problem, they insisted, was once again the malevolence of the “left wing” media.
Despite the confidence of many pundits that the Trumpian storm was finally over, the MAGA mindset continues to prevail at the grassroots – and may well endure, as long as Donald Trump is still alive and able to help his flock keep their faith.
John Ehrenreich is an author, clinical psychologist, and professor emeritus at SUNY Old Westbury. He would like to thank health professionals Henry Abraham, MD, Robert Lobis, MD, Sharon McQuaide, PhD, Ken Porter, MD, and David Socholitzky, PhD whose psychological insights contributed to the ideas developed in this essay.