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The Psychology Behind The Trump Phenomenon


Ben Domenech correctly identified the driving force behind the enigmatic rise of Donald Trump for president when he said recently, “Donald Trump, Bernie Sanders — they’re not the disease, and they’re not the symptom of the disease…They’re the beta test of a cure from the perspective of the people…For those of us who have looked in sort of the established order of the political fray over the course of the past several years, it looks like chaos, but to the people I think it looks like democracy.”

This revelation should give us all pause, not because it’s so terrifyingly accurate but because the unspoken question raised by Domenech’s remarks is that if Trump is the cure, dear God, what is the disease?

Let’s Start with Stockholm Syndrome

There have been multiple passes at trying to answer this question, and doing so has made for some truly strange bedfellows. One explanation proposed by both the ultra-left and mainstream conservatives is Stockholm syndrome. That’s the condition under which a captured victim develops a bond and sympathy for his or her abusive captor. It is not found in the psychology bible called the “Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorder” fifth edition, and there is serious reservation among mental health professionals about whether it actually exists.

Probably the most famous victim of Stockholm syndrome is Patty Hearst, the granddaughter of media magnate William Randolph Hearst. Shortly after having been kidnapped by the Symbionese Liberation Army (SLA), she announced she was joining the terrorist organization and their cause. She was eventually sentenced to 35 years in prison for her involvement in an SLA bank robbery. In 1979, President Carter commuted her sentence after only 22 months, and in 2001, President Clinton gave her a full pardon just two hours before leaving office.

Paul Bibeau at the DailyKos sees the support Trump has received from a minority of conservative women as evidence they suffer from Stockholm Syndrome. Otherwise, why would women support a guy who sexually harasses women (maybe he should ask Nina Burleigh)? Bibeau’s not alone in asserting that Republicans who support Trump have become sympathizers with their “captor.” Many conservatives on Twitter have begun linking the syndrome with Trump supporters using the hashtag #stockholmsyndrome, sometimes with hilarious effect.

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The problem with using Stockholm syndrome to explain Trump’s following (beyond it being a poorly constructed comparison) is that it’s pejorative in nature, and as a theory it does nothing to advance understanding about this population beyond just being a fun Internet hash tag game. The only real value added by framing Trump support as Stockholm syndrome is that it suggests a psychological origin at work. That’s a suggestion I think has merit, and is worth unpacking.

Let’s Zero In on the Feelings of Betrayal

CNN gets us a little closer to understanding the disease Trump cures in “Why I’m Supporting Trump.” If you extract the salient features of the article, a recurring theme begins to emerge among the voices CNN interviews. This theme goes beyond the overly simplistic notion Trump supporters are just a bunch of crazy, angry white people—which is how most pundits describe this demographic just before completely discounting them and their movement.

Disregarding Trump’s base as an uneducated, fringe element of the GOP only serves to embolden their feelings of being marginalized, and their support. Their identity as people who have been sidelined for seven years speaks to a deeper issue. Throughout Trump’s cadre of supporters there is a profound sense of betrayal from this government. That starts with President Obama’s promise to America that he would unite a divided and hurting nation, the results of which have only left this country more divided than ever.

If the President’s supporters view his 2008 election as an historic moment that helped break down a racial barrier, others blame the country’s first African-American President for deepening racial tensions. Said George Ziegler, a Trump supporter attending a Columbus, Ohio, rally on November 23: ‘Obama was supposed to bring us together. Instead, he’s divided us.’

In a frank attempt to put aside differences and open a dialog with Trump’s base, Huffington Post’s Ryan Grim and Julie Craven wrote an “Open Letter to Non-Racist Trump Supporters” urging them to seriously reconsider their support.

You may not physically assault anti-Trump protesters, think Abraham Lincoln’s decision to free enslaved African-Americans was hasty or want immigrants immediately deported. But you know as well as we do that a portion of Trump’s fans do feel this way.

It may not be fair, but it has fallen to you to disavow these people. Your silence is condoning a violent environment. You’re serving as a welcoming committee of sorts to new racists hoping to enter the party. From a crass political perspective, it’s self-defeating: You will never win a national election on a ticket with the Klan. But it matters from a moral perspective, too.

As Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. watched the unleashed dogs, the firehoses, the lynchings and bombings, the civil rights leader said something we should keep in mind today: ‘History will have to record that the greatest tragedy of this period of social transition was not the strident clamor of the bad people, but the appalling silence of the good people.’

I agree with Dr. King: the silence of good people is the greatest tragedy now. And I applaud Grim and Craven for their morally sound effort to try and sway voters from Trump. But ultimately I don’t think their plea will be effective in winning supporters away. Trump’s followers are ignoring huge, blatant character issues because they think the trade-off will get them something greater: freedom. Why do they believe Trump is the standard-bearer for freedom? Perhaps there is a psychological explanation for the Trump phenomenon.

Here’s a Potentially Useful Model

The crisis theory and intervention model is a logical arch between the disease and how millions of Americans have come to call Trump the cure. This is not a perfect explanation, nor is it intended to be one. As you read, keep in mind this aphorism attributed to statistician Dr. George E. P. Box: “essentially all models are wrong, but some are useful.” The crisis intervention model, although useful, has its limitations. Most notably, the theory is applied to individuals in crisis, and only through extrapolation do we use it to explain behavior patterns of the masses.

If all attempts to allay the crisis have failed, they reach a breaking point, at which time they suffer a major collapse in functioning.

From his time spent with families immigrating to Israel after World War II, Gerald Caplan gives us a working understanding of how people react during crisis. Caplan argues that crisis occurs when there is an imbalance between trauma and available help. This imbalance becomes distressing because it disrupts our natural desire for homeostatis. If the imbalance persists without any intervening relief or support, crisis can escalate to a tipping point.

According to Caplan, most people in crisis react following a pattern. They are first confronted with a threat to their homeostatic state, and then they try to cope. Their distress increases as the threat persists and their coping skills fail. As the problem continues and their efforts to change or fix the problem haven’t succeeded, they begin to look for novel solutions. Finally, if all attempts to allay the crisis have failed, they reach a breaking point, at which time they suffer a major collapse in functioning. This collapse can take many forms—it may look like self-destructive behavior, or present as feelings of hopelessness.

If we take a central tenet of Trump’s campaign—immigration—and apply the crisis intervention model to explain how this issue has caused a watershed of panic among his supporters, the calculus might look something like this: our government allows thousands of illegal immigrants to pour across our borders, plus this is a violation of the statutes governing immigration, plus distress because our country is no longer governed by the rule of law equals a generalized feeling of powerlessness.

This pattern of crisis reactivity may be the key to why many in this country seem primed for Trump’s arrival.

You can replace the current administration’s handling of any of Trump’s key campaign positions and you’ll still arrive at the same conclusion: a corporate sense of powerlessness and anger. This pattern of crisis reactivity may be the key to why many in this country seem primed for Trump’s arrival.

Had there been any intervention of real leadership these past seven years, the mass feelings of dejection and helplessness among his supporters might have been avoided. Instead, Trump has capitalized on the general sense that our leadership has done little to nothing to stop executive overreach, administrative witch hunts, criminal activity, and outright lying about the brutal murder of Americans. Crisis theory would explain the reaction of Trump’s supporters to the failing of our elected officials to address these calamities as an example of trauma persisting with no intervening help.

Cycles of Abuse Can Also Offer Insights

To better understand just how incendiary and impressionable trauma can be for an individual in perpetual crisis, we look to features of the cycle of abuse. According this cycle, trauma is experienced as something outside the range of normal human understanding. Recent government actions could qualify as events outside the normal range of understanding, especially when it comes to immigration.

The feeling there’s a Planck’s length between the president and unprecedented behavior has been the source of a lot of concern.

Charles Krauthammer reminds us that Obama had said on multiple occasions he would abide by the Constitution and not act outside the powers of the presidency, but of course he has broken this promise. When Sean Hannity pressed him to give a psychological explanation for how the president could behave so fraudulently, Krauthammer answered plainly, “It tells me he’s a cold and ruthless politician.” Krauthammer, a former psychiatrist, is well-positioned to make that call. The feeling there’s a Planck’s length between the president and unprecedented behavior has been the source of a lot of concern.

This administration has taken extensive liberty with its executive power. David Harsanyi explains it this way: “Obama has attempted to govern without Congress ever since Democrats rammed the Affordable Care Act through. It was the first time any consequential reform was instituted by a single political party, poisoning any chance of building consensus on major legislation in the foreseeable future. Since then, Republicans have frustrated Democrats, and on nearly every issue that matters to Obama. Obama has gone as far as he can, and sometimes farther, to administer law through our loudest, largest, most powerful, and well-funded bureaucracies.”

The takeaway from this for Trump’s base is that January 20, 2009, was less an inauguration and more a coronation. The overwhelming feeling that Obama reigns rather than governs is another fomenting feature of crisis. People have become despondent watching those in authority fail to act when laws are being unashamedly broken, time and time again. They begin to believe nothing can be done and are utterly helpless against the giant, intractable government machine. This pushes them into a survival mode.

Donald Trump Is Barack Obama’s Legacy

For some, survival mode has taken the form of anxiously waiting for the current administration to leave; just counting down the days until a new president takes office. Something has happened during this period of survival, though. A desperate belief took root among some of us: the only way to get America back is by brute force. In every way, Trump was inevitable. The president’s failed leadership all but guaranteed it. Trump is Obama’s legacy.

A desperate belief took root among some of us: the only way to get America back is by brute force.

Right now, many Americans have this frantic feeling that if they don’t do something drastic they’re going to be trapped in some of progressive hellscape. Unfortunately, when people feel trapped desperate solutions become far more reasonable. And here we are. Crisis has made Trump the drastic and desperate solution. In him they see a champion, a straight-talker, a savvy business man who can get things done, someone who will stand up for American workers, and a guy who gets things done, whatever it takes. (The last part should sound familiar.)

To borrow from the battering cycle model, right now Trump’s supporters are in the “honeymoon” phase of the campaign. They have a strong leader who can and will protect us, and will use his power to make things right. There is a grave risk, and real possibility, however, that Trump just might be worse than the disease for which they think he is the cure.

In Angelo Codevilla’s article, “Donald Trump is the Next Barack Obama,” he lays out a very convincing argument for why Donald Trump’s supporters have indeed chosen the de factor successor to Obama.

Neither Obama nor Trump seem to know or care that cycles of reciprocal resentment, of insults and injuries paid back with ever more interest and ever less concern for consequences, are the natural fuel of revolutions—easy to start and soon impossible to stop. America’s founders, steeped in history as few of our contemporaries are, were acutely aware of how easily factional enmities deliver free peoples into the hands of emperors. America is already advanced in this vicious cycle. The only possible chance of returning it to republicanism lies in not taking the next turn, and in not following one imperial ruler with another.

Codevilla’s conclusions about the state of our nation are undeniable. We are at risk for imperial rule under the pretense of democracy. This is a troubling revelation of monolithic proportions.

What Can We Do Now

But what is to be done? More importantly, how does the cycle of abuse add value to the national conversation on Trump’s support? In two ways, as I see it. First, understanding Trump’s base from a crisis theory framework allows us understand why—and the degree to which—his support is rigidly fixed.

His supporters believe they’ve found a way out of the crisis, and they’re determined not to return to it.

Imagine how good it must feel to finally have hope at relief after years of watching the current administration use its power with impunity to enact sweeping progressive reform. They’ve been waiting a long time for a leader to come and reverse all this badness, and pull our nation out of spiraling decline. They are intractably loyal, and to their minds no other candidate comes close to touching this charismatic front-runner.

Secondly, it signals the difficulty of winning support away from Trump. His supporters believe they’ve found a way out of the crisis, and they’re determined not to return to it. Remember, crisis arises when our natural homeostatic state is threatened. Supporters view a Trump presidency as the best way to return to homeostasis, to balance and order. Redirecting support to another candidate is simply to create a threat to their long-sought-after stability.

Trump’s supporters don’t stand in line for hours to catch a glimpse of their presidential hopeful just because they prefer Trump to the other guys. They rally behind him in droves because they honestly believe he can restore America. For Trump’s base, this isn’t about preferring one GOP candidate over another—this is about who can save us.

It remains to be seen if Trump can or will be able to do any of those things along his spectrum of promises. I say this without hyperbole: there is but one hope should he become president, and that is that he might lead as a modern day Lucius Quinctius Cincinnatus.

Cincinnatus, a Roman statesman and farmer, was elected supreme dictator by his Senate during a time of great peril in Roman history. The city was under siege by barbarians at the gate, ready to sack the city. Cincinnatus accepted his authority out of duty to his country, and led the Roman army to victory. He was a hero, the savior of Rome, and could have ruled a grateful and devoted citizenry without objection.

Instead, after restoring the empire to its glory, he relinquished his power, and returned home to his farm. Cincinnatus’ selfless sense of duty is the embodiment of the citizen statesman our Founding Fathers envisioned for this country, and is exactly the cure the republic needs now. But should the fates allow that Trump be the cure the republic gets, let us hope and pray the citizens of this great nation demand he have the virtue of Cincinnatus—and that Trump consents to it.