Will the most extreme followers of Donald Trump go away when he does? It does not seem likely. The House of Representatives should impeach Trump again, and maybe this nightmarish presidency will end with his resignation. But all those louts and losers he inspired to storm the U.S. Capitol will still be with us.
It’s one thing to be a Trump supporter because you liked that he cut taxes and didn’t start a war. You chose to ignore everything else — his lies, his cruelty, his dereliction of duty during the pandemic — but it’s not like you wanted to destroy democracy. Not on purpose.
Those who stormed the Capitol are in a different class.
Some of them will hopefully be in prison and unavailable for the next attempt at insurrection. But there will be plenty more, and it’s hard to imagine they’ll suddenly give up. Many are gleeful about the sacking of the Capitol. They believe they won the day.
They didn’t. Democracy won. About 12 hours after the rioting, Congress confirmed the election of Joe Biden as our next president.
Still, it felt like something broke in our country on Wednesday. Unfortunately, it was not the belief among Trump’s followers that Democrats rigged the 2020 election. It was not the racist fever that afflicts the white supremacists who adore Trump. It was not the fear that the country will be overrun with immigrants, or the fear that too many women — women of color, particularly — are moving into positions of power.
What we have here are deeply held beliefs and prejudices, the foundations of the zealous support for Trump. The images and utterances of the rioters, the vast majority of them white men, made clear they are not going away. And you have to wonder: Where did their steely resolve come from? How do we ever break it? Because, if we don’t, what happened in Washington on Wednesday will happen again.
Gartner believes people who bought into Trump’s lies — “Only I can fix it,” “Anybody that needs a test gets a test” — lack the psychological maturity necessary for discernment.
“The big lie” came from Adolf Hitler and “Mein Kampf,” the memoir he dictated while imprisoned for his failed coup d’etat in Bavaria in 1923. It’s a propaganda tool essential to the authoritarian. Tell a big lie, repeat it often and people will come to believe it. In time, they’ll believe anything the lying leader says. They’ll dismiss facts and authoritative sources — mainstream news media, for instance — and they’ll see those who contradict their beliefs as the evil enemy.
Some people are more susceptible to this than others.
“We all know people who are honest, who own up to a mistake,” says Gartner. “But some people never admit they are wrong. … There is a human tendency to rationalize, and to say, ‘I’m right, you’re wrong.’ And some people are more susceptible to that than others. It has to do with their level of psychological maturity.”
The most extreme Trump supporters, Gartner adds, are “morally less mature, less developed than those who are not.”
Brad Sachs, a psychologist based in Columbia, says people who feel marginalized or powerless will firmly embrace ideas that become what he calls “sacred beliefs and values” for relevance and meaning.
“And when you surround yourself with others who share similar sacred beliefs and values,” says Sachs, “there is unconditional cooperation with them and intractable conflict with anybody else who is not aligned with you.”
And it doesn’t matter if the “sacred belief” is a big lie. (“I won the election and it was a landslide.”)
“The capacity for the deliberative reasoning that helps us discern between truth and deceit is handicapped when you’re holding on to sacred values,” says Sachs. “You’re not in the realm of facts and fiction, truth and lies. You’re in the realm of faith and belief.”
Once someone becomes “impenetrable to reason and consequences,” Sachs says, they can be triggered into extreme behavior. As they gravitate toward the like-minded and feel included, as they hear a leader speak to their “sacred beliefs,” momentum builds. Soon you have something like a movement.
And, if encouraged by the leader, you end up with a riot in the U.S. Capitol.
Understanding this psychology is essential to dealing with any movement away from our democratic norms, as we have seen with Trump and his Republican enablers.
So, good thing, says Gartner, that the House wants to impeach Trump again. The drift toward authoritarianism has to be stopped hard at the highest levels. “Appeasement and accommodation is a mistake,” he says. “You have to make it so there’s a punishment for continuing with an insurrection. You have to take a stand right away. You have to expose it and there has to be consequences. It’s evil and you have to oppose it.”
If anything good can be said of the attack on the Capitol, it’s the shock and realization that we let Trump have his day and allowed a domestic terror movement to build. It’s one thing to understand it, quite another to stop it.