I feel elated and uneasy at the same time. Joe Biden has been sworn in as the 46th President of the United States and no militia group has attempted to formally declare war on the nation by trying to violently stop America’s sole ritual procession to inaugurate the country’s newly elected leader.
The Trump era may have finally come to an end, but it is not an end to the Trump style of populist politics. Many of his followers are likely still devoted to the authoritarian brand of theatrics that highlight their lack of empathy and would be willing to break with the Republican Party if another charismatic leader is able to take the Trumpism experiment further.
The danger of the era we leave behind is not past us. We can only lessen its fuse if we step back and try to understand how Donald Trump allured the spirit of his followers by using mass scale psychological warfare techniques.
The Psychological Formation
Trumpism is not an ideology, but a political movement that has developed with the hallmarks of an authoritarian cult. Seeped deep in Trumpist masses were seeds ready to blossom, that of existing opinions, feelings, and thoughts about society and ‘the other’ that they could not speak out loud. When Donald Trump took his ultra-nationalist platform center stage it is unlikely that the cruelty of his language was unintentional. It was on purpose and it was used to bind his followers to him. The language he used was meant to tap into already existing opinions his followers had of how the world works, how awful society has treated them, and how if they follow Trump all their problems will go away. They idolized his spite because they wanted to be the ones dealing out the punishments to those people, those cultural enemies, that they believe have usurped their dreams.
In order for Trump to hook people to his camp, it was necessary to normalize a parallel political universe filled with totally opposite beliefs with mainstream politics. Using the mantle of his celebrity to harness the most powerful publicity soapbox in the world, that of presidential microphone, Trump relentlessly bombarded his audience with the belief that all mainstream news was a source of lies and misinformation. If cable news reported a story, it was imperative to believe the opposite. It was a level of mistrust that went much deeper than the ideological reasons a Republican chooses to never tune in to MSNBC.
Many of Trump’s followers were former apolitical non-ideologues and apathetic to the nation’s political culture. By tapping into the emotional grievances of many of these people, he was able to implant his personal dogma into their minds. When he spoke about jobs being lost to foreigners and globalization it resonated deeply with Middle America. He had given them a feeling of resonance and respectability when they felt they had none. With every speech and rally, their feelings were being elevated more and more. And by giving prominence to their emotions, he gained their trust not on a logical level, but on a primal one. At this point it became easy for Trump to normalize pathological behavior and foster his followership to believe his every word.
Hating Democrats and Liberals to a point of listening to dear leader to violently overthrow a constitutionally mandated process to count Electoral College votes is not normal. It is pathological. Many of these types of Trump followers were deeply attached to the QAnon message boards, believing they had access to secret insider information detailing the real power of Donald Trump and his ultimate final act of sending all of his political enemies to face military tribunals. On a surface level I have looked into QAnon and I must admit it is (was) an incredibly dangerous force. It hooks people in by making them believe they have access to a secret truth, a truth that would never be uttered by mainstream media. This type of conspiracy theory has been around for some time and has similarities with stories about Freemasonry and the occult.
We may never know who or what was truly behind the propagation of QAnon, but it seemed as though it was probably the Internet’s first successful mind control cult. It would be interesting to know the real purpose of such a cult, but all I can say now is that it made mainly good people believe they were the only ones who can save this country from evil politicians. It gave people the ultimate savior complex, making them believe it is ok to break the law, in this case overthrow the government, for reasons where the intention seems moral, but the intention was guided by falsehoods. It made people who were teachers and therapists do criminal acts. And it means we have an unknown enemy amongst us, weaponizing the minds of Americans to destroy democracy and weaken the country.
QAnon was an online cult without an obvious leader. It is hard to believe it was not created and operated by trained specialists in psychological warfare. Why it was not stopped early in its inception as it was gaining immense popularity back in 2018 should make everyone question why it was not scrutinized and if possible dismantled by our own counterintelligence people. What group had the most to gain from weaponizing common people with nefarious beliefs about their own government?
Five lives have been lost and many lives have been upended after the siege on American democracy on January 6 so it is important that we are able to dissect how this happened. Every day new evidence is being gathered against those who participated in the siege on the Capitol and there is a possibility that lighter sentences might turn into federal charges of sedition and domestic terrorism. Former President Trump may also face legal consequences for his participation in leading and inciting rebellious acts against government, as Articles of Impeachment have passed in the House and the trial in the Senate is set to start February 8th. What happens in the Senate will set the fate of the country. Is there enough evidence to prove a crime and justifiably punish an ex-president? Or is it unconstitutional to legally reprimand a man who is now a citizen?
Joe Biden may be president, but it does not mean that Trumpism and the techniques used to rally former Democrats and Conservatives together in a populist collation will be thrown in the dust bin. Instead, it is likely that we have entered an era where politics will be fostered by ever obvious psychological techniques that will create dueling devotees that are not guided by an ideology, but by competing national narratives and mythologies. Myths are used by cultures to guide the outline of what constitutes a society or a national being and helps to create how individuals conceptualize what elements of moral, social, and political life define their role in that society. If a national myth breaks down into competing camps, it usually portends some big problems. For the next decade, America will face serious internal political issues that will force us to not just idealize what nationhood is as a potential, but to truly define what nationhood is for us.
Answering the question of nationhood will be a theatrical matter, as the time we live in is quite volatile. Not only are Democrats and Republicans comfortably living in the realm of their own camps, but many Trump supporters also have an ingrained dislike and distrust of establishment politics and may be willing to join him in forming a new political party.
The psychological conditioning of Trump’s followers may have led them to perform criminal acts against their own government, but anti-establishment politics is not new in American political life; it has just stayed on the fringe until now. One of the more dangerous aspects of Trump’s presidency was the legitimization of extreme Right-wing views and anti-government dogmas. Trump defined all of his political enemies on the Left as existing as an abasement to the nature of the United States, a belief that personally benefited him but acted as a rallying cry to the multitude of right-wing militias who have deep ideological opposition to the nature of federal government.
One such militia that was layered within the January 6 crowd was the Oath Keepers. They are a newer group, founded in the beginning of the Obama Administration and are composed of former police and military who claim an oath to protect the original intent of the American Constitution. Having a worldview similar to the wider militia movement of the 1990s, they believe they have a duty to overthrow the government once it has become undoubtably corrupted. Donald Trump’s rhetoric vilifying the Left as enemies of the people empowered existing extremist groups that have been itching for an uprising for quite some time. And now the time finally felt right. American militia groups now have a majority of everyday Americans on their side, bolstered by Trump to withhold their recognition of the legitimacy of any political actors that do not align with their worldview.
And if large portions of the country refuse to give legitimacy to their political opposition, it will lead to the erosion of the institutions that make us a Republic. These fights are not about policy disagreements anymore, they have become overly personal and culture driven with one side wanting to live in a country where society is hierarchical and the other multicultural.
This schism was well documented with the activation of armed Right-wing extremists making their way into the Capitol. No anti-government group has ever managed to attempt a siege of the federal government, but with people’s distrust of elites and establishment politicians at an all-time low compounded with Trump training his followers to lose total faith in America’s institutions, taking on the government now has popular mobilization.
January 6 may have been a gathering of different coalitions on the extreme-Right, but the most consequential was the involvement of the Oath Keepers. Footage from the day shows men in military-like uniforms and helmets marching in formation through the crowd to strategically enter the Capitol Building. One infamous picture is one of these men making it into the congressional chamber with material to bind hands and feet, likely carrying it with the intention to hold hostage members of Congress. Unprecedented is too light a word for the intention behind the act. What is truly tragic is that average Americans, mostly Republicans, cheered on the intention behind the siege. This means that a faction of popular opinion was supportive of the intention behind the act of storming the Capitol, possessed by the belief that they were standing up for their country as they watched a crowd of average Trump followers and Right-wing militias who sought to hold hostage American congressmen and women until they gave into the demands of the mob.
We have seen this mentality all throughout Trump’s rise where everyday people felt that he was the only one capable of standing up to corruption and globalist policies. It is true that Trump tapped into a patriotic element within people where they felt as if he had the power to undo all that they disliked about American politics, many of them believing it was healthy to throw a scurrilous businessman at the Washington establishment. Some Trump voters have now come to understand that Trump was an inept leader who mobilized raw emotions instead of keeping his campaign promises to the working class, but many remain entrenched in the belief that America First can become a new political platform. The Atlantic has a great article that explores the opinions of Trump voters from 2015 to now, one of the most riveting quotes from the article being:
This may have been the beginning of a revolution or just a simple criminal act led by an everyday con man.
But revolutions do not happen in a day or out of a void. They happen after a steady stream of events inflict enough trauma where they start to break the political foundation of a ruling regime and/or the civic infrastructure of a nation. The country should be grateful that this was clearly one of the worst coordinated and planned revolutions. The everyday people involved in the insurrection did not seem to know how political revolutions work, most of them actually thought they can achieve their goals with a day’s work of violently stopping a democratic process.
The battle of January 6 may have been lost for them, but the mainstreaming of extremist anti-government ideology and tactics might be around for some time.