How to Break Trump’s Psychological Hold On His Followers


Virtually all non-Trump supporters are baffled by how a substantial portion of the electorate could support a candidate who vilifies Mexican immigrants as criminals and rapists, who seeks to ban members of an entire religion from entering the country, and who insults and belittles everyone with whom he disagrees. And, they cannot understand how Trump supporters remain unwavering in the face of issues that would bring down any other candidate. How can a man who avoided the draft call John McCain a loser for being a prisoner of war and not lose the support of veterans (or anyone who respects the heroism of veterans)? How can voters who claim to support Trump because of his stance on illegal immigration ignore his repeated statements in support of amnesty? How can evangelical Christians support a man who is on his third wife, has bragged about his many affairs, and was a strong supporter of partial birth abortion? How are voters who oppose Obamacare because they see it as government overreach unconcerned that Donald Trump has repeatedly praised single-payer healthcare and says that when he is President “I am going to take care of everybody” and “the government’s gonna pay for it”? These examples are too numerous to list. When Trump quipped that he “could stand in the middle of Fifth Avenue and shoot somebody and wouldn’t lose any voters,” it may have been only slight hyperbole.

Explanations for this phenomenon have generally been not so veiled attacks on his supporters. We are told that they are racists, and bigots, and just plain stupid. Given that they seem to love it when Trump uses this same type of language to diminish his critics, it could be said that turnabout is fair play. But, that does not make it accurate. Trump’s success is better explained by the psychology of his followers than their politics. Trump’s candidacy may be the largest ever real-life study in confirmation bias. And, Trump has been almost artful at scapegoating easily vilified groups, allowing him to offer seemingly simple solutions to complex problems.

Indeed, while Trump has been continually underestimated for his foolish and shallow policy positions, his psychological manipulation of his followers has been brilliant. Trump has tapped into a righteous anger, and speaks to frustrated voters with a simple and psychologically powerful message. He gives them someone to blame, and provides uncomplicated and painless solutions. He proclaims that middle-class manufacturing jobs are being “stolen” by Mexico and China because American politicians are too weak and too stupid to negotiate better trade deals, and that all we need is a strong-man President to stand up to these predator nations and we will bring back American jobs. He attests that illegal immigration will not only be solved, but at no cost to Americans — Mexico will just build us a wall. And, he declares that we can keep America safe by “temporarily” banning 1.7 billion Muslims from entering the country. For every problem, Donald Trump has conjured an easily vilified scapegoat that he will defeat. He has made it “us” against them. Us against Mexico and China; us against illegal immigrants; us against Muslims (not terrorists, just Muslims); us against the establishment; us against the media; us against anyone that dare criticize Donald Trump.

A survey of history shows how powerful these scapegoating tactics can be, particularly in times of frustration and anxiety. And, unless the Republican field narrows to a two-man race, his psychological hold on his loyal followers may mean that Trump is unstoppable. But for the sake of this country, and particularly the principles of liberty and free markets upon which it was founded, we must try.

To start, we must stop attacking Trump supporters. You will never persuade someone to your side when you begin by calling them a racist or a fool; and it merely plays into Trump’s “us against them” dichotomy. Trump supporters are not fools, but they have been fooled.

We must show them how they have been fooled. We must attack the essence of the Trump delusion: that he “tells it like it is.” They must recognize that they should not mistake bluntness for truth; that something can be both politically incorrect and wrong. Trump may not be a politician, but he is a manipulator. He says it himself — just read his books.

They must understand that Trump is not in this for them; he is not running for President because he cares about America — he is in it for Donald Trump. How do we know? Because Donald Trump is 69 years old and there is no example of him ever doing anything for the love of country — only for the love of Trump. When he is attacked for giving donations to politicians that he now decries, who support policies that he claims to oppose, he asserts that he was a businessman and had to be friendly with everyone. But, isn’t that just another way of saying that he put his own interest above the best interest of the country? Donald Trump did not wake up one day at 69 years old and decide that now he is going to put America first. We know that Donald Trump only cares about Donald Trump because he has spent the last 69 years of his life only caring about Donald Trump.

They need to understand that Mexico and China are not brilliant strategists that have bamboozled American politicians as Trump tries to portray — they merely have developing economies that allow companies to produce products at lower costs. If Trump were to attack these countries (likely with tariffs) then companies would just move manufacturing jobs to India, Thailand, Vietnam, Malaysia, Ethiopia, or countless other developing countries that offer the same labor-cost benefits. And, they need to understand that trade is not a zero-sum game. When American consumers buy a product made in Mexico or China, that is not a “win” for them and a “loss” for us. The beauty of trade — as with all free-market transactions — is that it leaves both parties better off. Yet, Trump claims that he will start “winning” against Mexico and China by making them sell us fewer products at higher prices. That is a strange definition of winning.

They need to understand that Mexico will not pay for the wall. Trump’s sole proposal for getting “Mexico” to pay for the wall is to impose a tariff on Mexican products. A tariff is nothing more than an indirect consumption tax. Under Trump’s plan, Mexico will not pay for the wall — American consumers who purchase products made in Mexico would pay for the wall. So far, the cumulative effect of his trade policies and his immigration plan would just be higher prices for American consumers, and a likely trade war that would cost American jobs. Donald Trump said in last night’s debate that he does not mind trade wars if the United States has a trade deficit — this means that he either does not understand the devastating effect a trade war with Mexico and China would have on the U.S. economy, or he simply does not care.

They need to understand that banning Muslims from the country will not make America safe. Virtually every terrorist attack on U.S. soil since 9/11 has been committed by American citizens, and ISIS’s primary strategy is now to encourage home-grown terrorists. Its primary recruiting tactic is claiming that there is a war between Islam and the West. It is not difficult to see how banning all Muslims from the country would play to this mythology. Or how home-grown terrorism may be encouraged when the millions of Muslims in America see the United States government attacking their religion. Yes, we need to acknowledge and understand that we are at war with Islamic Jihadism. But, we also need to acknowledge and understand that all the jihadist groups in the world count membership of well under 100,000 out of the approximate 1.7 billion Muslims. That means about .006% of Muslims are actual terrorists. We need to do everything in our power to capture or kill that jihadist minority. But, the only way we ultimately win the war on jihadism is by showing the vast majority of Muslims that the United States is not their enemy. And the only way we preserve our own founding principles is by protecting all religious liberty — do the evangelical Christians who support Trump really want to set the precedent that it is okay for the government to discriminate against individuals on the basis of their religion as long as the government thinks it has a good reason?

We do need change and the American people — not just Trump supporters — should be angry. For decades the government and politicians have been failing the people. They have placed cronyism over true capitalism. They have made promises on social security and medicare that cannot be kept. They have strangled the economy with over-burdensome taxes and regulatory schemes. They have sat back as a failed war on drugs has turned cities into warzones, and as failed anti-poverty programs have led to generational poverty. But, the change we need is a president that gives power back to the American people, not one that makes the same false promise that government can make everything better (if only the right guy is in charge). If you are a Trump supporter, you owe it to yourself and your country to seriously consider not only what Trump is against, but what he will do as President. Many will find that the want-to-be-emperor has no clothes.