Home 2016 elections Why Trump’s Lies and Transgressions Appeal to His Followers

Why Trump’s Lies and Transgressions Appeal to His Followers


Donald Trump breaks the rules. For his followers, that’s part of his appeal. Trump specializes in the lie. That, too, draws his followers to him.

That’s because Trump’s movement is an appeal to the authoritarian personality, which is built around a fundamental lie, and which is, at its root, a rebellion against the order it pretends to serve.

Let me explain.


The pundits have exclaimed since near the outset about how the usual rules don’t apply to Trump. His insults to Mexicans, John McCain, Fox News, his opponents, etc. – all these transgressions were supposed to bring him down. But they didn’t. Instead, Trump’s support just kept building. (“I could stand in the middle of Fifth Avenue and shoot somebody and I wouldn’t lose voters,” Trump famously said.)

His transgressions showed millions of people that he was their kind of guy.

Take Trump’s use of the idea of “political correctness.” In the world that Trump has created for his followers, hostility to the term “politically correct” has been expanded into permission to behave badly in a whole variety of ways. Not only are old forms of bigotry allowed, by the transgressive leader, to crawl back out from under the rocks. But more broadly, Trump claims a license to take a sledge hammer to our political norms, to good manners, and to just plain decency.

Trump enacts all his transgressions under the banner of making America “great again.” As if our nation’s greatness has nothing to do with its values. Which is also why the man who says he’ll make our nation great again also says he will exercise powers not granted the president by the Constitution, condones political violence, and deals with the press as if the Bill of Rights did not exist.

The strangeness of using a wrecking ball as a primary tool to supposedly build back our national greatness connects with the role of the lie in his leadership.

A fact-checking organization – the Pulitzer Prize winning Politifact — found that 76% of the statements from Donald Trump were either mostly false, false, or “pants on fire” false. Trump’s percentage of falsehoods was much higher than any of the other presidential candidates. And Politifact gave the “Lie of the Year” award to the whole body of Trump’s campaign misstatements.

Norm Ornstein has said that while many voters care about the truth, we don’t know what that portion is. But the big question is why is it that the portion of voters who don’t care about the truth is so large that they’ve been able to elevate a consistent liar to the status of nominee for president of one of America’s two major parties.

To answer that, it is necessary to understand the authoritarian personality.


First, it should be noted: it has been empirically established — by a study by Matthew MacWilliams, published on Politico — that authoritarians are a major component in Trump’s following. Indeed, MacWilliam’s study found that “authoritarianism” is the variable most highly predictive of whether a voter’s preferred candidate was Donald Trump.

Authoritarianism is a long-established concept in both theory and in empirical research. (The work goes back to the years right after World War II, when many felt a pressing need to understand how Nazism could have gained power in such a “civilized” nation as Germany.”

Psychological studies have suggested that to raise children to be authoritarians, one should subject them to demands harsh enough – with deviation or rebellion so little tolerated — that the children will feel safer identifying with the powerful authority, even at the cost of pushing their real needs and feelings underground. Those parts of the self for which there is no place in the harsh “morality” that is being imposed are thereafter denied.

That denial of a vital part of the real self is the lie around which the authoritarian personality forms. It’s a lie that says, “I am the wholehearted defender of our sacred values – God and country and morality.” It’s a lie because all that has been repressed does not disappear, but remains a powerful – if unconscious — motive force. The “good” self on the surface, the “bad” self down below.

That lie at the root gets reflected at a larger scale in the fact that authoritarian movements so often end up destroying the very things they claim to be serving.

For an illustration, consider “patriots” like Clive Bundy, the Nevada rancher who provoked an armed standoff with federal authorities at his ranch (over his non-payment of fees for grazing rights), and Bundy’s son who helped seize a federal building in Oregon. They claim – and presumably believe—that they are defenders of America, but the reality of their conduct is that of traitors and rebels and criminals damaging the rule of law which is at the heart of the nation.

The way that such authoritarians show their “patriotism” points toward the central lie of the authoritarian personality: underneath the mask of conscious devotion to the beloved order, there is a powerful impulse toward rebellion against that order.

Traitors under the banner of patriotism, radicals under the banner of conservatism, hate and strife under the banner of the Christianity that preaches love and peace, wholesale destruction under the banner of building a Thousand Year Reich.


The lie at the root of the authoritarian personality – the false allegiance, the denial of the forbidden impulse of rebellion – explains the attractiveness of transgressive leadership to authoritarian followers.

This is why a leader like Trump offers fulfillment to his followers.

They don’t mind the lies because their lack of psychological integration has compelled them to live a lie. The lie creates a welcome because familiar world to dwell in.

And they welcome the permission such a transgressive leader gives them to enact through him their rebellion against the received order– an order that, in the family in which they took psychological shape, has injured them by setting them at war against themselves.

In the original formation of their character, the authoritarians established the pattern of surrendering to a powerful authority figure. It is he who gets to define what’s right. If the leader says it’s OK, it’s OK.

And so, repeating that pattern, the authoritarian follower is given permission by the transgressive leader to express the forbidden. The followers can participate with the leader in knocking down the constrains against which they have chafed.

Under the pretense of making America great again, the transgressive leader enacts the rebellion that will tear down the nation. And there is little reason to doubt that a President Trump would leave America less “great” in almost every way.

Brokenness begets brokenness. Broken people can become vehicles for inflicting brokenness onto the nation. Let us hope there are not enough of them to put a Donald Trump into the White House.

For more about how brokenness begets brokenness, and how that pattern of brokenness can be transmitted from level to level — from family and psyche to nation and the intersocietal system, and back down those levels in the opposite direction — and how all of that illuminates the national crisis that has emerged in America in our times, see my recently published book WHAT WE’RE UP AGAINST: The Destructive Force at Work in Our World– and How It Can Be Defeated.

  • Susan

    so what explains Bernie if this explains Trump? They both have followers who believe in their leader despite all evidence that there leader is full of it.

    • Andy Schmookler

      Do you really think that Bernie and Trump are comparable, and that their appeal to their followers is on the same basis?

      As for being “full of it,” I will say only this much about Bernie. He has identified three issues as the ones most vital to the future well-being of the nation: 1) the role of big money in stealing our democracy, 2) the rigging of the economy so that the top fraction of one percent can double or triple its share of national wealth and income while the majority are treading water or even losing ground, and 3) the challenge of climate change.

      These are indeed the most vital issues facing the nation.

      And what does Trump give us: deporting undocumented immigrants, banning all Muslims from entry, denying climate change, etc.etc.

      Those two profiles don’t look the same to me.

  • Susan

    I have read this blog on and off for years now. I have often tried to comment. There was always a wall that prevented commenting. No matter how I tried to get past the hurdle I never did. I finally got through today and let me just say that it is still not easy to do. I think the reason there are so few comments on this blog is due to the difficulty of creating an account and then after creating the account actually getting the account recognized. Just saying… Your articles are insightful but this “wall” is something else. I hope I can comment the next time, who knows?

    • Susan – Sorry you had trouble in the past. Since we moved from Soapblox to WordPress a few months ago, we’ve been using Disqus, which is one of the most popular commenting systems, used by thousands of blogs, and VERY easy to use. If you’re having specific issues, let me know; you can email me at lowell@raisingkaine.com Thanks. – Lowell

      • notjohnsmosby

        For what it’s worth, the current platform is massively better than the one before. Not as easy as the one before last, but decent enough.

  • Susan

    Actually Trump is appealing to his voters in the same way. He is self-funding, thus he can’t be bought ( all a lie but his followers believe it nonetheless). Second he keeps telling them the system is rigged against them, just like Bernie does. Granted Trump disavows global warming. So two out of three. But you leave out Bernie’s other big points.He promises his followers free education and free health care, thus we have our comparable wall that Mexico is going to pay for. It’s all phony from both of them but their followers lap it up and snap viciously at anyone who comes near the bowl.

    • Andy Schmookler

      I believe it is fundamentally erroneous to regard the ideas of universal health coverage as a right and of tuition-free higher education at public institutions as basically fraudulent.

      There are, it is true, important questions about how we get from where we are to those destinations. But that does not mean that the destinations are inherently unrealistic or undesirable.

      After all, there are a number of advanced societies that provide precisely those things to their citizens. And those societies are quite clearly the better for it. Having one’s population healthy, and having one’s people also educated, are both advantageous ways for a nation to invest in its future.

      Part of the success — in economic terms — of America from the 19th century onward derived from the fact that even the children of the poor could go to public schools and develop themselves.

      Is there some obvious reason why it is right to make education available to all the young through high school (and even mandatory up to age 16!), but is undesirable to provide the same availability to education through to a college degree for those of our young for whom a college education could be put to good use.

      The United States is penny wise and pound foolish in how it has arranged for the health and education of its people.

      So to the extent that Sanders’ message is that these are goals toward which we should be working, he is saying what should be said.

      I don’t think the same can be said about putting up a high wall across our 1000-mile border with Mexico — and saying this at a time when, in fact, the net flow of the undocumented has been out of the U.S. and back to Mexico — and about getting the Mexican government to pay for it.

      • Susan

        My goal is to be a famous painter. Is that going to happen in my lifetime? Odds are, no.
        So do I sit around and paint waiting for the recognition that I so truly deserve, (like free education and health care) then I starve in the meantime. Bernie offers dreams, things that are not achievable. He offers no path to making these happen, much the same with Trump. No plans, nothing. Trump and Sanders are more alike than not and the reason it’s working is that the American people are just dumb. Dumb. Do you realize how many Americans give money,lots of money, to TV preachers who want a bigger jet to ride around in. They don’t even hide the fact from their dumb donors. Yeah, Americans are dumb.

        • Andy Schmookler

          ” Bernie offers dreams, things that are not achievable. He offers no path to making these happen…” You’re right, but the problem there is more general than what you’re pointing to.

          When it comes to a “path to make things happen,” neither of the Democrats has been talking to the voters about the obvious huge boulder in the way of progress on any of their plans: namely, the Republican obstructionism. Both Hillary and Bernie have been pointing toward where they would like the country to go, but neither has acknowledged publicly — at least to my knowledge — that the prerequisite to anything that involves legislation is either to knock the GOP out of power in the Congress OR to make their obstructionism such an untenable political strategy that they are compelled to abandon it.

          Their not talking about such things is probably a reflection of what they think can work politically with the American public (whom you describe as “dumb”).They must be aware of the problem, but judge that the voters they are trying to inspire won’t respond well to word about all that needs to be accomplished in order for anything to be accomplished. (Except through things like executive actions, like President Obama has been reduced to.)

          So they use their policy statements as means of expressing values and goals. Which is worth something. And which probably also tells voters what they will work toward to the extent that the opportunity might arise.

          But neither Democrat is talking about the elephant in the room. And as for the Party that is the Elephant, none of those candidates even began to engage with the real problems that need to be addressed to “make America great again.” Not least because so much of what needs to be addressed is the pathological nature of the Party they belong to.

          • Susan

            No doubt, there is republican obstruction at a level I can’t recall in my lifetime. But when Obama came into office he had a DemocraticSenate and Congress. The obstruction that would have provided free health care for all came from the Democrats, and thus we ended up with AHCA. Not my idea of the way to provide healthcare to the citizenry but the best you can do in the richest country in history with thousands of competing interests.