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.
TRUMP AS TRANSGRESSIVE LEADER
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.
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.
HOW THE TRANSGRESSIVE LEADER FULFILLS HIS FOLLOWERS
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.