Secrets of Donald Trump's cult: This is why the angriest white voters will not leave his side

Trump may have finished second in Iowa, but he's far from finished. His base is as fearful as ever

By Chauncey DeVega

Senior Writer

Published February 6, 2016 1:00PM (EST)

Donald Trump   (AP/Richard Shiro)
Donald Trump (AP/Richard Shiro)

Donald Trump is a political cult leader. In that role, he is also a political necromancer, beating a drum of nativism and fear to control the right-wing political zombies that follow him.

The Republican Party’s base of voters is rapidly shrinking. Contemporary conservatism is a throwback ideology that is unpopular with a large and growing segment of the American public. The result of these two factors is a Republican Party and American conservative establishment that is under threat, obsolescent and in a deep existential crisis.

These are the conditions that have catapulted Donald Trump to the forefront of the 2016 Republican presidential primary.

Trump’s most strident supporters are found among the alienated, disaffected, fearful, white working class. This is a cohort whose members are facing greatly diminished life chances in an age of globalization, extreme wealth inequality, neoliberalism and a reduction in the unearned material advantages that come as a result of white privilege. As recent research by public health experts, sociologists, economists and others has detailed, the white American working class and poor are, quite literally, dying off. They are killing themselves with pills and alcohol, committing suicide with guns, and dying of despair.

For many decades, if not centuries, racism (and sexism for white men) artificially buoyed the life prospects of the white working class in American society. With those palliatives and aids removed, the white working class and poor are left exposed and vulnerable to the realities of the American neoliberal nightmare and the culture of cruelty. They are ill-equipped for life in this new world.

Donald Trump knows that a crisis is an opportunity: he is transforming the fear and anxiety of the white American working class into political capital and energy.

To that end, Trump is leveraging what social psychologists have termed “terror management theory.” If “Trumpmania” is a puzzle, then terror management theory is a decoder ring or cipher. In many ways, the logic of terror management explains almost all of Trump’s popularity.

Human beings are not immortal. To compensate for the knowledge that one’s life will at some point come to an end, the human psyche has developed a range of coping mechanisms. Terror management theory seeks to explain those dynamics:

Terror management theory assumes that humans have developed a suite of defense mechanisms to protect themselves from the existential anxiety they experience when they are cognizant of their mortality. Existential anxiety arises because individuals experience a profound motive, derived from evolutionary forces, to preserve their life. Therefore, an awareness of mortality could evoke existential anxiety, corresponding to a sense of futility, unless humans invoke a set of mechanisms that are intended to curb this awareness. Some of these mechanisms include a tendency to believe in an after life, to feel connected to a broader, enduring entity, or to distract attention from their mortality, reflecting a form of denial

Biology, socialization and cultural norms influence how a given person manages their fear of death. The death anxiety also interacts with one’s political values. In some ways, conservative authoritarians manage their death anxieties differently than people who possess a “liberal” or “progressive” political personality type. Conservative authoritarians display high levels of nationalism, social dominance behavior, intolerance, out-group anxiety and bigotry, racism, a need for binary “yes” or “no” answers, a yearning for epistemic closure, and higher levels of religiosity. Terror management theory suggests that conservative authoritarians are especially prone to loving “the flag, guns, god, and religion” because these symbols and institutions are fixed points that will, in theory, outlive a given person.

Neuroscientists and social psychologists have determined that the brains of conservative authoritarians are especially sensitive to feelings of fear and disgust. Research on terror management theory complements those findings by showing that when scared or under threat, conservative authoritarians are more likely to become tribal, bigoted, racist and generally more hostile to those they identify as some type of Other.

The intersection of terror management theory and contemporary American conservatism is a profile of the Republican voter en masse, and Donald Trump supporters in particular.

Public opinion research has repeatedly shown that today’s Republican voters are angry, afraid and motivated by racial animus, white racial resentment and nativism. Because he is the id of contemporary conservatism, Donald Trump’s supporters display those worrisome and ugly traits in the extreme.

For example, CNN recently conducted a series of interviews at Donald Trump rallies where his supporters explained their attraction to him:

For many Trump fans, the candidate's once prominent role in the so-called Obama "birther" movement has left a lasting impression.

The skeptics, dispersed throughout Trump rallies, have serious misgivings about the President's U.S. citizenship and Christian faith more than four years after Obama publicly released his birth certificate.

"Islam is traced patrilineally. I am a Muslim if my father is Muslim. In that sense, it is undeniable that Barack Obama was born a Muslim," Michael Rooney said at a Trump event in Worcester, Massachusetts, in November. (Obama is a Christian. He has said his father was born a Muslim and later became an atheist.) ...

At another rally in Manassas, Virginia, on December 2, Robin Reif, 54, yelled into the crowd that the President was from Kenya. He told CNN afterward that Obama was "too much of a Muslim" and an "Islamist sympathizer."

"In our Constitution, it says that the president has to be an American citizen," Reif said. "I'm still wondering where is he really from. What is this man's background?"

The CNN interviews with Trump supporters also reveal how unrepentant white victimology and white racial resentment drive his popularity:

Energizing the Trump movement are voters who call themselves the "silent majority." These individuals feel strongly that white people, too, face discrimination in this country, and that they are often wrongly accused of being racist. This is stirring anger at the Black Lives Movement.

Fueled by a series of deadly police shootings perpetrated by white officers against blacks, the Black Lives Matter movement has become a powerful symbol of the racial tensions that run deep in the United States. ...

At Trump's campaign rallies, a similar frustration is palpable -- among white voters.

Taking their cue from Trump, these individuals are calling themselves the "silent majority." Some say they suffer from "reverse discrimination."

Rhett Benhoff, a middle-aged white man at a December Trump campaign event in Raleigh, North Carolina, said discrimination against whites is "absolutely" real.

"I mean, it seems like we really go overboard to make sure all these other nationalities nowadays and colors have their fair shake of it, but no one's looking out for the white guy anymore," he said.

Trump’s supporters are also terrified of Muslims and believe that unconstitutional measures should be taken against them:

Just days before, Trump -- who had already said he would implement a national database to register Muslims in the United States -- had put out a startling press release: a call for a "total and complete shutdown of Muslims entering the United States."

But at Trump rallies, the proposal resonated in a different way.

Just hours after Trump made the controversial announcement, his supporters -- waiting to hear him speak in Mount Pleasant, South Carolina, said they were fully on board.

"I don't want them here," Ed Campbell said. "Who knows what they're going to bring into this country?"

... Trump's Muslim ban has unleashed more visceral reactions, including unambiguously hostile views toward Islam.

His supporters across the country -- from Iowa to New Hampshire to South Carolina -- told CNN in interviews they simply believe Islam is not a peaceful religion.

"Islam is not a religion. It's a violent blood cult. OK?" said Hoyt Wood, a 68-year-old military veteran ...

These are the voices of people who feel neglected by their political leaders, betrayed by a cosmopolitan America, sucked into the disinformation machine that is the right-wing news/entertainment complex, and who likely live extremely race- and class-segregated lives.

Donald Trump is a proto fascist. The “strong man” is a central figure in that political imagery. Part of his appeal for the dying white working class lies in how he repeatedly talks about being “high energy.” In this performance, Trump is communicating and displaying a strong “life force” — and this is closely tied to questions of virility and masculinity as well — to a people who are awash with anxieties about death, weakness, impotence and loss.

Likewise, Donald Trump obsessively talks about “ratings” and his “popularity” because his public feels estranged and detached from American civic life. One of the few ways for them to feel politically and socially actualized is by participating in the faux democracy that is voting for contestants on shows such as "American Idol" and "The Voice," “liking” posts on Facebook, cheering at sporting events, or participating in empty consumerism. Donald Trump’s right-wing producerism shtick tricks his white working class and other disaffected voters into believing that they have a voice in a political system run by oligarchs, the 1 percent, and the deep state.

Collectively, Trump’s wealth, supposed vitality, and power make him an idol for a segment of the white American public that feels as if they have lost all of those things.

Donald Trump’s racial authoritarianism and manipulation of the death anxieties of white conservatives also explains his appeal among overt white supremacists. In the United States and Europe, white supremacists are obsessed with how immigrants and people of color are supposedly driving “the white race” to “extinction.” American conservative elites are not yet publicly using the language of “white genocide.” However, they do signal to the same anxieties with their concerns about “the browning of America” and the increase in the number of Hispanics and Latinos in the United States. In response to fears about “illegal immigrants” and “terrorists,” Donald Trump plans to build a wall on the southern border and to marshal a goon squad that will forcibly remove “illegal immigrants” (code for Hispanics and Latinos as opposed to white Europeans from France, Ireland, Eastern Europe and elsewhere who are also undocumented residents) from the country. Through those plans, Trump is promising to remove what he sees as human pollutants from the white body politic, a move that his supporters enthusiastically support because it satisfies their anxieties about the “racial” life force and health of White America.

One of the great tragedies in contemporary American political life is how white working-class voters routinely support political candidates and policies that do not improve their lives, but instead contribute to their immiseration. When the denizens of Red State America look around, they see communities with high levels of illegal drug use, pain pill addiction, unemployment, domestic violence, a breakdown in “family values,” and gun violence. Right-wing America’s opinion leaders routinely use language such as “makers” and “takers” as a way to slur black and brown residents in “the ghetto” or “inner city.” In reality, Red State America consumes more public resources than other parts of the country. There are more poor white people than any other group. And rural white poverty is one of the great hidden shames of the nation.

The dying white working class (and other members of Red State America) considers the state of their own broken communities and generalizes to America as a whole. This is an act of confirmation bias on a macro-level scale. When Donald Trump says that “he will make America great again” he is promising greatness to politically disoriented, confused and easily manipulated white voters whose communities and lives are in disarray. It does not matter if Trump’s and the Republican Party’s policies will actually make matters worse; the promise of hope in a sea of hopelessness soothes the fears of conservative voters.

In many mythological traditions, the necromancer controls the dead by using a drum or playing a song. These sounds trick the “living” corpse into thinking that it has a heartbeat. When the necromancer stops hitting the drum or ceases the music, the corpse reverts back to inert matter.

The political necromancer and cult leader Donald Trump beats a drum of nativism, fear, racism and sexism to control the right-wing political zombies that follow him. The problem is, unlike the undead ghouls of myth and folklore, once Donald Trump stops beating his metaphorical drum, his followers will not return to their graves. Trump’s people are now the walking dead of American political and cultural life, a group that threatens to devour us all.

By Chauncey DeVega

Chauncey DeVega is a senior politics writer for Salon. His essays can also be found at He also hosts a weekly podcast, The Chauncey DeVega Show. Chauncey can be followed on Twitter and Facebook.

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