America's heart of darkness: Making sense of the nonsensical allure of MAGA

Yes, the Trump movement is nuts. But a deeper explanation invokes history, psychology, economic factors and more

Published July 31, 2022 12:00PM (EDT)

Supporters of Donald Trump rally at the US Supreme Court in Washington, DC, on November 14, 2020. (OLIVIER DOULIERY/AFP via Getty Images)
Supporters of Donald Trump rally at the US Supreme Court in Washington, DC, on November 14, 2020. (OLIVIER DOULIERY/AFP via Getty Images)

The Republican-MAGA movement's reactionary agenda is clear enough. But the deeper motivations of many Trump supporters, at least beneath their absurd and offensive stated beliefs, is much less so.

What we might call the Great Demolition plot includes establishing a corporate oligarchy, a neo-feudalist regime based on long-term minoritarian rule and a malevolent pseudo-Christian theocracy undergirded by state thuggery and social authoritarianism, all of it infused with an incoherent ideological blend of anarchic libertarianism (on guns and most forms of regulation) and fascistic nightmare (white supremacy, antisemitism and numerous grades of conspiracy theory).

Millions of Americans support this regressive and oppressive agenda, but their views are not identical or monolithic: There are the probably well-meaning but horribly misguided Joe and Jane Average, the bloodthirsty fascists, the apoplectic culture warriors, the scheming plutocrats, the uniformed sadists, the gun-radical civilians, the Christian nationalists and "Dominionists," the QAnon believers, the con artists and grifters, the conformists, the deeply traumatized and the profoundly misinformed. All understand themselves to be "patriots," of course. 

Clearly, there is a wide spectrum of motivations, beliefs, personalities, interests and objectives, intensity of conviction and degree of lunacy among these mistaken millions. But how can one account for this herd-like descent into paranoia, cultish-nihilistic rage against reality, and proliferation of sociopathic behaviors? A general answer is that extreme beliefs bear little if any connection with the object they purport to discuss. They stem from complex and often subterranean interplay between biological forces (such as neural-hormonal wiring or gender), constructed biographies (whether individual or collective), economic interests, one's sense of belonging and social networks, and "belief formation," meaning the cognitive, affective and behavioral dynamics of decision-making.

What is behind crazy beliefs? Craziness, in one form or another. Crazy beliefs result from dysfunctions and toxicity that, in many individuals, generate unbearable anguish. A more specific answer, then, is that fear plays a central role in individual devolution and mass indoctrination. As Corey Robin points out, fear has a social history. It is a political feeling, the raison d'être and oldest manipulation tactic of repressive groups and regimes. Many Americans suffer from fear, derived from multiple poisoned sources. Desperate and despondent, they lash out through nihilism, tribalism and rhetorical or actual violence.  

Fear has been part of the human experience since time immemorial. From Howard Sackler's screenplay for Stanley Kubrick's 1953 film "Fear and Desire":

There is a war in this forest. Not a war that has been fought, nor one that will be, but any war. And the enemies who struggle here do not exist unless we call them into being. This forest then, and all that happens now is outside history. Only the unchanging shapes of fear and doubt and death are from our world. These soldiers that you see keep our language and our time but have no other country but the mind.

Britain and the United States, to cite the obvious examples, were able to develop generally successful and more or less democratic governments over time because powerful potential enemies were far away, while internal dissenters often emigrated or were crushed. Historically, this included Roman Catholics in the U.K. and anarchists, socialists, Black radicals and other political dissidents in the U.S. In America's case, two vast oceans allowed for safety from external invasion and also for considerable social, individual and ideological diversity. Yet after the traumas of 9/11, the war on terror, the Great Recession, the debacles in Iraq and Afghanistan and the COVID pandemic, Americans reacted as many other peoples have done before them, sliding downward into mass intolerance and violence.

That included the wholesale and largely unquestioned surrender of supposedly cherished freedoms through emergency laws and mass surveillance; extrajudicial kidnapping, torture and imprisonment; new forms of unconventional warfare (i.e., drones) waged against civilians and militants alike; and an enormous consolidation of power in the presidency and the executive branch. All of this went along with military adventurism, political radicalization and polarization, and an upsurge of magical beliefs and both mental and physical health crises, including opioid addictions, obesity and suicide.

After 20 years of mismanaged war in the Middle East, the U.S. finds itself in a situation disturbingly similar to Weimar Germany: disaffected veterans, militarized police, and right-wing radicalism converging with "mainstream" conservatism.

Fear is also inflamed through the national obsession with world domination, military power, militarized culture and gun idolatry. Historian Kathleen Belew, author of "Bring the War Home: The White Power Movement and Paramilitary America," argues that each modern U.S. war was followed by a significant increase in domestic radicalism, white supremacy activism and paramilitary agitation. After 20 years of brutally mismanaged war in the greater Middle East, the U.S. finds itself in a situation disturbingly similar to Weimar Germany in 1919: With a relatively large and often disaffected veteran population (think of Timothy McVeigh), growing fascist penetration of the police and the military, increasingly militarized police forces, and armed militias (akin to the Freikorps in Germany) assaulting the legal-constitutional order. Right-wing radicalism has begun to converge with "mainstream" conservatism, fueled by a proliferation of entrepreneurs of chaos and the widespread cult of guns. 

Fear also comes from the economy: Since the 1980s, economic survival has continued to demand more expensive degrees, longer working hours and greater productivity. Increasing financial pressure on individuals, families and communities has weakened the middle class by raising the costs of education, health care and real estate, and undermining wages, job security and organized labor. Americans fear exploitation and intimidation in the workplace, and also fear loss of status, health coverage and retirement pension. What's more, they fear each other, and not entirely without reason — a factor that helps explain the proliferation of guns. (This is nearly identical to the classic "security dilemma" of international relations theory.) 

Global economic forces subject Americans to the rule of the unaccountable one percent, the whims of the FIRE corporations (finance, insurance and real estate) and the condescension and pandering of their lackeys in both political parties. Workers tough it out while the masters of the new Gilded Age buy politicians, lawmakers, judges, think tanks, media outlets and experts; corrupt and exploit the skewed tax system; flout the law and the public interest (no major executive was incarcerated for the 2008 Great Recession); and corrupt the public spirit. To say that the system is rigged, as critics on both the left and right proclaim, is nowhere near adequate. 

Abandoned by corporate Democrats, in 2016 the (white) working and middle classes turned in desperation toward an arsonist leading a gang of saboteurs. Their rage resulted from their dysfunctional context; their radicalization was a reaction against structural injustice. Their radical politics may be understood, in part, as a desperate reaction against despair. As Hannah Arendt wrote in "The Origins of Totalitarianism" about 1930s fascism, "the masses' escape from reality is a verdict against the world in which they're forced to live.... It's a protest against the real conditions of existence."

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Male anxiety and overcompensation have further befouled this witches' brew. Dominant models of American personhood, and especially manhood, are rooted in stereotypes of heroism, self-reliance, stoicism, greed, athleticism and competitive vigor, not to mention heterosexuality. Reality appears somewhat different, as the hard right is characterized by panic, emotional incontinence, unhinged rage and homicidal schadenfreude. (Of course I mean Donald Trump, but consider also Ann Coulter, Tucker Carlson, Marjorie Taylor Greene, Laura Ingraham, Alex Jones, Rush Limbaugh, Michelle Malkin, etc.) 

Archetypes of manliness are grotesquely distorted by far-right online "communities" of gamers, "incels" and white supremacists, and entirely too many women who embrace a cartoonish vision of masculinity and denigrate feminism. Anguished "conservatives" and "patriots" are incensed by women's progress, the evolution of gender mores and increasing acceptance of a wide range of LGBTQ+ identities. They are simultaneously insecure and arrogant, fragile and bellicose. Their aggressive bombast and misogyny only serves to reveal the compensatory role played by performative toxic masculinity in lessening their inner turmoil and re-establishing a vague semblance of psychic safety.

There is a continuum that encompasses run-of-the mill misogynists, "pick-up artists," men's rights activists, the online manosphere (e.g., MGTOW), extreme gamers, incels, incels who murder women, the alt-right, and activists and politicians who want to strip women of their rights. Male supremacy also feeds white supremacy, as white sexual anguish stokes racial anguish over Black men's virility and fuels the spread of the "great replacement" conspiracy theory. 

This shared hostility toward women and minorities springs from recognizable sociopathic traits: entitlement, grievance, raging righteousness, cruelty, and social domination. Many are looking for father figures, authoritarian or even punitive fathers, for unapologetically dominant alpha males (John Wayne, Rambo, Trump, "Top Gun," John Wick) and models on how to be a real man (Jordan Peterson). In April of this year, Tucker Carlson infamously pushed an apocalyptic-messianic "documentary" called "The End of Men" that advocated "testicle tanning," or exposing male genitalia to red light, supposedly to boost testosterone levels, as a form of "bromeopathy." 

In his 1897 classic of sociology, "Suicide," Émile Durkheim argued that suicide was not a purely individual phenomenon, but was influenced by collective forces. A society that nurtures functional "little platoons" (à la Edmund Burke) and the sound social integration and regulation of individuals helps them cope with the rigors of life. When that kind of integration fails, the result may be what Durkheim called "selfish suicide" (individuals who feel disconnected), while deficient regulation may facilitate "anomic suicide" (when an individual lacks a sense of rules and meaning). On the other hand, too much integration, as in the military or cult movements, can facilitate "altruistic suicide" (self-sacrifice for the group), while excessive regulation may facilitate "fatalistic suicides" (in which someone breaks under the weight of rigid social norms). In other words, unbalanced forms of social cohesion produce specific pathologies. It's not much of a leap to conceive that American society, with its social isolation, incessant consumerism, endless commercial spectacle and social Darwinism, could produce all sorts of alarming compensatory strategies, such as the manic, cultish, bellicose energy of the MAGA faithful.

Indeed, the fear of death — whether biological and social — is the fear that underpins countless others. As anthropologist Ernest Becker showed in "The Denial of Death," individuals will do almost anything to lessen or forget this primal terror. Trumpers repudiate their loved ones, vilify reason and science, internalize outlandish lies and embrace servitude and mob rule. Cognitive dissonance, motivated reasoning, confirmation bias and amnesia are the ticket into the warm embrace of the tribe, which is both an extension of one's precious ego and a framework for security — the basis of Abraham Maslow's pyramid of fundamental human needs.

Furthermore, terror management and grief processing are closely connected. Elizabeth Kübler-Ross famously identified five stages of grief: denial, anger, depression, bargaining and acceptance. Millions of Trumpers grapple with loss and remain stuck at the initial, pain-filled levels of the grieving process: "The COVID virus is a myth, I am in control" (denial); "Mask mandate is Nazism and/or communism" (anger); "Dr. Fauci stole my life" (anger and depression); "If I take vitamin D, I won't be affected" (bargaining). They take longer to move toward acceptance, if that ever happens: "I will wash my hands and keep a safe distance." David Kessler, a foremost expert on grief and close collaborator of Kübler-Ross, added a sixth stage: seeking meaning. But actual meaning can only come after an acceptance of reality. Delusional sense-seeking is what happens when individuals and groups short-circuit the process, skip healthy grieving and rush into compensatory worlds. 

The fear of economic exploitation, violence, political sclerosis, loneliness and death is easy enough to understand. Yet another fear torments Americans: fear of freedom.

The fear of economic exploitation, violence and war, institutional or political sclerosis, solipsism and death is easy to understand. Yet another fear secretly torments many Americans: fear of freedom, or rather fear of the charges and duties that responsible freedom entails. Erich Fromm, in his study of Nazism "Escape From Freedom," explains that the rigors of freedom create considerable anxiety in many individuals, who seek to lessen stress through three mechanisms: destructiveness, conformity with (and submission to) the group, and seeking refuge in an authoritarian movement that seems to offers direction and meaning. Today, the mainstream, conventional American sense of self is self-centered, entitled and inauthentic; and therefore also insecure and hyper-vigilant, aggrieved and bellicose. An epidemic of narcissism and unmoored subjectivity that cuts across generations, races, genders, sexual orientations, classes and political affiliations has fed the current crisis. Irritable individual sovereignty, freed from any sense of responsibility, helps many Trumpers indulge their narcissism, intellectual laziness and conformity. 

Indeed, willful ignorance is key here. In 1546, John Heywood, perhaps inspired by Jeremiah 5:21, wrote: "There are none so blind as those who will not see." Self-indulgence mixes with the old populist mystique of practical knowledge and vocational skills to feed the fear and hatred of analytical culture and critical thinking — and the particularly demanding form of freedom it offers.

As Richard Hofstadter remarked some 60 years ago, anti-intellectualism and paranoia are American traditions embedded in the national experience. In his 1963 classic "Anti-Intellectualism in American Life," he argues that intellectuals and experts are viewed as "pretentious, conceited, effeminate, and snobbish; and very likely immoral, dangerous, and subversive" — and un-American. Historically, the American glorification of the "common man" tends to feed demagoguery, favors the lowest common denominator and fuels self-absorption, religious fundamentalism and suspicion of the experts and other Others. It is Jacksonian democracy run amok. Mangled English and a smug ignorance (of science, history, the world, legitimate sources of knowledge) become evidence of one's authenticity (Trump, Sarah Palin, George W. Bush) and good character. Hostility toward critical knowledge is also a form of revolt against the Enlightenment, against an ideal of truth that demands questioning one's ego, one's limits, one's safety and one's world. This ontological insecurity feeds paranoia, which Hofstadter defined as "the sense of heated exaggeration, suspiciousness, and conspiratorial fantasy" that characterizes "more or less normal people" throughout American history.

Paranoia is found across historical time and space. Its American avatar harks back to medieval Christian millenarianism and end-time fantasies of destruction and salvation, which Norman Cohn describes as

the megalomaniac view of oneself as the Elect, wholly good, abominably persecuted, yet assured of ultimate triumph; the attribution of gigantic and demonic powers to the adversary; the refusal to accept the ineluctable limitations and imperfections of human existence, such as transience, dissention, conflict, fallibility whether intellectual or moral; the obsession with inerrable prophecies, systematized misinterpretations, always gross and often grotesque.

This portrait of medieval lunatics can be applied verbatim to contemporary QAnon believers, Christian nationalists and other "patriots." Trumpism is a charismatic, cultish and nihilistic mass movement that calls for destruction "for them" and salvation "for us." This helps explain why sadism, cruelty and sheer frenzy run deep in the MAGA circus: they bind the mob together toward mass cruelty and some apocalyptic showdown. Charisma replaces common sense. As Bret Stephens writes about the decay of moderate conservatism on both sides of the Atlantic: "Where there is sense, there is not much charisma; when there is charisma, there is almost no sense." 

Trumpist zealots converge on style and substance, while their goals and deeper motivations remain diverse. Many Trumpers are not fearful at all, but arrogant, domineering and coldly conniving. Others — the sour, surly, and surreal specimens whom Jordan Klepper interviews regularly — demonstrate the truth of the adage that "there are limits to human intelligence but no limits to human stupidity." Others, like the morally flexible evangelicals, use the "Cyrus the Great" rationalization (Isaiah 41:2-4, 45:1-3) to proclaim that Trump, though imperfect, was anointed by God because he delivered their most cherished goals. Millions of others spurred by anguish are riding along in the bacchanal, serving as the useful idiots and shock troops for the Pied Pipers, princes and principalities (Ephesians 6:12) of Trumpistan. 

By Michel Gueldry

Michel Gueldry is professor of French studies and intercultural studies and director of the Global Engineering Program at Missouri University of Science & Technology.

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Commentary Democracy Donald Trump Fascism Fear Freedom History Maga Mental Health Psychology