"Train and socialize": Expert on linguistic anthropology explains how Trump is warping MAGA minds

The implications stretch far beyond Donald Trump — and are ominous for American society

By Chauncey DeVega

Senior Writer

Published July 18, 2023 5:45AM (EDT)

Former US President and 2024 presidential hopeful Donald Trump speaks at the Turning Point Action USA conference in West Palm Beach, Florida, on July 15, 2023. (GIORGIO VIERA/AFP via Getty Images)
Former US President and 2024 presidential hopeful Donald Trump speaks at the Turning Point Action USA conference in West Palm Beach, Florida, on July 15, 2023. (GIORGIO VIERA/AFP via Getty Images)

One of the Republican Party's most effective weapons in its campaign to end America's multiracial pluralistic democracy is a media propaganda machine that functions as a closed episteme and echo chamber. Anchored by Fox News, the feedback loop exerts a powerful if not almost omnipotent level of control over its public's beliefs, thoughts, values, behavior, and emotions. This is accomplished through a strategy of repeating lies, amplifying and circulating conspiracy theories, and encouraging violence and hatred against some type of Other.

Ultimately, Donald Trump and other right-wing neofascists, authoritarians, demagogues, and malign actors are political entrepreneurs who are leveraging a public that has been trained and conditioned over decades to respond to such leaders, messaging, and voices. Trump is a symptom of a much deeper problem in American politics and society, after all, not the cause.

Marcel Danesi is Professor Emeritus of linguistic anthropology and semiotics at the University of Toronto. His new book is Politics, Lies and Conspiracy Theories: A Cognitive Linguistic Perspective.

In this wide-ranging conversation, Danesi details how neuroscience, psychology, and linguistics can help us to understand why Donald Trump's MAGA cultists and other right-wing voters and followers will likely not be abandoning him any time soon. Right-wing demagogues like Trump, Danesi explains, are able to use metaphors and repeated codes and tropes as part of a larger rhetorical strategy that manipulates and triggers their targeted public on an almost subconscious level. The implications are ominous for American democracy and civil society because such programming is very hard to counteract.

This conversation has been lightly edited for clarity and length.

How are you feeling in this moment given the ascendancy of the global right and neofascist movement with its fake populists and demagogues such as Donald Trump, Orban, Erdogan, and others?

I am truly worried. Fascist-totalitarian leaders present and represent themselves as the only ones who can restore the purported "historical purity" of the state, which might be seen as having been defiled by a supposed invasion of outsiders, and by the ideas and actions of liberal elites, who bring corruption and immorality to the nation's real original values—a view dramatized by Trump in his initial campaign speech, in which he referred to Mexican immigrants people that "have a lot of problems, and they're bringing those problems to us." Once large segments of the population buy into the autocrat's rhetoric, the situation is ripe for a takeover of their minds and hearts. The rise of neofascism and pseudo-populism today is connected to the spread of a false belief system activated by the autocrat's strategic, clever rhetoric, which is perceived as a language that speaks directly to everyone, unlike the talk of elites or academics.

Trump and other right-wing demagogues and neofascists repeatedly use hatred, violence, and conspiracy theories as a feature of their communications style and other messaging. Why do these strategies work?

What makes their appeals effective, in my view, is the fact that their discourses are coded with meaning below the threshold of consciousness, where the belief system can be manipulated for ideological purposes. An example is the age-old idea that there is a cabal behind the scenes that is controlling the world. So, the populist leader emerges as the one who will defeat the cabal, called the "deep state", made up of the usual suspects (such as liberals). Using such coded language reinforces the mind control that autocrats aim to exercise. Calling a group "animals" or "parasites", over and over, eventually becomes part of the belief system, and accepted as true, as the work of Berkeley cognitive scientist George Lakoff has shown consistently.

"When we are exposed to systemic lies, such as those of dictators and mind manipulators, the brain seems to create a false memory code for them, based on how we feel at the time of the lies."

Metaphors are powerful because they "switch on" existing circuits in the brain by linking together salient images and ideas, as for example linking a certain group to pests. The more these circuits are activated the more hardwired they become. Research shows that people under the influence of "big lies" develop more rigid neural pathways, showing signs of difficulty in rethinking situations. As it is almost impossible to turn the switch off, this means that when we accept a big lie or a conspiracy theory, it can reshape our perception of reality without us being aware of it. By being exposed to hate metaphors, for instance, we may develop hostile feelings towards specific groups. After a while the negative image of the group metamorphizes in the imagination into that of a parasitic organism that lives at the other's expense. It was a powerful nefarious strategy that the Nazis used constantly in their antisemitic propaganda.

Donald Trump has what former CIA profiler Jerrold Post described in a conversation with me as "dark charisma". His description of Trump and the danger he represented to the nation – which was proven by Jan. 6 — was chilling and prophetic. In terms of cognition and language, how does such "dark charisma" work in terms of the leader-follower relationship? For explaining the cult leader-like power and charm of Trump and other such dangerous leaders over their followers?  

The charisma of the populist leader comes, in my view, from his ability to use language to captivate people's minds. The charismatic leader is a master wordsmith, who is able to wreak moral chaos on the polity through his deceitful use of words to create a mind fog that obscures reality and produces its own illusory world. He does this through a constant mind-numbing repetition of the same metaphors, slogans, clichés, and catchwords. In literary circles, speech based on clichés or repetitive formulas is discouraged and considered to be anathema to good style. Trump's discourse is the exact opposite of this style. This is intentional. He uses it as an antidote to the politically correct speech of the élite (academics, liberal politicians, Democrats, and so on); it is his language of the "revolution." As such, he is perceived as the charismatic leader who will take the nation out of the fog and back into the light—to use common metaphors that follow him around.

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This type of speech is not an invention by Trump; it has always been the style adopted by despots to affect the polity. Mussolini, for example, confounded everyone when he came onto the political scene with his earthy language, setting himself apart from the intelligentsia of his era, tapping into people's fears and concerns that the intellectuals were self-serving, looking down on everyone who did not talk like them. He founded Fascism as an "anti-party" just after World War I. Like Trump, he was seen as a charismatic outsider who came forward to drain Italy's political and social swamp. He was a disrupter of the status quo, challenging the traditional politics of the nation and aiming to restore Italy to it great past.

In the most basic terms, narrative psychology consists of the stories that individuals and groups tell about themselves as a way of navigating the world and their place in it. What role does narrative psychology play in terms of eliminationism, conspiracism and violence?

The first step to manipulating minds is tapping into an emotional state, such as fear or uncertainty. As cognitive science has been showing, the brain is designed to respond to fear in various ways, with its own in-built defense mechanisms which produce chemicals in the response pattern, such as cortisol and adrenaline. These chemical responses are also activated by forms of language that instill fear, either directly (as in a vocal threat) or, more insidiously, by twisted facts which allay fears through lies and deceptive statements. Research shows that this language taps into and "switches on" existing circuits in the brain that link together important and salient images and ideas. Metaphors in particular bypass higher cognitive reasoning centers to make linkages that may not have a basis in reality. And when that happens, a person is less likely to notice the lie, because it "feels" right.

Someone like Trump knows how to lie and spin conspiracies—it is not random lying. He taps into the emotional response system of his followers, stoking false belief systems, through his strategic use of language. He is the maximum huckster, in the tradition of American hucksterism. Linguist David Maurier wrote a perceptive book in 1940, titled appropriately, The Big Con, in which he gave a comprehensive description of the features and effects of the big talk of hucksters and how it renders us credulous despite evidence that we are being conned. Maurier's book inspired the 1973 movie, The Sting, which is a portrait of American hucksterism and how it has become an intrinsic part of American culture.

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One cannot underestimate the power of narrative to foster belief, since it puts things together into a storyline that makes sense on its own, no matter what the truth of the matter might be. One could claim that the brain is a "narrative organ," which makes sense of the world through narrative interpretations. I have called the belief in false narratives as the result of a "Da Vinci Code effect," after the 2001 novel by Dan Brown, which stitches together bits and pieces of history into a purported secret history of the lineage of Christ.

The believability of a false narrative is reinforced by what psychologists call apophenia, defined as the proclivity to perceive meaningful connections among unrelated things. Apophenia is typical of conspiracy theories, fake news, and false mythic histories, where unrelated coincidences of history are woven together into an apparent plot that is occurring (or has occurred) behind the scenes. In a false narrative the "bad guys" are the "others" who are seen as the enemy and thus must be "eliminated." History shows that violence against others is often related to the power of the false narrative.

The right-wing news media is a type of echo chamber and closed episteme. It is one of the most powerful propaganda machines ever created.

Such media tap into conspiracy codes, enlarging them and spreading them broadly. They are propaganda machines. Propaganda is a systematic use of disinformation, a classic ploy of Machiavellian liars. The first modern-day use of disinformation tactics can be traced to Soviet Russia under Joseph Stalin, who coined the term itself and founded a "Disinformation Office" in 1923—his version of Orwell's Ministry of Truth. In the post-Soviet era, the disinformation strategy has hardly evanesced, since it was adopted as a key military and social engineering tactic under Vladimir Putin, who has used it effectively both to control the minds of his own people and to interfere manipulatively in the affairs of other nations. The intent is destabilization through disinformation. Right-wing media in America, as far as I can see, use disinformation to support populists such as Trump.

"One cannot underestimate the power of narrative to foster belief, since it puts things together into a storyline that makes sense on its own, no matter what the truth of the matter might be."

Interestingly, Trump's constant attacks on the "left-wing media", such as CNN, the Washington Post, the New York Times, and other liberal media as "enemies of the people" who spout "fake news" falls into the same category of attack on the free press witnessed in the regimes of Mussolini, Stalin, and Hitler.

On the other hand, Trump's praise of supportive alt-right social media is reminiscent of state-controlled journalism in totalitarian regimes. Trump's clever strategy of calling the media that critique him "fake news" and those supporting him as "real news," does not emerge in a vacuum. Not only is it consistent with totalitarian politics in general, but it is a salient attempt to undermine serious coverage that is critical of Trump. It is not surprising that, like other autocrats, he has constantly called for government control and even censorship of these outlets. Perhaps he envisions the Federal Communications Commission as his personal Ministry of Truth.

Leaders train and socialize their followers into behavior, both positive and negative. How have Trump and other right-wing leaders in the United States conditioned and trained their public into eliminationist and other violence and hatred?

A major finding of neuroscience is that when we believe a big lie, our brain creates a false memory system to accommodate it. The mental implications of lying are thus clearly profound. It can literally "train and socialize" believers. One of the most salient findings in the research literature is that lying takes a lot of energy to carry out, and so our brains seemingly adapt to lying so that they can continue to function normally—a process called "retrieval." When we are exposed to systemic lies, such as those of dictators and mind manipulators, the brain seems to create a false memory code for them, based on how we feel at the time of the lies. This rewired neural system might make us feel better, but at the same time, it will make us less likely to recognize the truth.

Activating the neural system in this way is an ability that the Machiavellian liar possesses. This ability allows the liar to emerge into the limelight as a leader who can do no wrong, especially if there is a sense that a nation is at war with itself culturally. Trump is perceived as a leader in such a cultural war, which sees a loss of America's true cultural paradigm, threatened by the invasion of "others" who are contaminating the paradigm along with the "radical left liberals" who support the paradigm shift. The MAGA story is, essentially, an attack on otherness. This does not necessarily imply that believers in the story are racist. The power of the narrative is that it embraces all kinds of people who desire a return to a "pure past." It is an Orwellian strategy, crafted to restore pride in the supposed historical roots of the "Real America," and thus to restore its "real culture." In the process it attacks otherness as a source of the disruption of these roots.

Can Trump's MAGA followers and other members of the right-wing who have been conditioned through years and decades by their leaders and media into such dangerous and unhealthy thinking and behavior be deradicalized? What is the role of "information backfire" here?

A major effect of constant lies and belief in conspiracy theories is the syndrome called cognitive dissonance, discussed initially by the American psychologist Leon Festinger in 1957, who defined it as the condition of conflict or anxiety resulting from an inconsistency between one's beliefs and one's actions. People will seek out information that confirms their own attitudes and views of the world, or else reinforces aspects of conditioned behavior, avoiding information that is likely to be in conflict with their worldview and, thus, bringing about cognitive dissonance. So, when a diehard follower of a dictator or a victim of a con artist is told about the deception, the reaction is, often, to develop strategies to attenuate the dissonance they might feel, tending to turn the contrasting information on its head, so to make sense of it in terms of their belief systems.

Big lies and false alternative histories generate a society-wide cognitive dissonance. However, never before in human history has such dissonance become so embedded globally, because of the massiveness of the diffusion of disinformation through the Internet, whereby through constant repetition and the activation of mechanisms such as apophenia, people might accept, say, a conspiracy theory at face value, adding to it subjectively by commenting on the theory through personal posts. The resulting interactive system makes the false ideas even more believable in themselves—a mindset that can be encapsulated colloquially as follows: "If so many believe it, then it must be true, especially since I myself can add something to the substance of the information." This whole false discourse system is bolstered by social media algorithms—when someone clicks on a conspiracy-oriented post, the algorithm offered up similar posts, sites, and platforms, which contained more false information, perpetuating the cycle of falsity that became larger and larger.

All that said, history all teaches us that truth eventually triumphs over lies and hatred (pardon my cliché). Our brain is ultimately a practical device that can be fooled only for a time, until negative conditions created by lies impel it to "recalibrate" itself. I have no empirical evidence for this, just historical evidence. All the dictatorships of the past were eventually vanquished.

What are you most optimistic about given your research and findings, if anything? What are you most worried and pessimistic about?

In a nutshell, throughout history lies work for a while, until they give way to truth. I am thus optimistic, but patience is needed in all this—a lot of it. Big lies are everywhere today, used to justify conflicts, such as invasions into national territories, as is the case of Putin's invasion of Ukraine, which he justified as a purification operation. Decoding how the tactics of mendacity work in manipulating minds, in order to come up with counterstrategies for obviating or stemming their deleterious influence, is an urgent objective.  

The current era is sometimes called a "post-truth" one, because of the spread of falsehoods and conspiracy theories broadly, especially through the Internet. It may be better described, however, as an unethical era. While this book does not offer concrete practical advice on what to do about protecting oneself against the unethical distortions, it will hopefully have implications for "immunization" against them, by deconstructing the tactics on which disinformation and lies are implanted and spread. There are no such things as "remedies" or "antidotes;" one can only raise awareness of the meanings behind the words, the symbols, and the other representational forms that are injecting falsehoods into groupthink, leading to meaning breakdowns throughout the world.

Hopefully, it will shed constructive light on the following warning issued by Hannah Arendt, who was the first to propose that Nazism and Stalinism had common roots and who, if alive today, would discern these roots in many other areas: "A people that no longer can believe anything cannot make up its mind. It is deprived not only of its capacity to act but also of its capacity to think and to judge. And with such a people you can then do what you please."

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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