The malaise of MAGA

Donald Trump is counting on rising anxiety and cynicism to propel his return to the White House

By Gregg Barak

Contributing Writer

Published February 10, 2024 6:00AM (EST)

Make America Great Again Hats on Ground (Getty/David McNew)
Make America Great Again Hats on Ground (Getty/David McNew)

The bipartisan divide, coupled with the danger of electing Donald Trump for a second time, has left many Americans in a state of mass alienation and high anxiety. That will not likely dissipate anytime soon, whether the incumbent President Joe Biden is once again victorious as in 2020 or the former president is elected for a second time. 

As Malcolm Nance, a renowned expert on terrorism, extremism and insurgency, has contended, the Trump insurgency is a threat that the U.S. will have to confront for at least another generation. “The terrorists, street enforcers, militia members, Q-Anon adherents, and red-pilled Trump voters who believe the big lie collectively have the potential to drive America into civil war” or at the minimum will continue as a “slow-burning insurgency.”  

A case on the latter point is the current border standoff between Texas Gov. Greg Abbott and other GOP state governors versus the U.S. federal enforcement of immigration-border laws and the SCOTUS’ recent ruling calling out Texas’s illegal actions in this matter.   

Over the past several decades Americans regardless of political party have been losing their trust or faith in one another as human beings. According to various survey data, people of all parties are not psychologically feeling as connected or anchored to their local worlds as they once may have. 

People are a bit colder, harder, meaner, and less empathetic than they were back in the late 1980s. More recently, people are increasingly avoiding other people and more than a few are self-isolating post COVID-19. In fact, many people enjoyed the imposed isolation during the pandemic as it made avoiding other people easier especially when they could bubble with those adults and children whom they wished to spend time with. 

Overall, there has been rising anxiety and cynicism in the US – warranted and unwarranted — about government, religion, media, corporations, and the capacity of normal politics to resolve environmental conflicts from gun violence to climate change to financial looting to sexual conduct to the January 6 insurrection. The gathering anxiety and cynicism are not indivisible from the spiraling rates of mental illness especially among adolescent populations or from the bipartisan malaise regarding the potential loss and/or demise of American democracy as an existential crisis.

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Bipartisan alienation reflects not only a decline in secure attachments as well as an increase in dismissive and fearful attachments, but also a growing dissatisfaction with the prevailing political, economic, and cultural conditions in America. 

Demographically, the United States is not exceptional as human anxieties and political discontent are on the rise worldwide. Here the data is supportive of the idea that we are living in an “insecure-attachment” period. Discomfort with intimacies of all kinds not only sexual are on the rise and are to be avoided not only among those people with avoidant or dismissive attachment styles who are committed to their independence free of taxing partners or offspring. But also among those adults with fearful or preoccupied styles of attachment who still crave intimacy. 

While a growing number of people want to be left alone, many more are longing for personal attachments and social connections.

The data between 1988 and 2011 suggests that mental health or well-being was in slight decline. With respect to the four attachment styles and the three insecure styles combined – dismissing, preoccupied, and fearful – these increased from 51.02% in 1988 to 58.38% in 2011. And during the same period the percentage of people with a commitment to independence and non-attachment had increased from 11.93% to 18.62%.  

Notably, anecdotal evidence and more recent research also suggests that Americans are growing wary of their own colleagues, neighbors, friends, partners, and parents. For example, the share of adults between the ages of 35 and 54 who had a spouse or partner in 1990 compared to 2019 fell from 67% to 53%.

While a growing number of people want to be left alone, many more are longing for personal attachments and social connections. One way among many political ways to feel connected or to belong is to become a part of Trump’s “cult of the personality” and/or to adopt one or more of the popular conspiracy theories ascribed to by Q-Anon adherents and the MAGA base.  

Similarly, across the political spectrum, other ways of dealing with the rising alienation and anxiety is to hook up with similarly minded people in chatrooms or Substacks such as former US Attorney for the Norther District of Alabama Joyce Vance’s Civil Discourse with more than six million subscribers.       

Individualized alienation — feelings of disconnect or of not belonging — is widespread throughout American culture. According to a nationally representative survey taken in 2022 using the Belonging Barometer, people are experiencing belonging ambiguity or exclusion. More people than not feel disconnected from three out of five life measure markings. 

Those people not belonging or feeling disconnected included: 64% with their work, 68% with their nation, and 74% with their local communities. Moreover, 20% of Americans do not feel a “fit” with their friends and families. 

The Belonging Barometer research has also disclosed who those people are that are more likely than not to feel that they do not belong or are detached: “Americans are more likely to report belonging if they see themselves as better off or much better off economically than the average American; are older; identify as a woman or a man (vs. another gender); or identify as heterosexual (straight) or homosexual (gay) rather than bi/pansexual, asexual, or queer.”     

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Importantly, neither negative attachment styles nor social alienation are inevitably self-destructive. They are also subject to self-agency or to a conscious desire to change. These flexible or malleable styles of attachment and belonging as well as those corresponding tendencies of interaction vary among social relationships as these are continuously being reshaped by changing associations. 

With respect to “what is to be done,” let me paraphrase from two of the leading theorists on the subject of the alienation of people from themselves, their work, and their communities, one from the 19th century Karl Marx and one from the 20th century Frantz Fanon. For these two analysts, the key to overcoming the malaises of social alienation have nothing whatsoever to do with catching up, getting even with, or hating one’s enemies, adversaries, abusers, oppressors, and so on. 

It is certainly not about reinforcing institutionalized relationships of subordination or returning to some kind of caste system where the discriminatory treatment of repressed people and other offenses against their fundamental human rights had been normalized or rationalized away for any reason. Rather, the key to overcoming the malaises of alienation is about changing the social conditions or epidemiology of this alienation and moving societies beyond common indignities, gross inequities, and identity politics. 

When it comes to contemporary partisan politics, the 2024 presidential election, and those social policies affecting the alienation of others as well as the alienation of us, Trump and his groveling GOP sycophants are primarily about retribution and spreading cruelty near and far in the name only of Making America Great Again. 

As an antonym to the Biden and Democratic party’s empathetic catchphrase, “we feel your pain,” an appropriate catchphrase for the vindictive Trumpian party would be, “we are your pain.” Likewise, the Democrats have been pushing a multicultural, multiracial, and multigender inclusive society with expansive individual rights for all, while the Republicans have been pushing a mono-nationalist, heterosexual, and white supremacist exclusive society with reserved individual rights for the others. 

Adding to the daunting sense of anxiety, the Trump legal saga and disturbing trauma escalated to the Supreme Court this week. On Thursday, the State of Colorado argued before the high court that it can remove Trump from the 2024 ballot according to the 14th Amendment. It is a court case that would never have materialized in the first place had the GOP done its constitutional duty and impeached the former president for instituting the January 6 insurrection. The upcoming court decision should affirm the decision of the Colorado Supreme Court disqualifying Trump from the state ballot but in all likelihood the far right court will find a way to avoid doing so.  

Meanwhile, Trump and his team of attorneys have found a way to merge their political and legal argument in order to push their conspiracy theory that accounts for all the former president’s “sham” lawsuits – civil and criminal – as the product of the concerted efforts of “crooked” Joe Biden and his “thugs” over at the DOJ doing their best to undermine Trump’s third run for the presidency in 2024. This “defense” however will not save Trump from almost certain convictions on all of his criminal counts.

By Gregg Barak

Gregg Barak is an emeritus professor of criminology and criminal justice at Eastern Michigan University and the author of several books on the crimes of the powerful, including Criminology on Trump (2022) and its 2024 sequel, Indicting the 45th President: Boss Trump, the GOP, and What We Can Do About the Threat to American Democracy.



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Commentary Donald Trump Elections 2024 Loneliness Epidemic Maga