Soundings August 13: Rationalizing Trump: A Strained and Strange Mixture of Fantasy and Fear

One of the great puzzles of the Trump presidency is why his supporters and his adopted political party continue to accept his ludicrous lies and assent to whatever he argues, however fantastic. Logic and reason do not explain why so many Americans are willing to countenance Trump’s continued attacks on journalists, for example, as lying conspiracy promoters and “enemies of the people.” These baseless claims, assaults on the very foundations of a free people, demand much cognitively of those adopting them to rationalize them, since they are so completely discordant with reality. In truth, Trump’s contentions require that those supporting them set aside reason altogether. This is also the case for those who have chosen to believe Trump’s frequent assertions (most recently targeted at basketball superstar LeBron James) that individuals, especially African- Americans, who criticize him on any grounds have a low IQ or are “unintelligent.”1

Unfortunately, such attacks do not exhaust the long list of lies and hate mongering that many citizens have accepted at Trump’s behest. Those embracing Trump must also rationalize or choose to ignore his arguments that America’s allies constitute a great threat and its enemies, especially Russia, should instead be admired and respected. Indeed, Trump went so far at a recent campaign rally to suggest that the leaders of his own administration’s defense, intelligence and security establishment are wrong in contending Russia interfered with the 2016 election and continues to seek to shape American elections, as this is written. He instead called these concerns a “hoax,” an absolutely false, not to say, bizarre, allegation.2

At bottom, the paradox of Trump’s continued lies and simultaneous policy attacks on the interests of his supporters even as they continue to embrace him, raises at least three basic questions:

  • On what bases are they doing so?

  • What are the principal implications for self-governance of their continued support of a compulsive liar and demagogue?

  • How far are such Americans willing to cede their rights and those of their fellow citizens in their allegiance to Trump?

While many Republican elected leaders appear to be accepting Trump’s outlandish claims because they are fearful that his most fervent supporters will turn on them and perhaps jeopardize their reelection if they do not, others, including many members of the so-called Trump “base” that those GOP officials dread, offer different reasons for accepting Trump’s lies. Evangelicals offer one partial lens into these justifications as their members are among the staunchest group of Trump acolytes. A Washington Post reporter recently visited one such Southern Baptist congregation in the small rural town of Luverne, Alabama and the “reasons” its attendees offered for their allegiance to Trump were both disturbing and revelatory.3 It is useful to reflect on those contentions in light of the three concerns noted above. Recent polls suggest that roughly 80 percent of Southern Baptists nationally support Trump. And several of those in that church’s Luverne congregation, “agreed with Franklin Graham, son of the evangelist Billy Graham, that the only explanation for Trump being in the White House was that ‘God put him there.’”4 They assume this position in part because they believe that he is strongly supporting their anti-abortion view, is willing to seek the appointment of very conservative Supreme Court justices and understands that their faith is “under siege.” Moreover, they believe that God has ordained those positions. Apart from their predilection to support Trump’s stance in these areas, their assumption that God engineered Trump’s narrow Electoral College win is dangerous. By such a measure, any election winner may be judged a favorite of God and that leaves one with a long list of tyrants who have “won” elections, including Adolf Hitler, who, it would be difficult to contend, were engaged in God’s work. Bluntly, this argument is nonsense.

Some Luverne congregants recognized that this contention was problematic and were also troubled by Trump’s ugly personae, including his public speeches in which he routinely has called other individuals “losers” and “stupid,” and the many allegations concerning his past and present immoral and unethical personal behavior. As one leader in the Alabama church observed,

I hate it. My wife and I talk about it all the time. We rationalize the immoral things away. We don’t like it, but we look at the alternative, and think it could be worse than this. The only way to understand how a Christian like him could support a man who boasted about grabbing women’s crotches, Terry said, was to understand how he felt about the person Trump was still constantly bringing up in his speeches and who loomed large in Terry’s thoughts: Hillary Clinton, whom Terry saw as ‘sinister’ and ‘evil’ and ‘I’d say, of Satan.’ ‘She hates me,’ Terry said, sitting in Crum’s [the pastor’s] office one day. ‘She has contempt for people like me and Clay (sic.), and people who love God and believe in the Second Amendment. I think if she had her way it would be a dangerous country for the likes of me.’5

This argument is fascinating, for it suggests that these individuals were willing to believe that Hillary Clinton hated them and that their right to bear arms truly was at risk had she won the election instead of Trump. There is no evidence for either claim. Clinton’s unfortunate 2016 campaign comment that this population was deplorable was offered in frustration and it was never incorporated into her proposed policies or actions, which instead were designed to assist many who were and are Trump supporters. There is no confirmation, either, that Trump’s electoral shift to his current position concerning faith and the easy availability of powerful firearms was anything but opportunistic. In any case, apart from GOP and ideological posturing and propagandizing, there is also no substantiation, as the deacon remarked, that Clinton should be regarded as evil while Trump, who has a long history of ethically and morally dubious activities, including systematically misleading his supporters concerning the implications of his policies, should be regarded as “God’s chosen one.” These contentions suggest how far these individuals will twist their nominally espoused beliefs to rationalize their support for Trump.

Beyond these arguments, a share of the believers quoted by the Post, in keeping with their view that Trump is doing God’s work, went further to argue that,

‘I think they are trying to frame him,’ she said, referring to the unflattering stories about the president. By ‘they,’ she meant liberals and others she believed were not only trying to undermine Trump’s agenda, but God’s agenda for America, which she believed was engaged in a great spiritual contest between good and evil, God and Satan, the saved and the unsaved, for whom God had prepared two places.6

This sort of claim echoes Trump’s own wild conspiratorial claims that the media, “Fake News” and unspecified others (“they”) are making up stories to undermine him. Once again, there is no support for these arguments. Instead, as the Luverne church deacon Terry suggested, these individuals are “rationalizing” Trump’s often, in their view, abhorrent behavior, against apocalyptically framed fantasies concerning what would have occurred had he not won in 2016.

Some of Luverne’s congregants, to justify their support for Trump, embraced the claim that President Barack Obama is a Muslim (untrue, as was Trump’s long-time assertion that President Obama was not a citizen) who waged war on Christians, and the equally false claim that Hillary Clinton would have continued that mythical onslaught:

‘You can say righteously I do not support him [Trump] because of his moral character but you are washing your hands of what is happening in this country,’ she said, explaining that in her view America was slipping toward ‘a civil war on our shores.’... ‘Obama was acting at the behest of the Islamic nation,’ she began one afternoon when she was getting her nails done with her friend Linda. She was referring to allegations that President Barack Obama is a Muslim, not a Christian — allegations that are false. ‘He carried a Koran and it was not for literary purposes. If you look at it, the number of Christians is decreasing, the number of Muslims has grown. We allowed them to come in.’ ‘Obama woke a sleeping nation, said Linda.7

These individuals have accepted lies and fantasies to justify their fears and support of Trump, but these falsehoods were not of their making alone. The claim that Obama is a Muslim and that he conducted a “secret” war on Christianity did not originate with these groups. It is similarly outrageous that Trump has been rationalized as the savior who will remedy a nonexistent crisis. While Luverne’s churchgoers offered several more “reasons” for their support for Trump, it is clear that those claims sought foremost, as deacon Terry noted, to excuse.

While the views of this microcosm of Trump supporters may only be regarded as suggestive, they present a sobering picture. First, it appears that in the name of their fears of possibilities that are not occurring, their belief in lies; not to say their choice to believe in lies to rationalize their positions, and their overriding and absolutist devotion to a very few policy concerns, these individuals are willing to countenance a wide variety of pernicious policies and behaviors that undermine their broader economic and social interests and our regime more generally. Indeed, paradoxically, the very behaviors they have been willing to excuse concerning Trump - his constant and outrageous lies and double-speak efforts to undercut the nation’s primary institutions in the name of what he perceives as his short-term political interests - are corroding the nation’s capacities for self-governance. Second, to the extent that adherents of any faith tradition in our pluralistic nation are willing to believe and act on imagined fears that others are attacking them, they risk occasioning the disease they purport is already afoot. To the degree that perception was created and sustained in the present case by ideologues and power seekers for the purpose of mobilizing this constituency, it is especially cynical and its implications all the more sad for that reason.

Finally, the views of these individuals remind interested observers that democratic deliberation is innately complex and difficult to engender and still more challenging to sustain in today’s polarized environment of canalized and often politically self-interested information sources. This fact highlights the unsettling reality that those employing these vehicles to sow fear and spread lies to mobilize voters and secure votes are now playing a very significant enervating role in the future of self-governance in the United States.

Notes

[1] Caron, Christina. “Trump Mocks LeBron James Intelligence and calls Don Lemon Dumbest Man’ on TV,” The New York Times, August 4, 2018, https://www.nytimes.com/2018/08/04/sports/donald-trump-lebron-james-twitter.html Accessed August 4, 2018.

[2] Yen, Hope and Calvin Woodward. “AP Fact Check: Trump’s imagined Steel Mills, Russian ‘Hoax,’” Associated Press News, August 6, 2018, https://www.apnews.com/e6ee02634ee94e32a88a91c9d4d66c7a

[3] McCrummen, Stephanie, “Judgment Days: God, Trump and the Meaning of Morality,” The Washington Post, July 21, 2018, https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/national/wp/2018/07/21/feature/god-trump-and-the-meaning-of-morality/ Accessed July 21, 2018.

[4] McCrummen, August 4, 2018.

[5] McCrummen, August 4, 2018.

[6] McCrummen, August 4, 2018.

[7] McCrummen, August 4, 2018.