Why does Trump continue to hold sway over his gullible followers?

There has to be something more to this than just blaming social media or cable TV outlets for why ordinary people gravitate to falsehoods and conspiracy theories 

By Anil Madan

For almost fifteen months since he lost to Joe Biden, Donald Trump has lived off the myth that the election was stolen from him. That Trump propagates such an outlandish falsehood is no surprise. It was to be expected.

Way back in the 2016 campaign, at the very first Republican presidential debate, Trump was the only candidate who refused to commit to supporting his party’s eventual nominee if he did not prevail. Later, he refused to commit to accepting the election result should Hillary Clinton prevail. In 2020, even before a single vote was cast, he set the stage for the lament that should he lose, it would be due to fraudulent votes—all this without a shred of evidentiary support.

Christopher Krebs, nominated by Trump and confirmed by a unanimous Senate vote as head of the Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency declared the 2020 election was “the most secure in American history.” Trump’s Attorney General William Barr who, gratuitously and without evidentiary support, had opined that mail-in balloting is susceptible to fraud, also said there was no evidence of fraud in the election. As well, Mitch McConnell, the Republican Senate Majority Leader, declared that Biden had won the election. These three staunch Republicans earned Trump’s scorn for their disloyal failure to subscribe to his lies.

Trump was impeached twice but escaped conviction both times because the Democrats did not have the votes to convict by a two-thirds majority. After the second trial by the Senate, Mitch McConnell said: “There is no question, none, that President Trump is practically and morally responsible for provoking the events of the day.” He also noted that Trump watched the events unfold on television and took no action. “A mob was assaulting the Capitol in his name,” he said. “These criminals were carrying his banners, hanging his flags and screaming their loyalty to him.”

The day after the events of January 6, McConnell’s wife Elaine Chao who served in Trump’s cabinet as Secretary of Transportation resigned. She characterized the assault on the Capitol as a traumatic and entirely avoidable event that “has deeply troubled me in a way I cannot set aside.” One cannot imagine that she did not run all this by McConnell. Yet, notwithstanding this and his own words, McConnell refused to vote to convict Trump.

A race-bating xenophobic religious bigot

During the 2016 presidential campaign, Lindsey Graham the Republican Senator from South Carolina called Trump “a kook,” “crazy” and “unfit for office” and added for good measure that Trump is “a race-bating xenophobic religious bigot.” He had also said: “You know how you make America great again? Tell Donald Trump to go to hell.”

After the January 6 assault on the Capitol, Graham declared: “Count me out. Enough is enough.” And he backed the election results conceding that Biden is the legitimate President of the United States, and “Joe Biden and Kamala Harris are lawfully elected.” But Graham also did not vote to convict Trump. Since then, he seems to have changed his position once again after he spent a weekend playing golf with Trump earlier this month, calling him a “damn good President” and having forgiven Trump and claimed that independent voters too would forgive Trump if he ran again.

In March 2016, as Donald Trump was contending to be the Republican Party’s nominee for President, Mitt Romney the 2012 Republican nominee who eventually lost to Barack Obama, gave a speech in which he expressed his conviction that America is poised to lead the world for another century. He rattled off some of the major challenges facing the nation but optimistically projected that if we make the right choices, America’s future would be even better than its past and better than its present. He concluded that Donald Trump was the wrong choice saying: “Let me put it plainly, if we Republicans choose Donald Trump as our nominee, the prospects for a safe and prosperous future are greatly diminished.”

Romney concluded his speech with these words:

“Here’s what I know. Donald Trump is a phony, a fraud. His promises are as worthless as a degree from Trump University. He’s playing the American public for suckers: He gets a free ride to the White House and all we get is a lousy hat.

“His domestic policies would lead to recession. His foreign policies would make America and the world less safe. He has neither the temperament nor the judgment to be president. And his personal qualities would mean that America would cease to be a shining city on a hill.”

Romney’s follow-on performance was mixed. After he won the 2016 election, President-elect Trump allowed rumours to float that he was considering Romney for the position of Secretary of State. And much to the surprise of political observers, Romney travelled to New York and then to Trump’s golf club in New Jersey for exploratory meetings with Trump. Romney, all but panting for the appointment, praised Trump and said he had “increasing hope” that Trump could lead the nation to a better future. Trump never offered Romney the position and it is clear that Romney was being played for a fool. The question is why did Romney subject himself to humiliation? Eventually, Romney voted to convict Trump at the impeachment trials.

Why do people continue to endorse a proven liar and loser?

These are three examples of successful leaders who did not need to kowtow to Trump. The question is why do people seem to accept his falsehoods and continue to endorse a proven liar and loser? Indeed, we might ask what is it that causes people around the world to snuggle up to authoritarian dictators, abusers and lowlifes like Putin, Xi Jinping, Kim Jong Un, Bashar al Assad, Reccep Tayyeb Erdogan, Trump, and any number of others who have filled the pages of history?

It is somewhat easier to understand that in countries where communication is tightly controlled, the Internet is not always available, and communications can be censored, the opportunity to engage in organized resistance is limited. We have seen how ruthless oppression in Hong Kong, Russia, Turkey, Myanmar, and North Korea makes resistance well nigh impossible. In a country such as the United States, this excuse is not available. 

Of course, even in the United States, communication is often channelled in subtle ways so that falsehoods and misinformation are amplified. But there has to be something more to this than just blaming social media or cable TV outlets for why ordinary people gravitate to falsehoods and conspiracy theories.

Why do almost 40% of Americans believe that the election was stolen and why did almost two-thirds of Republican responders to a recent NPR/Ipsos say that they believe the verifiably false and debunked claims that voter fraud helped Biden beat Trump?

It has been the hallmark of American democracy that the loser in an election accepts defeat after all lawful challenges are exhausted. Lawful challenges include demands for recounts were allowed by applicable state laws and rules and challenges filed with courts of appropriate jurisdiction. Donald Trump is the first American president who not only alleged that the election was stolen from him but tried to subvert the administration of the electoral process in order to have himself declared the winner. 

Trump and his campaign, as well as surrogates and supporters filed some 63 lawsuits challenging the election results. They lost all but one and that one involved a minor procedural victory that did not change the result. But Trump’s efforts were more sinister. Not only did his personal attorney Rudy Giuliani orchestrate an effort to issue to the National Archives fraudulent certifications of electors purporting to have been duly elected, but Trump himself pressured the Georgia Secretary of State to “find” him the votes necessary to win that state’s election. 

Part of this may be explained by the fact that people simply don’t want to admit that they have backed a loser. But there are other forces, some more subtle and some not so subtle.

If we go back to Trump’s first campaign, one has to acknowledge that he displayed a certain genius for putting his finger on hot button issues. Americans have for long resented the loss of their jobs to China. Never mind that America’s corporate CEOs have been complicit in the transfer of American jobs and technology to China. But when Trump accused China of unfair trade practices, theft of American technology, and promised to put a stop to it, he won the hearts and minds of a significant number of Americans. When Trump played on Americans’ fears of illegal immigrants committing violent crimes, rapes, and selling drugs, he played upon racist fears that the country was slowly evolving from a majority white nation to one more mixed and more brown. 

When Trump derided the Iran nuclear deal, he played on the fears of evangelicals that the US was abandoning Israel. And when he lamented the failure of NATO’s members to pay their fair share of defense costs, he played upon more fears of Americans that the Europeans were taking advantage.

Trump played on the exhaustion of a nation fatigued by seemingly endless wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

It was difficult for Trump supporters to see how Biden, who expressed no concern about any of these issues, could prevail. And for good measure, Trump’s Make America Great Again slogan had the necessary tinge of patriotism.

Theory of stupidity

Now all this is about to come apart at the seams. The Congressional Committee investigating the events of January 6, 2021 has won a significant victory when the Supreme Court ruled against Trump’s claims of Executive Privilege to shield White House documents from the committee’s subpoena. So far, documents reveal that Trump went so far as to draft an Executive Order directing the Secretary of Defense to seize voting machines around the country. Such an order in the opinion of experts would be patently unlawful and perhaps the military would never have carried it out. On the other hand, the National Guard units in states loyal to Trump may well have heeded such orders.

We have no clear answers as to why Americans with unlimited access to information succumbed to the lies and distortions of Trump. 

Trump eventually chose Rex Tillerson, the CEO of ExxonMobil to be his Secretary of State. Tillerson did not last long, but it is telling that he was willing to give up his position at the helm of one of the world’s largest companies for an ephemeral stint under a man he was later to call a “f–king moron.”

Just today, a friend sent me a write up on Dietrich Boenhoffer’s theory of stupidity which essentially states that stupidity is a more dangerous enemy of the good than evil. He wrote:

“Against stupidity we have no defense. Neither protests nor force can touch it. Reasoning is of no use. Facts that contradict personal prejudices can simply be disbelieved — indeed, the fool can counter by criticizing them, and if they are undeniable, they can just be pushed aside as trivial exceptions. So, the fool, as distinct from the scoundrel, is completely self-satisfied. In fact, they can easily become dangerous, as it does not take much to make them aggressive. For that reason, greater caution is called for than with a malicious one. Never again will we try to persuade the stupid person with reasons, for it is senseless and dangerous.”

Maybe it is just that simple. Stupidity. 


* Published in print edition on 28 January 2022

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