How do we make sense of the descent of Trump supporters, including people we know, into outright sedition? People who grew up reciting the Pledge of Allegiance are now actively betraying “the flag of the United States of America and the republic for which it stands” by supporting an attempted overthrow of democracy.
In my book, I describe the two very different visions of what our republic is, and how people can sincerely believe themselves to be patriots of two very different nations, both called the United States.
But I also describe how unscrupulous leaders can exploit this sincere, horizontal division to elicit something underneath it: the worst instincts in human nature.
That’s what we’re seeing now. At this point, to believe Trump’s outrageous lies is to want to believe them. Even allowing for the right wing media bubble, the malign effects of social media algorithms, foreign disinformation campaigns, or the sorry state of civics education, the self-contradictory conspiracy theories we’re hearing don’t survive a moment’s reflection — whether that reflection is logical or moral. You don’t need to be brilliant or even particularly well-informed to see that what Trump is doing is just wrong.
But with Trump, persuasion has long since stopped mattering.
The point is not persuasion, but permission.
Ironically, a moralistic crusade, like the one Trump claims to lead, can provide permission for the most immoral behavior — as it did with the actual Crusades. From behind the moralistic shield of “liberating the Holy Land from infidels,” Crusaders were able to indulge in looting and murder while claiming — and often even believing — that they were serving the Prince of Peace. Atrocities throughout history, committed by people of nearly every religion and nearly every political persuasion, have been similarly “justified.”
The justifications are obviously incoherent — unless the point is permission, not persuasion.
Sigmund Freud was wrong about some things, but I think he was right about what he called the “death drive” in human nature. Alongside the need for love and life — what Freud called “Eros” — is its dark obverse: fear and rage at the loss, frustration, and pain in our lives, expressed as the urge to destroy. We see the death drive acted out by infants, and we try to rear adults who can contain it.
The death drive is present in all people, whether we think of it in Freudian terms or just call it aggression. But currently only one of our political parties is deliberately trying to excite and exploit it, under the leadership of a deeply damaged man who was long since taken over by it, apparently because of neglect and abuse he suffered in childhood.
Trump is probably helpless to control himself. And he is enabled by utterly cynical, anti-patriotic opportunists in the House, Senate, right-wing media, among the greedy wealthy, and in a heretical offshoot of the Christian church that’s essentially a con game rooted in white nationalism.
But he’s also enabled by the urge of his followers to just smash things. This is the larger meaning of “owning the libs,” which can include actions that are self-defeating, but which feel satisfying. It’s justified by moralistic beliefs like “the system is rigged,” “the radical socialists are taking over,” “they’re coming for our guns,” or “they want to kill babies.”
In less extreme form, any of these can represent sincere concerns about corruption, socialism, and the rest — concerns that can be addressed through democratic means. If you lose one election, you try to win the next.
But in the extreme, even fantastical forms these justifications take now — QAnon insanity from the mouth of the American president — the next step is the overthrow of democracy.
It may look like a moral crusade, but it’s also a release from the bonds of civilization, which restrain both the death drive and Eros to make society work.
All of us chafe against those bonds at least sometimes. But an autocrat destroys them: one way we can see autocracy is as the triumph of a supremely narcissistic infant over the civilization created by adults. It’s no coincidence that Trump presents as an impulsive, raging baby in an old man’s body.
And the vision of freedom he offers is essentially infantile: just cut loose and do what you want, consequences — and everyone else — be damned.