One way of understanding how Trump’s die-hard base can believe his obvious and easily disproven lies—last night’s debate saw an “avalanche” of them, as fact-checker Daniel Dale said—is that the point is not persuasion, but permission.
When people want to believe something, having a prominent person say it’s true gives them permission to believe it. It’s all the better when there are media outlets dedicated to backing him up. That’s profitable for them because they too are selling permission, not persuasion.
This holds even for the most hateful lies that Trump tells, such as his awful justifications for separating children from their immigrant parents. In fact, lies as dark as those can be even more attractive.
Freud identified the urge behind this attraction in his “Civilization and Its Discontents.” As he wrote, we are all born with the desire to love, but also to hate; to create, but also to destroy.
Civilization requires that we control our hateful, destructive impulses. But it takes work: work that can cause fatigue, frustration, and sometimes fury—as we see frequently in infants, and, more or less often, in adults too.
Trump, like hatred-driven demagogues before him, offers a release from civilization. There is a form of exultation in just letting go and surrendering to anger, aggression, or even sheer cruelty.
The more frustration, resentment, pain, or shame people have in their lives, the more the promise of such release can feel irresistible. We’re all susceptible to it to some degree, even if we only go so far as to indulge in a Twitter war.
Many of Trump’s supporters claim they stick with him in spite of his darkness. They say it’s because of some overriding policy goal. Many are fooling themselves.
Often, the policy claim fails to survive even cursory scrutiny. It’s clear that Trump has failed to deliver on the goal or is actually working against it.
But scrutiny is beside the point, as will be found by anyone offering contrary evidence. The point is not to find truth but to obscure it—even from oneself. What’s needed is not evidence, but an excuse.
It’s all too common: moralistic reasons have been used to justify history’s worst atrocities.
Few Trump supporters would be able to admit it—although the admission would be more a recognition of human nature than of any special evil in themselves—but they may be drawn to him not in spite of, but because of his darkness.
Persuasion? That’s to be avoided. The real goal is permission.