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A Psychological Divide: Irrationality, Psychopathy and Trump’s Cult

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Polls show that around 40% of the electorate approve of Donald Trump’s first week and a half in office; 60% do not. This is not a mere partisan divide; it is a psychological divide as well. Most of the 60% simply cannot understand how Trump’s faithful 40% can continue to support him.

So far, Trump has confirmed every bad impression he created during the election: that he is reckless, autocratic, mendacious, confrontational, gratuitously insulting, obsessed with his popularity and image, cruel to refugees and immigrants, dangerously intent on disrupting both the federal government and long-standing international relationships, suspiciously friendly toward Putin, and oblivious to the appearance of corruption or hypocrisy.

What is so baffling about Trump’s supporters is that they continue to stand by him when they were so uncharitable and hateful toward Pres. Obama and Hillary for far less serious transgressions. In addition to being unfair, their attitude is fundamentally irrational.

Irrationality is defective reasoning; it generally involves drawing the wrong inference. The usual causes of irrationality are alcohol, drugs, ignorance, intense emotions, and motivated belief. All of these contribute to abnormal and often self-destructive behavior. For our purposes, motivated belief is the most important. People too often believe what they want to believe. Either they deny reality because it conflicts with a belief to which they are emotionally attached or they suffer from “cognitive dissonance,” which is the state of believing two contradictory propositions.

Trump may be engaging in what scholars refer to as “rational irrationality”. Rational irrationality is deliberately appearing irrational to achieve some further rational end. For example, the Reagan administration knew that a nuclear war would be devastating to humanity and therefore fundamentally irrational (self-destructive). But they still expanded our nuclear capabilities in order to create the appearance that we would engage in this very irrational behavior. This threat of “mutually assured destruction” (MAD) was itself an irrational-seeming means toward the very rational goal of deterring the Soviet Union from launching their own nuclear weapons at us.

The rational-irrationality hypothesis would certainly explain Trump’s penchant for childish Tweets, heavy-handed domination, farfetched conspiracy theories, and “alternative facts.” For example, Trump might very well be lying about widespread voter fraud merely to instigate an investigation into voter fraud that will itself pave the way toward even more voter suppression in the 2018 and 2020 elections. Still, for the most part, Trump just seems to be too impulsive and, as demonstrated by his clumsy manner of speaking, too simpleminded to be this calculating.

Instead, a more plausible hypothesis is that Trump just enjoys lying for its own sake. He takes great pleasure – a “duping delight” – in making up facts that suit his immediate purposes and then using his Twitter account and the mainstream media to disseminate them.

Pathological lying is just one of twenty attributes that Dr. Robert Hare incorporated into his “Psychopathy Checklist-Revised” (PCL-R), a list designed for psychologists to evaluate whether patients suffer from the mental illness of psychopathy. (Psychopathy overlaps significantly with “Anti-Social Personality Disorder” in the fifth version of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM V)). The other nineteen attributes are glib and superficial charm, grandiose self-worth, need for stimulation or proneness to boredom, conning and manipulativeness, lack of remorse or guilt, shallow affect, callousness and lack of empathy, parasitic lifestyle, poor behavioral controls, promiscuous sexual behavior, early behavior problems, lack of realistic, long-term goals, impulsivity, irresponsibility, failure to accept responsibility for own actions, many short-term marital relationships, juvenile delinquency, revocation of condition release, and criminal versatility.

As evidenced by his public behavior over the last forty years, and especially since June 2015, Trump clearly satisfies most of these attributes. In addition to his hyperbolic self-praise, pathological lying, and many racist and misogynistic remarks, Trump has committed many acts that range from shady to criminal:  he “stiffed” many independent contractors, spearheaded the fictitious “Birther” conspiracy against Pres. Obama, donated $25,000 to Florida State Attorney General Pam Bondi’s campaign just days before she “coincidentally” terminated an investigation into fraud allegations against Trump University, engaged in self-dealing with the Trump Foundation, bragged to Billy Bush about sexually assaulting women, allegedly engaged in perverted sexual behavior during a visit to Moscow in 2013, admitted to engaging in voyeuristic behavior backstage at the Miss Universe pageants, appears to be profiting from his public office by refusing to divest himself of his businesses, and still refuses to reveal his tax returns, which suggests that he is trying to conceal tax evasion, corruption, and/or questionable financial ties to other countries.

Given this lengthy record, his first week and a half in office (described above), and Dr. Hare’s PCL-R checklist, Trump seems to be a psychopath. Why, then, do 40% of the electorate still support him? And what does their enthusiasm for an apparent psychopath say about them?

Individually, most of Trump’s supporters are probably not psychopaths. But the collective group is psychopathic. Whether they believe Trump’s lies or not, they are all too enthusiastic about his victimizing others – for example, government officials, Obamacare beneficiaries, women around the world who need healthcare from facilities that provide abortions, and refugees from many Muslim countries. Over the past several years, they have been indoctrinated by Fox News, alt-right/alt-fact websites, hate radio, their parents, their friends, Republican politicians, and Trump himself into thinking that they, not the targets of Trump’s venom, are the real victims; that the “other” is entirely to blame for all of their misery, fear, and deprivation.

In her brilliant and disturbing book The Cult Next Door: A True Story of a Suburban Manhattan New Age Cult, Elizabeth R. Burchard documents her own journey into, and eventual escape from, a cult led by Dr. George Sharkman. Ms. Burchard explains how many perfectly moral, rational, and high-functioning individuals may be easily manipulated and exploited by a charismatic individual. The cult leader’s ploy is to seek out gullible, timid, or anxious individuals; convince them that he has all the answers; continue to repeat these answers; and play to their sense of self-superiority by demonizing everybody who doesn’t subscribe to his system. Since June 2015, this has been Trump’s playbook, and it has proven to be very effective – so effective that he is now occupying the highest office in the country and issuing one toxic executive order after another to make good on his campaign promises.

While many predict that Trump’s followers will eventually be disillusioned and abandon the “Trump Train,” their prediction is naively optimistic. Cults don’t operate rationally; cult members do not change their core beliefs and behavior on the basis of facts and evidence. Instead, they blindly follow their leader wherever he and his inner circle decide to go.

If the 60% who do not support Trump want to avoid calamity, they need to start talking not merely about how to resist Trump and win the 2018 elections but also how to de-program millions of people. Unfortunately, as Ms. Burchard’s book demonstrates, this task is much easier said than done. Once the mass of Trump’s supporters fell under his bizarre spell, they were lost to reason. And reason is pretty much the only tool left in the reasonable majority’s arsenal.

Ken Levy is Holt B. Harrison Associate Professor of Law at the Paul M. Hebert Law Center, Louisiana State University.

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Ken Levy is the Holt B. Harrison Professor of Law at the Paul M. Hebert Law Center, Louisiana State University.

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