Changing Trump’s Followers Because Only They Can Say: “You’re Fired.”

When Hillary Clinton spoke of a “basket of deplorables” she not only made a political error; she also excluded a significant part of the American population.  In addition, since the “deplorables” are essential to Donald Trump’s base, they also have the potential to undermine Trump’s omnipresence. Can we imagine the base collectively saying to Trump; “You’re fired”?

Donald Trump currently dominates all political analyses about the upcoming presidential election. The former president continues to take the oxygen out of any serious political discussion. Despite all the attention he gets, less attention is given to his followers. And they may be the only ones able to drive him back to Florida, or wherever he chooses to retire.

The Scottish poet Robert Burns wrote: “To see oursels as ithers see us!” which has often been simplified to “To see ourselves as others see us.” What if we turned the lens around in analyzing the Trump phenomenon? Instead of focusing on Trump himself, what if we looked at the “ithers” and others who follow him? What if we take the cult-like Trump followers seriously? If Trump had no base, there would be no Trump.

There is no easy road to get there. It is assumed they will not move from idolizing their leader. Trump’s hard-core followers are considered electorally untouchable. “Fully 28 percent of Republican primary voters are so devoted to the former president that they said they’d support him even if he ran as an independent,” Politico reported in 2023.

Maybe those followers are worth more attention. There is more to the fervent backing Trump receives than statistics. His cult-like following is emotional, tribal, beyond simple numbers. Maybe some form of emotional politics could get them to change.

To start: How to rationally explain Trump’s irrational appeal? Where does the base come from? Historically, the evolution from the John Birch Society to the Tea Party to MAGA and the takeover of the Republican Party would not have happened without the personality of Donald Trump. And he would not be possible without them. Why do his followers find him so appealing? What are they looking for that they can’t find elsewhere?

Here we leave the rational. The answers to these questions are more emotional and psychological than sociological or historical. As one eminent Holocaust scholar explained: “I have always been interested in how societies become enamored with psychopaths. How a society’s train goes off the rails.”

And there is something irrational going on in the United States. The train is going off the rails. This is more so in 2024 than in 2016 or 2020. We know more about Trump in 2024 than we knew in 2016 or 2020. None of that more recent knowledge has diminished his popularity with his base. On the contrary. Each time he is indicted or another scandal is revealed, his popularity increases.

For example: After being indicted on 34 felony charges by Manhattan District Attorney Alvin Bragg, a “poll released by Reuters/Ipsos found that Trump had widened his lead since the indictment, with 48% of Republicans saying they want Trump as their nominee, up from 44% earlier,” Time reported.

Is it rational to continue to be behind someone indicted on the latest total of 91 felonies? Twice impeached? Involved – at least – in an insurrection that tried to overturn the peaceful transition of power?

These questions point to the importance of emotions. There is no point in trying to counter Trump with logical arguments in debates. Why have debates with someone who never stays on subject? I once had that experience with a local, charismatic demagogue. I was well prepared to debate a series of pre-arranged questions. He completely changed the topic, much to the applause of his followers in the audience. I was unable to reply; there was no way I could give a rational answer to his ad hoc diatribes. There was no way I could counter his followers’ applause. That was my weakness; I was thinking in a rational framework.

Were we surprised Trump didn’t show up for the Iowa debates? Why even have debates? With Trump and his followers, his actual policy positions are secondary; his personality and performance are all that is needed. Experts keeping debate rational scorecards are using the wrong criteria.

This is where we are. The major political contest today is not between Trump and Biden.  It is between the rational and the irrational. It has nothing to do with security on the southern border or peace in the Middle East or the Russia/Ukraine war or inflation.

As Representative James E. Clyburn of South Carolina described a potential Democratic presidential strategy: “We just can’t rely on this anti-Trump stuff because Trump’s supporters are going to turn out big, because they are emotionally tied to Trump.” He continued: “We’ve got to get our voters emotionally tied to Biden.”

Clyburn is half-right. The upcoming election is about emotions. With very little chance to get voters emotionally tied to Biden, changing the “deplorables” might be a good place to start by appealing to their emotions.

Emotions have been creeping more and more into popular ideology. American psychologist Daniel Goleman’s work on emotional intelligence challenged traditional IQ measurements. Nobel Laureate Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky’s behavioral economics opened new areas of emotional choices and psychology well beyond rigid, mathematical supply and demand curves. Harvard Law Professor Cass Sunstein and U. of Chicago economist Richard Thaler have investigated how to change people’s opinions by subtly nudging.

What about using emotional, behavorial politics to change Trump’s followers? If Trump is dangerous, what about using behavioral politics on the millions who follow him? Can emotional IQ, behavioural economics and nudge move Trump’s base away from Trump? Can the seemingly unchangeable be changed by using recent emotional research?

We have no easy answer how to do this. But instead of ignoring Hillary Clinton’s “basket of deplorables,” let’s see how an emotional, behavorial politics could put them to work. If you are as others see you, let’s see how we can help Trump’s base see Trump differently. Because beyond courts of law and elections, only they can say the magic words: “You’re fired.”

Daniel Warner is the author of An Ethic of Responsibility in International Relations. (Lynne Rienner). He lives in Geneva.