Extraordinary Political Delusions

Photo by Annie Spratt

Wanting to make sense of how Republicans in 14 out of 15 primaries on Super Tuesday could vote for Donald Trump as if he were running unopposed or in the guise of an Iron Curtain strongman who is used to receiving 98% of the votes cast, I reached out to a political insider—someone I like and trust—and asked, “So what explains Trump now?” I got back the following email reply

“I’m flattered you want my opinion on something that defies normal political logic, which used to suggest that candidates with 91 pending indictments and convictions for rape and financial fraud don’t run away with presidential nominations. But then this isn’t your grandfather’s Republican Party, which had a higher regard for Dwight Eisenhower and Cadillacs than porn stars and Ponzi schemes.

“Let’s start with some basics. If you want to make sense of Trump and his recurring popularity, don’t bother reading Maggie Haberman in the New York Times or watch the amen chorus on MSDNC: their logical positivism (hope you took Philosophy 101 in college) suggests that we live in a rational world in which candidates stand for office based on “policies” or “positions”, and that parties and their stalwarts act rationally.

“Sorry, but we embraced the Flat Earth Society when Ronald Reagan became a great American president and not simply the pitchman for 20 Mule Team Borax.

“If you want to make sense of Trump, track down a copy of Charles Mackay’s 1841 classic, Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds, which is a compendium of manias—beginning with the South Sea Bubble and Tulipomania—that have relieved societies of their senses.

“He has chapters on the Crusades (all anyone talked about for several hundred years), the belief in witches (those that floated and those that sank, but basically the satanism of Marjorie Taylor Greene), the slow poisoners (how to deal with your enemies at court), and, in less detail, accounts of fortune-tellers, magnetizers (a cure-all before we had Wegovy and Zepbound), the philosopher’s stone, wizards, snake oil, and alchemy (the delusion that lead can be transmuted into either gold or Bitcoins).


“If you have any doubt that Trump is a walking mania, go to one of his rallies or listen to one of his speeches, which have nothing to do monetary policy, foreign affairs, or climate change, and everything to do with the importance of being Trump.

“He might well be wearing robes and a conical hat, whispering to his rapturous followers that, if only they will vote for him or mail in $50, he will reveal to them the fountain of youth or why the Democratic Party is, in fact, a haunted house, populated with ghosts that sound like Hillary Clinton or Hunter Biden.

“Unless I am missing the point of democracy, a politician standing for office should have some interest in the practice of government, and that ain’t Trump, who recently said that African-Americans love his candidacy because of his many mugshots.

“Here’s a translation: in Trump’s warped imagination all Black people are criminals and obviously have their own gallery of mugshots and arrest records, and now that Trump has done his share of perp walks, he’s completely in sync with the African-American community.

“Trump’s views on race are unchanged since 1989, when a white female jogger was assaulted and raped in Central Park, and the New York City cops arrested five young African-Americans and Hispanics on the flimsiest of evidence, which didn’t stop the Page Six Trump from calling for their execution.

“That the arrested boys protested their innocence and were later proven innocent made no difference to Trump. While their trials were pending, he took out full-page newspaper ads under the banner that read “Bring Back the Death Penalty.” (His presidential campaign is a variation on the same theme.)

“In an open letter published in several New York newspapers, Trump raged: ‘Mayor Koch has stated that hate and rancor should be removed from our hearts. I do not think so. I want to hate these muggers and murderers. They should be forced to suffer and, when they kill, they should be executed for their crimes. They must serve as examples so that others will think long and hard before committing a crime or an act of violence.’

“I am wondering if he would waive the death penalty in cases of department-store rape or violence done to the Capitol Hill police in their line of duty to protect the vote certification in a presidential election.

“Last time I heard, he was in Clinton, Iowa, saying: ‘They ought to release the J-6 hostages. They’ve suffered enough.’ He also said that those who attacked Congress acted ‘patriotically and peacefully.’


“Since beginning this email, I have dusted off my copy of Mackay’s book, and in the Preface he writes: ‘Popular delusions began so early, spread so widely, and have lasted so long, that instead of two or three volumes, fifty would scarcely suffice to detail their history.’

“Only some national mania—on the scale of the market in Dutch tulips in the 17th century—can explain how the Republican Party in 2024 could vote almost unanimously for Trump in the presidential primaries.

“Let’s put this proposition in context: You’re a Republican voter in the primaries, but, as you’ve been leaving under a rock, you don’t know a lot about candidate Donald Trump. You ask around for details about him, and here’s what you hear:

‘Trump? Yeah, what can I say. He’s 77, obese, and prone to long conversations with himself, many of which take place on public stages. He’s facing 91 criminal indictments on charges ranging from violating the Espionage Act and stealing government secrets to giving aid and comfort to violent insurrectionists. He’s been convicted of financial fraud with his companies, and now has to pay $450 million in fines and penalties, and a court has also found him guilty of rape. He’s been married three times but seems to prefer the easy company of Playboy models and porn stars. Other than screaming about Latinos and Muslims crossing the border, he doesn’t seem to have anything that adds up to a domestic policy, although frequently in his speeches he wishes for a crash of the stock market. In foreign affairs, he carries a torch for the likes of Vladimir Putin and Mohammed bin Salman, perhaps because both of them can get away with murdering their dissidents and political opponents.

‘Why is Trump running for president? Well, as best as I can figure, he needs to divert funds from his campaign to pay for his criminal defense lawyers and court judgments. He also wants to be president so that, if convicted, he can either pardon himself or have the charges against him dismissed.

‘Does that bring you up to speed?’

“After hearing that explanation, the Republican party primary voter says, ‘Sounds awesome. Where do I sign up?’


“So how did America fall under the spell of such a shaman, acromancer, lithomancer, psychomancer, and knissomancer?

“According to Mackay, the underlying theme behind all manias is the wish either for unlimited money or life, and Trump delivers on both illusions, even if to deliver his message he relies more on X, Proud Boy rallies, and Fox News rather than divination, snails, and screech-owls.

“The message at your average Trump rally—once the hating is out of the way—is a get-rich-quick formula, all of which involves returning Trump to the White House and dispensing with the 91 criminal indictments (“the single greatest witch hunt of all time”).

“Never mind that Trump supporters are working three jobs in the gig economy while he’s in Trump Tower bragging about a net worth of seven billion; they are the ones who should send in contributions, while he’s the necromancer boasting that even spending $50 on his campaign will confer immortality on the donor.

“Sadly, all manias eventually end in a crash, be it in the shares of the South-Sea Company or those of the Trump Organization (when all of its senior officers are doing a stretch in Rikers).

“As Mackay writes: ‘Nations, like individuals, cannot become desperate gamblers with impunity. Punishment is sure to overtake them sooner or later.’ Sadly, for us, Trump is both the impunity and the punishment.”

Matthew Stevenson is the author of many books, including Reading the Rails, Appalachia Spring, andThe Revolution as a Dinner Party, about China throughout its turbulent twentieth century. His most recent books are Biking with Bismarck and Our Man in Iran. Out now: Donald Trump’s Circus Maximus and Joe Biden’s Excellent Adventure, about the 2016 and 2020 elections.