Emotional or Rational Decision Making
Salesmen, admen and con men all understand that their pitch has to appeal to the irrational, emotional part of the buyer. Some twelve years ago, a friend, Russell H. Granger, published The 7 Triggers to Yes, a how-to book for those who must persuade others to achieve success in their work. Backing up theory with real-time brain imaging, he demonstrated that when the segment of the brain that responds to emotional factors lights up, people say, “yes, I’ll take it.”
I was reminded of Russ’ book when I heard the cheers of approval at a Trump rally in response to his saying the CoronaVirus was a hoax. But those were early days, when it was possible, sort of, for them to buy what he was selling because it made them feel good. But more recently, when Trump suggested ingesting disinfectant was a reasonable, even brilliant path to a cure, I was left wondering what part of his supporters’ brains lights up at such a suggestion? How could anyone respond positively to Dr. Trump’s prescription of two spoonfuls of bleach as a CoronaVirus cure? And unlike a typical doctor’s treatment prescribing two aspirins, Dr. Trump didn’t even ask the patient to call him in the morning.
It brought to mind Trump’s prescient statement, “I could stand in the middle of Fifth Avenue and shoot somebody and I wouldn’t lose any voters.” Well, maybe one or two, but certainly not his committed base. And this response, along with what has transpired over the last three plus years reiterates the neuroscience conclusion Russ so artfully expressed twelve years ago, “most people respond to emotional cues rather than rational ones.”
Looking at Trump through the lens of reason, it’s hard to understand how anyone could support this artificially orange-faced, fake-haired, self-absorbed, dishonest, racist moron. Sadly, reason can’t explain irrationality. So how else to explain his hard-core supporters, some 40% of the country? I believe that to a significant portion of these followers, Trump has successfully and systemically become the leader of a cult whose members see him as their savior.
Blue Collar Workers
There are the blue-collar workers, displaced by the global economy, who believed Trump’s promises to bring good paying jobs back to the United States. Despite the fact that he’s been unable to do so—and that’s before the loss in jobs from the pandemic—many of these men and women remain loyal. Trump blames others for his failure, and they nod in agreement.
Then there are those who bought into his spiel of populism, believing him to be a man of courage and strength who “tells it like it is.” Somehow they listen to him say one thing one day, and reverse it the next—sometimes even in the next sentence. They hear him say outright that he doesn’t take responsibility for anything that goes wrong, and yet they discount what they hear and believe what he says.
Among the Trumpists are people whose self-interests outweigh the welfare of the country. It may be disgusting, but it makes sense. They support huge tax cuts for the wealthy while hiding behind the myth that an expanding economy will pay for such cuts. And a rising stock market dignifies their continued support.
The Demographic Resentfuls
Then there are those who resent the changing demographics in the country, and roar with approval when Trump blames the minority group du jour for their problems. Demean that enemy, restrain them, put them in cages, suppress their vote—that’s an irresistible sales pitch. In this group we can add elected officials at federal and state levels who wish to remain in power. They’re willing to stand behind the person they believe will help them do that, regardless of his corruption, disregard of the Constitution and damage to democracy.
Finally, we turn to Trump’s large group of Evangelical supporters. These moralistic “people of faith” have traded their souls in exchange for the appointment of conservative judges who, they hope, will overturn Roe v. Wade and outlaw abortion. I’ve never been able to understand how someone could be pro-life and not care about a person’s welfare after birth. And to that puzzle I ask how such pro-life devotees could continue their support for someone whose failure to act promptly in this pandemic is responsible for thousands of deaths that could have been avoided. A leader who continues to act recklessly, ignoring his medical advisors, and reopening the economy, which will clearly place American lives in danger, particularly seniors. Of course, religious beliefs aren’t actually rational, and the morality of terminating a pregnancy is an emotionally charged topic, so Evangelicals are no more rational than any of the other cult members.
Trump’s Base Becomes a Cult
Trump’s base is solid and will remain with him until the end, and beyond. Though they are a diverse group, the disenfranchised, the Neo-Nazis, the billionaires and the Evangelicals, they have all the characteristics of a cohesive cult. They are irrational devotees of this cult leader President, and will follow him willingly, ready to sacrifice their own morals, judgment and most importantly, reality. No U.S. President has ever governed as a cult leader before.
According to Wikipedia, a cult of personality occurs when an individual uses the techniques of mass media, propaganda, the big lie, spectacle, the arts, patriotism, and government-organized demonstrations and rallies to create an idealized, heroic, and worshipful image of a leader, often through unquestioning flattery and praise. That definition accurately describes Donald Trump’s presidency. In fact, the similarities are striking between Trump’s cult and a religious cult in the grips of a charismatic and authoritarian leader. Both leaders are held in awe by the members, and “tend to be intuitive, able to read people, thrive on chaos and generate crisis situations.”
The cult leader, in Trump’s case an experienced reality TV show host, creates his own reality by controlling and manipulating the flow of information to his followers so that they distrust information coming from other sources. The coining of the term, “fake news,” was a brilliant marketing tool. It paved the way for the cult to believe any such negative information is simply the result of a conspiracy to damage Trump. But when actual reality conflicts with the leader’s version of reality, his followers can be exposed to dangerous consequences, although they’re likely to blame others.
Consequences of Religious Cults
History is replete with tales of death to followers of such religious cult leaders:
- Jim Jones and his Peoples Temple, responsible for the death of some 900 followers in 1978 in Jonestown, Guyana;
- David Koresh and his Branch Davidians, responsible for his own death and that of 74 followers in Waco Texas in 1993;
- Marshall Applewhite, and his Heaven’s Gate cult, responsible for his own death and that of 39 followers in Rancho Santa Fe, California in 1997.
Trump’s Cult and the CoronaVirus
Regrettably, those who recognize Trump’s delusions for what they are, as well as the Trumpists, are not exempt from the disastrous impact of his fabricated reality concerning the CoronaVirus. His failure to take the surging pandemic seriously and initiate timely action at the federal level to contain and then mitigate it, cost thousands of American lives. And his constantly changing posture and careless comments on the need for self quarantine or return to work, coupled with his dangerous advice on medical cures weigh more heavily on his followers who believe and revere every word he utters. His failures continue to this day, yet his followers remain persuaded of his almost god-like being. Remember his proclamation, “I am the Chosen One.”
The Cult’s Future
In politics it is said that it’s acceptable to be critical of the politician, but not the politician’s supporters. No accusation of deplorables here. In fact, many are to be pitied. Suffice to say that Donald Trump is a master manipulator of his followers. Like other cult leaders, he utilizes all the triggers of persuasion to lure his followers into his alternate reality, reinforced by the propagators of misinformation at Fox News.
Donald Trump leads a cult whose members look to him for strength, defined as the willingness to bully, destroy things, thumb his nose at propriety and ignore truth without remorse or consequences. His psychotic reality, filled with winners and losers, derision, paranoid conspiracies and enemies has become their reality. His delusions are the substitute for truth, and science and reason. They are unpersuadable. Donald Trump has his finger on the trigger to their emotional life.
The only solution is to mobilize the 60% of the country who see that the Emperor has no clothes, and send him back to the make believe of reality TV.