Mass delusions do not end well

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I will admit right off that my pre-election scenario for post-Trump Republican politics has turned out to be very wrong. In my script, the “sharp knives” traditional Republicans, typified by former Vice President Dick Cheney and represented by his daughter, Wyoming representative Liz Cheney, would stick one of those conceptual knives into Donald Trump and wrest control of the party back from the cultist Trump followers. Although I am no fan of Ms. Cheney, you might find an old tweet of mine laying odds that she could possibly become the first female president. That probability is now very slim. I frankly underestimated the political cowardice of a couple hundred Republican members of Congress.

Except for Ms. Cheney and Illinois representative Adam Kinzinger, the remnants of the political coalition that controlled the George W. Bush administration appears to have cut and run, disappearing into the woods, hiding amongst the cultists and praying that they will not be primaried. This is not good. The mass delusion of Trump followers remains very strong, as demonstrated by the turnout at his most recent “Grievance Tour” appearance near me in Sarasota, Florida. My contention is that mass delusions usually do not end well for any of the affected parties. This troubles me greatly.

The math of changing your mind

Three years ago I ran a series of posts that compared political parties changing their positions on issues over time to shifts in restaurant loyalties, a favorite statistical example from quantitative marketers who use a technique called Markov chains to measure incremental social change and make predictions. I noted then four unprecedented fast shifts in Republican consensus thinking that occurred in just the first year of the Trump administration:

Markov Change

You have to know that all four of these shifts (and you can likely name more) have been sticking in the craw of the Cheney Republicans all this time. These had been winning issues for the party for decades (okay, the moral probity part was largely a hypocritical attack on Bill Clinton by the likes of moral paragon Newt Gingrich). That Donald Trump was able to turn the party consensus 180 degrees on four important issues in such a short time is strong evidence of a cultist following. When you flip your opinion to agree with a leader and dump your party’s entire platform just because he says so, you are likely no longer in control of your own volition.

And yet, three of these four are still front-and-center Trump-changed positions publicly trumpeted by virtually all vocal Republican members of Congress. There has been little party criticism of the allegations of very sleazy behavior against Florida congressman Matt Gaetz and other members, for instance. Party noisemakers like Wisconsin senator Ron Johnson continue to be very cozy with associates of Russian leader Vladimir Putin, and Trump supporters even rated Putin higher in popularity than President Biden in a recent poll. Republicans continue to rain fire down on the FBI and the Department of Justice over continuing arrests of January 6 “tourists” and they even accuse the FBI of fomenting the event.

In the fourth, based on the Trump misunderstanding of who pays for tariffs, there appears to be some shifting back to a traditional stance. Iowa senators Chuck Grassley and Joni Ernst, along with five of their Senate colleagues, have this week urged President Biden to end this current “tariff war,” without explicitly mentioning that it was “he who must not be named” and his 18th-century mercantilist obsession with tariffs that started the international trade mess. Everyone was afraid to tell their leader that virtually all economists had figured out the “no winner” ending of tariff wars many years ago.

The Trump follower mass delusion

Where is the line to be drawn between political popularity and mass delusion? While it has been common to note the unquestioned acceptance of thousands of documented Trump lies and his money-raising scams, let me suggest that the cultist line is crossed when people will willingly put the lives of themselves and their families at risk rather than admit that their leader is leading them down a destructive path.

I haven’t updated my Covid vaccine tracker that I wrote about three weeks ago, but the basic array of vaccinations versus political affiliation has not changed much. Trump’s most avid supporters are the most likely to reject vaccination, even though he was himself vaccinated in private before leaving office. Refusing the Covid vaccination has become a sign of political fealty, even though it carries the risk of severe illness or even death, for yourself or for someone you pass the illness onto.

Vaccination vs vote share

Sources: The Cook Political Report and the CDC Covid Data Tracker for June 14, 2021. Graphic by the author.

Add another Trump-accelerated party position change here. Republicans have long been advocates of scientific progress, especially in high tech military and space ventures. However, the most respected scientists in the country are now suspect, and even physically threatened, because they questioned the Trump line on the coronavirus. As cases of the Delta Covid variant continue to take off in unvaccinated communities, sad stories of “vaccine rejection regret” by the dying are beginning to hit the newspapers. But the “Trump vaccine” appears to be even stronger, “inoculating” millions of people against accepting some basic facts, in short, living in a mass delusion:

When does mass delusion become a cult?

In most of the infamous religious cults in history, the emphasis shifted gradually from the theology behind the movement to the personality of the leader. In my lifetime, the Reverend Jim Jones most typified this trajectory when he lured nearly 1000 adherents to the remote Guyana jungle in the late 1970s, where most of them “drank the Kool-Aid” (actually not really Kool-Aid, rather the knock-off drink Flavor Aid, laced with cyanide) and died.

One can argue that all major religions are, to some extent, mass delusions, as famously argued by evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins. Whether all faiths deserve that tag is arguable, but that is an issue for another day. Without a doubt, radicalized beliefs held by some religious adherents, especially when led by charismatic leaders, have indeed led to bloody wars and other violence. At the same time, we can watch today how some long-standing religious movements are “unwinding,” sometimes more cleanly than others, while some have literally “joined the Trump train.”

Likewise with populist political movements. Communism in China evolved from its beginnings in the political philosophy of Karl Marx to, by the 1970s, a personality cult built around Chairman Mao Zedong. The “Cultural Revolution” that ended only with Mao’s death was largely based on that personality cult, with estimates of resultant deaths running as high as 20 million people.

California representative Jackie Speier has had a front row seat for both the Jones and the Trump mass delusions. As a young aide to Congressman Leo Ryan, she was shot and left for dead by the Jim Jones cultists, and Leo Ryan was killed, when they visited the Guyana settlement.  43 years later, she huddled in fear for her life during the violent January 6 attack on the U.S. Capitol by Trump loyalists. When asked, earlier in the Trump administration, to compare Trump followers to Jones followers, she wrote this:

“I recoiled from the question. I wasn’t prepared to think this was a parallel. Now, four years into this nightmare of melodrama and manipulation, the parallels are pretty clear.”

Is it as bad as all that?

When Donald Trump was flailing in the early primaries before the 2016 election, I frequently commented that I could not envision a scenario where he would cleanly exit the stage, no matter how ugly it got. And of course, he dispatched sixteen more prominent and experienced Republicans in the process of winning the nomination.

The question remains. What actions or events are required that would cause this mass of millions of Trump followers to disavow the violent January 6 attack on Congress, to “disband peacefully” and merge into more normative political groupings? Would a “normal Republican” candidate be able to disarm this mob and bring them back into a more rational political fold? Or will their thirst for authoritarianism and thuggish attempts to overthrow legitimate elections find support in the courts and fruit in the next national elections?

Is there an alternative presidential candidate that can round up the Trump devotees into a successor political movement? Or will they self-destruct once the many pending lawsuits and financial gravity tear the Trump Organization apart?

And the guns. The guns worry me. My bet: This will not end well.

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