On Sunday, I told you what’s wrong with him. Today, we need to examine what’s wrong with us.
Indeed, if almost half of America supports a President who more and more psychological experts believe has a personality disorder bordering on mental illness, there must certainly be something wrong with those supporters, too.
There is: They crave a strongman above all else — even above democracy itself.
Call it what you will — the “Authoritarian Dynamic,” basic Freudianism, fear, insecurity, tribalism or even the rise of the “lizard brain” — but Donald Trump’s rise follows a well-documented psychological path.
“When a population is feeling insecure, it favors authoritarian figures who promise to solve their problems and defeat their enemies,” said Dr. William J. Doherty, professor of Family Social Science at University of Minnesota and author of the Citizen Therapists for Democracy manifesto, now signed by 3,800 mental health professionals.
Doherty, a student of history as well as the mind, reminds us that humanity’s current organizing principle — liberal, pluralistic democracy — is largely a recent development. For most of human history, of course, civilization existed because “warriors and warrior-leaders” defeated their tribe’s enemies.
“We are programmed for embracing hierarchy, starting with children clinging to parents, and the more threatened we are, the more we hope that a ‘strongman’ can save us,” Doherty told me. “We have become so tribal that many of us would vote for the devil if he wore our colors.”
That craving for a strongman kicks in when we feel insecure — so it’s a self-fulfilling cycle: A would-be strongman whips up our sometimes-legitimate fears (of immigrants, of job losses, of loss of place in society, of Hillary Clinton) then rides in as the mother who will make it all better. Paging Dr. Freud!
“Brain science is important here,” said Jean Fitzpatrick, a Midtown therapist. “When we feel threatened, the most primitive part of our brain, what we call our ‘lizard brain,’ gets activated. We’re just reacting, just focused on survival. A strongman is usually an expert at talking to our lizard brain. A politician who talks in a way that sounds geekier will not connect.”
That’s not to say that everyone who voted for Trump has the brain of a lizard (though some of you…)! But it does connect to years of studies about why certain populations (looking at you, Nazis and Italian Fascists) turn to dictator types when times get tough.
Australian professor Karen Stenner, who specializes in authoritarianism, racism and intolerance, calls this “the Authoritarian Dynamic,” and her work on the subject is considered seminal. The opening line of her book offers a chilling reminder of the divide between pluralists and closed-minded authoritarians:
“Some people will never live comfortably in a modern liberal democracy,” she wrote.
Who are those people? They’re anyone “inclined to believe only ‘right-thinking’ people should be free to air their opinions, and who tends to see others’ moral choices as everybody’s business,” she added. “Across time and place, we find that those inclined to discriminate against other racial and ethnic groups rush to protect the ‘common good’ by ‘stamping out’ offensive ideas and ‘cracking down’ on misbehavior.”
Adolf Hitler and Benito Mussolini also gained political power in Germany and Italy by playing on the fears of their respective nations.
Intolerance — to outsiders, to gays, to free speech, to whatever — becomes particularly dangerous when society is under a perceived threat, she adds.
“The threatening conditions that activate authoritarian attitudes include, most critically, great dissension in public opinion and general loss of confidence in political leaders.”
So our own fears created Trump.
Numerous studies back up the notion that fearful people are quick to abandon their stated values for the perception of safety. A 2011 study in the American Journal of Political Science confirmed that after 9/11, “those predisposed toward intolerance and aggression (became) even more intolerant and aggressive.”
And a 2015 English study revealed that after the 2005 London terror bombings, “there was greater endorsement of the in-group foundation, lower endorsement of the fairness-reciprocity foundation, and stronger prejudices toward Muslims and immigrants.”
Trump openly appeals to this fear. His executive order that shut down the borders explicitly cited the need “to protect the American people from terrorist attacks by foreign nationals,” even though not a single attack on American soil since 1975 has come from a resident of the seven Muslim countries cited in the order.
Trump has played on his supporters’ fear that accepting refugees will put the American public in danger.
Nonetheless, the fear of terror attacks creates the perception that we have to guard ourselves from the dangerous world outside our group, which only heightens our insecurity and feeds our fear of the outside group — a vicious cycle that can easily be exploited, psychologists say. But it isn’t limited only to terror but to any perceived loss of power.
“Trump supporters perceived their perceived lower status in society as undeserved and they compared themselves with others who had undeserved higher status in the way they were treated,” Dr. Norm Feather, a professor of psychology at Flinders University in Australia, told me. “The relative deprivation would generate a lot of resentment against the current system and would affect voting behavior. These people are reacting to being left out and to perceived injustice and they vote to change the system.”
Does that mean there is something “wrong” with Trump supporters? No. But they are easily exploited.
“There is nothing ‘wrong’ with people who are driven to fear — it’s human,” said Tracy Morgan, a psychoanalyst and editor of the website, “New Books in Psychoanalysis.”
“When frightened, we don’t think,” she added. “We can only act to relieve ourselves from terrible anxiety. And when we have a leader who tells us that we should be afraid of things to come, that only he can protect us from, we are easily done in. We all want to feel protected. An infant without a protector simply dies.”