How Trumpists Prey on Loneliness, and Loneliness Preys on Trumpists
People who find purpose and meaning in their faith, family, hobbies (watching Fox News doesn’t count), and vocation are less susceptible to a cult of personality.
The story of our era may be one about loneliness, isolation, and a lack of community. Scientists tell us that social isolation is as bad for your health as smoking or not getting adequate sleep. COVID-19 took an already bad situation and made it worse. Meanwhile, (anti)social media does nothing to solve the problem, and likely exacerbates it.
And while lack of communal ties may be killing us at the micro level, on the macro level this phenomenon has contributed to numerous societal ills, including the rise of Trumpism. In the 2016 Republican primary, for example, it was well documented that Trump performed better in places where people were socially atomized. For example, Republicans who attended church regularly were less likely to support Trump. This, of course, all fell apart once he became the nominee.
If you doubt loneliness and lack of healthy communal ties is perhaps the dominant problem of our era, Michael Bender’s new book, Frankly, We Did Win This Election, sheds light on the subculture of Donald Trump fans who followed his rallies like they were on tour with The Grateful Dead. Instead of tie-dyed shirts, they donned red “MAGA” hats. Instead of being young adventurers running away from their parents, these “front-row Joes” (as he calls them) tended to be people who were “retired or close to it” and “estranged from their families or otherwise without children”; they also had “plenty of time on their hands.” What they found was that “Trump had, in a surprising way, made their lives richer.” His rallies gave them a “reason to travel the country, staying at one another’s homes, sharing hotel rooms and carpooling. Two had married—and later divorced—by Trump’s second year in office.”
Every silver lining’s got a touch of gray. It is likely that some of the people who found meaning, purpose, friends, and community at Trump rallies in 2016 will be charged for incidents related to the riot at the Capitol on Jan. 6. Others, as Bender documents, have already died of COVID-19.
The community that sprang up around Trump’s rallies was seductive and intoxicating. The attendant friends, activity, music (Trump rallies had a concert-like feel), T-shirts with inside jokes, and circus-like excitement all contributed to the delusion that you were part of a large and important subculture. Trump’s status as both a “rock star” and, simultaneously, a persecuted victim made him an attractive leader for this kind of movement.
These Trump fans “drank the Kool-Aid.” They believed what Dear Leader said—about coronavirus (“it will disappear”) and about The Big Lie (“Frankly, we did win this election”)—and some paid a steep price, overdosing on Trumpism.
So why did Trump, via rallies and the force of his personality, engender the kind of cult-like loyalty that has thankfully eluded most American politicians? Human beings—especially those who feel marginalized—want to belong to something. And as our geographic communities atomize and religious service attendance dwindles, this emotional void is even more pronounced and ripe for exploitation.
If you are surrounded by friends and family or are otherwise well-adjusted, this probably won’t resonate. But if you are lonely and marginalized (or think you are, like so many of today’s MAGA fans), it will resonate. There’s a reason vulnerable people are drawn to street gangs. There’s a reason Charles Manson preyed upon teenage runaways, and there’s a reason why so many poor Black women died in Jonestown. When you are down-and-out and lonely, you cling to the people who care enough to give you hope.
This helps explain why friends and family who want to stage an intervention—who try to turn off Fox News or OAN or Newsmax—are so impotent. This explains why media outlets that try to fact-check Trump’s claims are really just wasting their time, at least when it comes to the cult. As conservative writer David French puts it, “you can’t fact-check, plead, or argue a person out of a conspiracy, because you’re trying to fact-check, plead, and argue them out of their community.”
The saying, “It is difficult to get a man to understand something, when his salary depends on his not understanding it,” suggests that materialism drives us. It’s even harder to get a man to understand something, when his community and identity depends on his not understanding it. It would be a mistake to think that this phenomenon applies only to people who attended numerous Trump rallies. While I have no doubt this is most acute among the front-row Joes, more casual fans who weren’t on the rally circuit are (to a lesser extent) part of a Trump larger “community,” deriving daily purpose, identity, and entertainment by following him virtually.
It’s ironic that this fan base (with its unprecedented loyalty) wasn’t enough to put Trump over the top in 2020. In fact, his obsession with crowd size warped his perception, along with that of his fans. (If you take Trump at his word, one of the major reasons he refused to believe that Joe Biden won the election was that Biden couldn’t “draw flies.”)
Trump was so focused on fan service that he never bothered to try and grow his base into a majority coalition. A jam band can thrive on a loyal and ecstatic cult following of dedicated fans buying their tickets and records. Ditto almost any business in America (this is why movie studios keep churning out franchise comic book films and vapid sequels). Politics, however, isn’t one of them. This is a lesson that Trump—the businessman who had never held elected office before 2017—still hasn’t learned. (Maybe it’s only coincidence that the Grateful Dead only scored one top-ten hit in three decades).
Make no mistake. What Trump did was amazing, and it should serve as a warning for us to address these societal problems before a more competent demagogue comes along and fully leverages this opportunity. Trump grew a cult following by casting himself as an outsider (like you!) and saying that those in power were trying to take him down (like you!). He became their fighter and savior, and these mega-fans pilgrimaged to his concert-like rallies. He created a nationwide fandom that is unprecedented in American history. What a long, strange trip it’s been.
The best way to combat this phenomenon is for us to begin healing what is broken in our society. People who find purpose and meaning in their religious faith, connection with family, hobbies (watching Fox News doesn’t count), and their vocation are less susceptible to finding meaning and community in a cult of personality. We have to find a way to get people connected into productive and positive institutions and communities.
If mainstream American life doesn’t offer romance, adventure, community, and purpose, something else will rush in and fill that void. And that something is usually less salutary.