Illustration: Cover of DER SPIEGEL, Nr.6, 2017
Introduction: Assessing the Damage
As an educator, how could I keep quiet? The upcoming US Elections have significant consequences for the world. In this article, I shall focus on the change in the social psychology of the United States of America during the term of Donald J Trump. To set the stage, it is helpful to recapture the trail of destruction that America ‘s 45 fifth president has left behind. His attempt of terraforming a once leading superpower and liberal democracy into a family clan oligarchy is unprecedented in American history and has been discussed in great detail in numerous articles and books.
It is indeed tempting to focus on Donald J Trump ad hominem, his malignant narcissism, his submissive admiration for dictators such as Kim Jong-un and Vladimir Putin, his constant and infantile need for admiration and attention, his delusions of grandeur, misogyny (‚… just grab them by the pussy‘), compulsive lying and racism.
On a global scale, his alienation of European NATO partners, his inability to mediate conflicts in the Middle East and inaction in Asia helped Russia and China to fill the power vacuum with great ease. His withdrawal from the Paris Agreement on climate change wasted precious years that mankind can never gain back. Trump actively supported Boris Johnson’s on Brexit and bluntly supports right-wing populists and authoritarian parties across Europe. He is not a friend, but a our foe.
Domestically, his open endorsement of militant, racist, far-right activists has polarised American society beyond repair. Trump’s dismantling of Obama Care or the family separation policy enforced by ICE agents add to the long list of measures that pave the way for a very different America. Not even dozens of nuclear Russian warheads could have had a more devastating effect than Donald J Trump and his followers exercise on American society. Putin could not have wished for a more efficient weapon to dismantle America.
But still, we have to give Trump credit. He will go down in history as a con artist extraordinaire, the man who turned half of America into a Reality-TV Show. With more than 300 million USD in private debt and having evaded income tax for more than a decade almost completely (thanks here to the revelations by the New York Times), this president has been exposed for who he is: a fraud, a sham and more than this, as Nancy Pelosi, Speaker of the House of Representatives pointed out conclusively, a national security risk to the US. His inept management of the COVID-Crisis in America with more than 200,000 deaths (as per September 2020), complete the picture of a man who has failed on every account of responsible leadership.
In his first debate with Joe Biden, it became clear that Trump is not interested in exchanging differing political viewpoints. It was not that he didn’t care preparing for the event. His constant interruptions, insults and yelling signalled to even the most tolerant observers: This is a dangerous man a man who is all out to prepare a state coup. Someone who, on running television, addressed the militant far-right hate-group ‘Proud Boys’ and told them to stand by. This is a man who openly called mail voting fraud and undermined the very basis of democracy, which is open and fair elections. What about the long-term effects on a societal level?
One could argue that there is not a single culture that is without internal conflicts and struggles. The US is (still) a democracy. Checks and balances still exist. America is not Russia or China. However, it is a huge difference if diverging opinions get mediated in a cultured manner in public discourse, or if a society is getting so deeply polarised that any form of reconciliation and sensible public communication becomes impossible. Part of populist terraforming is the transformation of an open society into a society where hatred, disrespect of the other and public aggression rule. Society under populist rule becomes a place where self-righteous extremists are empowered to eradicate any divergent arguments and world views, a place where even wearing a face-mask in a convenience store next door can turn into a political landmine.
The Playbook and Effects of Populism: A Déjà vu
I had my first taste of populists during the reign of Thaksin Shinawatra when I was living in Thailand from 2006–2018. He used the same methods as Trump. Thaksin stirred up the rural against the urban population, instigated ‘red shirts’ against the ‘yellow shirts’. The latter represented the government and Royal elites. Thailand, once called the ‘Land of Smiles’ turned into a deeply divided nation. Eventually, Thaksin was ousted by the military, but the country has not found a way back to democracy ever since.
Populists divide societies for generations. They derive their power from polarising large groups and thrive by instigating conflict, not by creating progress for society. The playbook of populists and dictators is as simple as it is effective: fear and mistrust serve as powerful contaminants to evoke strong emotional reactions against outgroups. Minorities are a primary target to redirect public aggression.
A key ingredient of populist methodology is that followers of populist movements learn to experience themselves as victims. Only by assuming the role of a victim, they can (eventually) justify the use of violence. First by words, later by actions. In Germany, we have the same phenomenon among the far-right, such as the NSU 2.0, and it is rather curious when we see well-off, white supremacists in souped-up SUVs (bumper sticker ‘my country, my rules’), living in a peaceful, educated and wealthy democratic society, enjoying the privilege of free speech and fair elections, declare themselves oppressed victims of dark elites (while sipping beers and flipping their steaks on the BBQ).
The sociological question is: What does it take to create a ‚Trump base ‘? Factors such as higher religiousness, lower-than-average education levels, the social isolation of groups (echo-chambers and filter bubbles), fear of unemployment, economic decline and the inability to cope with the demands of an increasingly complex world have been cited as contributing factors. Only few any of them would explain Trump’s rather well-off supporters, not to forget some right-wing billionaires and 1-percenters standing behind him.
The cognitive dissonance created between traditional mindsets facing hypercomplex global structures appears to evoke a regression, independent from socioeconomic background, a cognitive collapse, where emotionally highly-charged ‘alternative’ interpretations of reality replace cognitive processing. An elusive comfort zone is created once arguments are all about faith and belief, not about knowledge-creation, fact-checking or exploring divergent arguments. For convinced followers, it is not about the freedom to find a however divergent and multi-faceted truth, but the freedom from rational justification.
The Fractal Mindset, Digital Epistemological Infrastructure and Conspiracy Theories
With the advent of social media, the polarization of society has become a new outlet that extends beyond Cambridge Analytica. The topic of political manipulation, filter bubbles and echo-chambers are already subject to scientific investigation. During an academic study with an American friend, we found was that communication structures of modern digital networks reminded us, at least partially, of communication structures in the Middle Ages.
The mindset of the Middle Ages was fed by two sources of information: the gospel of the Catholic Church, defined by God’s eternal plan and the anticipation of Judgement Day on one hand and superstitious folk beliefs on the other. For a lack of choice, people believed on a macro and exo-level a monopolized authority and, on private micro-level, hearsay which often dwelled in folk beliefs.
In a time where Da Vinci built his flying machines, people in other parts of Europe burned witches and believed in sorcery. Theologians marvelled and speculated, for example, if dog-headed men (assumed to be living on the edge of the world) had souls and therefore could, potentially, be converted to Christianity. Only much later, when Marco Polo opened Asia to the West, first explorers were surprised that no dog-headed people (cynocephaly) of any kind existed. Looking at a distance of 500 years, we have to question our mental and ethical progress.
These days, QAnon followers believe that a cabal of Satan-worshiping paedophiles run global child sex-trafficking rings and plot against President Donald Trump who is, in their narrative, battling them, leading to a so-called ‘day of reckoning’ involving the mass arrest of journalists and politicians. The promise of salvation in today’s conspiracy theories does not differ in principle from social motivation (Judgment Day) during the Middle Ages.
Trump fully supports this regressive narrative since he sees himself as a genius, a hero, the leader of an empire (first the Trump Organisation, now America), a saviour, an eternal winner, a powerful archetype, someone who can brush the so-called ‘fake news’ media aside that appear to witch-hunt him. In his Self-experience, critical media are nothing but insignificant obstacles to the glory he is about to bring (‘Make America great again!’). Everybody, except himself, is stupid and corrupt. His audience, looking for an authoritarian leader, and narcissist psyche amplify each other and create a shared social delusion.
This brings up an interesting point. Collective mental disorders have not been included in the DSM-5 yet. I suggest the collective fabrication of alternate realities as a new category (in short ‚COFAR‘, any similarity to ‘Covfefe’ might be purely coincidental). Psychiatric disorders should indeed be extended to social phenomena. How could unrestrained collective hatred not be regarded as a psychiatric disorder? It stops people from social functioning, impairs thinking and mood significantly – in the form of constant anger based upon the fabrication of alternate mental worlds and accompanied by violent mental arousal.
C.G. Jung comes to mind, in particular, ‘The Archetypes and the Collective Unconscious’. A topic for further investigation is the congruence of complexes of the private conscious with the collective unconscious. Hence, the sameness of experience among followers. Shared archetypes can explain the similarity of phenomenology and cognitive processing of the discussed ingroup. The described phenomena of social cohesion is not to be mistaken for group-think (Irving Janis), which is not created by shared archetypes and complexes, but by the pressure of social conformity and subsequent self-censorship. Group-think may still appear as a secondary process after initial social cohesion has been established.
In the process of sharing archetypes, so-called ‘alternate facts’ that do not require proof, gradually replace scientific facts that do. Dogmatic beliefs replace rational thinking. From a psychological point of view, is the cognitive processing that is sacrificed in conspiracy theories. It is circumvented and replaced by what we can describe as teleological thinking: all phenomenology, all arguments (even those opposing one’s world view) are a confirmation of true faith. All ideas and explanations converge towards a final telos, a final purpose:
Why does a bird have wings? It is God’s plan. Why do they lay eggs? It is God’s plan. Why do some people have the right to enslave others? Well, you guessed it, in the eye of a true believer of white supremacy, this is God’s plan. In all of these these instances, a spiritual entity or a higher purpose is used as a barrier to stop any attempt of further inquiry, circumventing autonomous reasoning. Finding rational justification for social action and interaction is not on the agenda of true believers. In the case of Trump, who only believes his own fictions, the Republican Party faces its greatest historical challenge: Are Republicans capable to distance themselves from, basically, a mentally deranged but highly manipulative individual, or would they rather turn into a cult?
During our investigations into ‘ How Artefacts and Penal Structures in the Middle Ages Confirm and Represent How People Constructed Their Mental Life in the Past’, I suggested the term of a fractal mindset. Cognitive outcome patterns in such a mindset are self-similar across phenomenological scales (hence ‘fractal’), from personal to social and environmental. A fractal mindset creates a never-ending pattern of the same underlying narrative. In the example of the conspiracy-theory QAnon, for example, all explanations converge to the imaginary narrative of dark elites ruling the world and subsequently ponder about ways of forced liberation. A fractal mindset creates recursive patterns of a worldview that, by default, realign towards a defined ideological template.
A fractal mindset assumes causation outside the Self and therefore requires motives such as a divine plan, the assumption of disguised suppression, the simplistic divide of people in good or bad, a mission that leads to a heroic rescue, a final battle of good versus evil, some sort of Judgment Day or ‘Day of Reckoning’, typically accompanied by a dooming Apocalypse and the self-attribution to belong to a group of ‘chosen ones’, with an all-inclusive access to ‘the truth’. The complete package.
Teleological thinking itself is not new and has a long tradition in classical philosophy (Aristotle), investigating the purpose and true nature of human life, which reappears in a dogmatized form in ideologies and conspiracy theories. Teleological thinking is also a natural form of cognition, typically emerging in and ending with childhood. Arguably, due to the lack of analytic and critical reasoning, this developmental phase (Piaget’s preoperational and concrete operational phase in children between 4–11 years of age) might have been extended in some populations to adulthood.
Evidence for this assumption is ,e.g., the ability of people to simultaneously assign natural and supernatural explanations to phenomena without experiencing contradiction. QAnon, Anti Vaxxers and Flat Earthers are the most prominent examples. They can accommodate other online subcultures, such as the Incels, violent male supremacists who despise women. The perpetrator of the Hanau shootings in Germany (February 2020) belonged to such a group. Antisemitic beliefs, anti-migrant sentiments and racism are commonly shared norms.
The take-away lesson is that we are dealing with rather crude mindsets that depend on mechanisms of collective self-isolation. They constitute a new type of sects that grow and assert themselves in digital social networks. Despite so many overwhelming negative associations, not all Trump supporters are radicalised conspiracy theorists. There are still (some) people who had voted for him in 2016 and do regret their decision. These undecided voters need to be given the benefit of the doubt.
The Majority is still Sane (unfortunately not by a Large Margin)
The fact that the loud, but at a second look rather pitiful mental constructions of hard-core Trump supporters have great visibility in social media, should not lead to the wrong conclusion that they represent the United States of America. They don’t. There is the other, liberal and creative America. The America of Martin Luther King, Bob Dylan and Neil Young, Starship Enterprise, Prince, Robin Williams, Madonna, Barack Obama, Lady Gaga and a million more.
As a globalized European, I admire the American entrepreneurship and its positive can-do attitude, the brilliance of its leading universities and academics, the brave people of the BLM movement, America’s courageous journalists and creatives that I have cherished my entire lifetime.
The US would not survive a second term of Trumpism – and neither would Europe and the world. In conclusion, I can only encourage my American friends in November: Vote, vote and vote! Hopefully, you can end the dystopian nightmare. We dearly need a progressive, optimistic, cosmopolitan and democratic America.
If COVID can be controlled by vaccinations, hopefully during 2021, I would love to fly to the US again, visit the MIT Digital Learning Lab, network, attend Burning Man and drive down Highway One with my dearest friends. I am looking forward to this time. For now, however, I see a rocky road ahead. I expect violence to break out in November since Trump will not admit defeat, even if he clearly loses the election. Brace for impact. He will attempt everything in his power to undermine the legitimacy of the upcoming elections by what he can do best: by spreading falsehoods, creating confusion and instigating mayhem.
Postscriptum November 2020: The predictions made in this blogpost were correct. Joe Biden is the new President-elect, although by a much smaller margin than expected. Politically, the most worrying development is for Trump and his Republican followers to take to the streets and social media, rather than battling it out within democratic institutions. The fictional stories of voter-fraud, to which there is no evidence, remain deeply ingrained in Trump’s radicalised followers. Trump is the undisputed King of Fake News.
As described, the dynamics that have been set in motion resemble the epistemological, non-rational conditions of the Middle Ages. This about getting away with a fabricated ideology in which Trump can stage himself as the savior of his cult. It about establishing a dreamworld that aims to overthrow democracy as we know it. that Unless Trump would, eventually, be jailed in the course of pending lawsuits (after losing immunity as a President), he will keep undermining the legitimacy of American democracy. In addition, social networks thrive on the polarisation of society.
As a German, I can only warn any American who is still open to argument about the dangers of a single leader brushing reason and law aside. We went through the horrific experience going down the wrong path in 1933. I sincerely hope for my American friends that Biden and Harris can stir the ship towards a better course. It won’t be an easy task.