“A clarion call to arms”: Experts on why MAGA remains impervious to anti-Trump Republicans’ message

Trumpism is a public health crisis.

In his role as cult leader, Donald Trump’s direct threats and incitements of violence, terrorism, and mayhem – which include killing people – have encouraged the MAGA people and other members of the white right to engage in the same behavior. In the most recent high-profile example of right-wing violence and terrorism, last Thursday a Trump MAGA cultist went to a protest in a suburb of Albuquerque against the decision by the local government to reinstall a statue “honoring” a Spanish conquistador, Juan de Oñate. While there, the MAGA cultist attempted to provoke a fight and then pulled out his pistol and shot one of the protesters, who is an environmentalist and member of the Hopi tribe. The MAGA hat-wearing Trumpist reportedly laughed and smirked during his police interview.

On Monday, Trump threatened and raged at the judge presiding over his civil trial in New York for fraud and other financial crimes. Trump also verbally attacked and threatened New York Attorney General Letitia James, calling her a “racist” and “a horror show.” James is a Black woman. While in court, Trump scowled like an adult toddler and looked like he was having murderous thoughts of revenge and suffering. Trump’s performance was generally pompous and detached from reality, as the ex-president lied and claimed that he was being “persecuted” and is a type of victim-martyr for the MAGA cause. On Tuesday, the judge barred him from making personal attacks on court staff after the former president disparaged a law clear. In all, Trump’s behavior was that of a cult leader and demagogue who is finally facing some type of serious accountability for his criminal behavior.

None of this really matters to Trump’s MAGA cultists and other followers. Trump’s hold over them remains very strong and appears to be largely immune to any outside intervention. Moreover, Trump’s power and control over the MAGA cult endures – despite and even more likely because of his criminal trials and escalating violence and other destructive and dangerous behavior.

To that point, last week New York Times political reporter Jonathan Swan highlighted an attempt by a group of anti-Trump conservatives to stop the ex-president by weakening his support among the MAGA cultists.Their efforts failed; Trump’s dark charism and cult-leader power is that great.

A well-funded group of anti-Trump conservatives has sent its donors a remarkably candid memo that reveals how resilient former President Donald J. Trump has been against millions of dollars of negative ads the group deployed against him in two early-voting states.

The political action committee, called Win It Back, has close ties to the influential fiscally conservative group Club for Growth. It has already spent more than $4 million trying to lower Mr. Trump’s support among Republican voters in Iowa and nearly $2 million more trying to damage him in South Carolina.

But in the memo — dated Thursday and obtained by The New York Times — the head of Win It Back PAC, David McIntosh, acknowledges to donors that after extensive testing of more than 40 anti-Trump television ads, “all attempts to undermine his conservative credentials on specific issues were ineffective.”

The memo will provide little reassurance to the rest of the field of Mr. Trump’s Republican rivals that there is any elusive message out there that can work to deflate his support.

“Even when you show video to Republican primary voters — with complete context — of President Trump saying something otherwise objectionable to primary voters, they find a way to rationalize and dismiss it,” Mr. McIntosh states in the “key learnings” section of the memo.

The article continues:

For the polling underpinning its analysis, Win It Back used WPA Intelligence — a firm that also works for the super PAC supporting Mr. Trump’s chief rival in the race for the presidential nomination, Gov. Ron DeSantis of Florida.

Examples of “failed” ads cited in the memo included attacks on Mr. Trump’s “handling of the pandemic, promotion of vaccines, praise of Dr. Fauci, insane government spending, failure to build the wall, recent attacks on pro-life legislation, refusal to fight woke issues, openness to gun control, and many others.” (Dr. Anthony S. Fauci led the national response to the Covid pandemic.)

The list of failed attacks is notable because it includes many of the arguments that Mr. DeSantis has tried against Mr. Trump. The former president leads Mr. DeSantis by more than 40 points in national polls and by around 30 points in Iowa, where Mr. DeSantis’s team believes he has the best shot of defeating Mr. Trump.

Mr. McIntosh, a former Indiana congressman who co-founded the Club for Growth and the Federalist Society, makes it clear in the memo that any anti-Trump messages need to be delivered with kid gloves. That might explain why Mr. DeSantis’s super PAC, Never Back Down, has treated Mr. Trump gingerly, even in ads meant to contrast his character and his record unfavorably against Mr. DeSantis’s accomplishments.

Swan’s reporting reinforces how Trumpism and American neofascism constitute a political, cultural, and moral crisis for the country and world. It is true that tens of millions of Americans correctly view Trump with contempt and understand that is an extreme threat to the country’s democracy and society. Unfortunately, tens of millions of other Americans view that same foul and evil behavior by Donald Trump as something admirable, evidence that he is “strong” and a “fighter” who is willing to break the law and undermine democracy to get things done for people like them. And perhaps even more troubling for what it reveals about the health of American society, there are tens of millions of other Americans who are indifferent to Trump’s evil and wrongdoing and the existential danger that he and the Republican fascists and MAGA movement represent to the country.

“Outside of Trump’s influence, the same people can be compassionate, empathic, generous, but in their Trump-aligned echo chamber they become antisocial toward outsiders.”

In an attempt to make better sense of the enduring power of the Trump MAGA cult, I asked a range of experts for their insights and reactions to this important new reporting by the New York Times.

Dr. Lance Dodes is a retired assistant clinical professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School and a training and supervising analyst emeritus at the Boston Psychoanalytic Society and Institute.

The recent finding that Trump supporters will rationalize and ignore even sophisticated ads produced by Republicans against Trump — ads showing him saying things that are opposed to the very values of the Republican audience — is strong evidence of the cult-like nature of at least the most committed of his followers. Cults have exactly this characteristic: unquestioning worship of a charismatic leader and inability to hear or consider opposing or even differing views, especially about the leader who must remain godlike. Trump’s personal primitive psychology, in which he believes himself to be godlike and has contempt for others as valuable human beings, makes him a perfect candidate to surround himself with a cult. In turn, members vulnerable to joining the cult seek just such a godlike figure in a regressive wish to be protected, cared for, and told how to think. The irony of course is that the leader, Trump in this case, cares only about his grandiosity and nothing at all about them or their welfare.

It’s been impossible to draw these regressed followers away from the cult not only because of their wishful belief in their charismatic god, but also because leaving the cult would mean the loss of support and identity from the other cult members who, like Trump himself, would condemn them as evil.

To enable cult members to leave they would have to have a significantly large enough number of others to create a new inclusive, protective group to which they could attach themselves. That might happen if a new charismatic leader arose to lead them away in large enough numbers to feel safe rebelling from the old leader. It would help for there to be a major event that a new leader within or outside the group could seize upon to redirect the members, like the honest child in the fable who finally spoke up to say the emperor had no clothes. There probably are figures within the Republican Party who could serve in that role, but it would require more moral and political courage than we have seen so far.

Jen Senko is the director of the documentary “The Brainwashing of My Dad.” 

Yes, Trump COULD stand in the middle of Fifth Avenue and shoot someone, and they would still be devoted. Dare I say he could even claim he’s a woke lib and his followers wouldn’t even hear it. It no longer matters what he says.

We all know by now; this is classic cult behavior. It’s all about the leader, not the ideology or what the person they follow represents—they might represent nothing. Cult followers abdicate their reasoning, and their own ideas of what is good or bad to a leader. Giving themselves over to a leader absolves them of any guilt or responsibility. If confused by all the stuff flooding the zone and the contradictions in the news, it’s almost a relief to just hand it over to a leader who says He Knows.

Marcel Danesi is Professor Emeritus of linguistic anthropology and semiotics at the University of Toronto. His new book is Politics, Lies and Conspiracy Theories: A Cognitive Linguistic Perspective.

Oppositional messaging in the case of a “culture war leader” will never work, because it is seen as the words of enemies against Trump and his followers. Trump’s lies are thus not interpreted as destructive words but as part of a clarion call to arms to overturn the deep state that must be defeated to restore America to its purported roots, which, incidentally, Trump has never specified what he means by them, in true Orwellian fashion. Any message against him is thus filtered out as an attack from opposing warring armies in the ongoing cultural war, and thus discarded as tactics. Trump’s lies are perceived to be verbal weapons in that war. There is nothing Trump could say or do that would erode support from his followers, because he is seen as the leader of the greater cause of taking down the enemies that he and his blind followers see as the source of America’s and their own troubles, and as eroding the fabric of American society. Outside of Trump’s influence, the same people can be compassionate, empathic, generous, but in their Trump-aligned echo chamber they become antisocial toward outsiders. It is somewhat ironic to observe that Trump and his followers portray their battle as a counterculture one, as did the hippies in the 1960s and 1970s, portraying the government as the “establishment” and the liberal democratic state—again quite ironically—as the enemy of freedom and true American values.

Dr. Justin Frank is a former clinical professor of psychiatry at the George Washington University Medical Center and the author of “Trump on the Couch: Inside the Mind of the President.” 

I have always believed that an important part of psychic development is the ability to face, feel, and think about loss. Trump never had that capacity, nor was allowed to have it, growing up. He immediately transformed loss into blaming others, into triumphant denial (refusing to accept that he lost), or into acts of revenge. All three characteristics dominated the January 6 insurrection.

What I learned in my psychiatric residency – as well as in my own life – is that sorrow is the vitamin of growth. Does that make denial the vitamin of autocracy? During the 2016 election Trump said that if he lost, the entire campaign would have been a waste of time and energy. Denying and dismissing loss led us to January 6.  Just remember Abe Lincoln’s statement after he lost an election: “I feel like a 16-year-old who stubbed his toe: I’m too old to cry but it hurts too much to laugh” Facing the painful process of renunciation leads also to emotional growth and maturity. So, how does the GOP win back MAGA followers? It seems impossible, even if Trump goes to prison and is completely discredited.

To me, the operative word is not “win,” but wean. Trump supporters are attached to him at the mouth, at the lips, at the heart and soul. He is their divine leader, much the way an evangelical preacher becomes more important to his congregation – as the personification of God’s power – than the scriptures they recite. Trump has a similar deep effect on his flock. The only way they could be brought back to the GOP hymnal is to gently, persistently, non-judgmentally help them discover for themselves Trump’s genuine contempt for them, our country and its health and wellbeing.

Rich Logis is a former right-wing pundit and high-ranking Trump supporter. He describes himself as “a remorseful ex-Trump, DeSantis and GOP voter”. Logis is the founder of Perfect Our Union, an organization that is dedicated to healing political traumatization; building diverse, pro-democracy alliances; and perfecting our Union.

I understand the fatigue from coverage of Trump; constant MAGA/Trump trauma is exhausting and soul-draining. But it remains necessary, because our nation must be continually reminded that there is nothing Trump could do, or say, to lose the support of most voters who identify as MAGA or Ultra-MAGA. And, as a one-time, zealously devout MAGA voter, I mean “nothing” literally, not figuratively. The country club conservatives, über-wealthy GOP donors and Ronald Reagan mythologizers haven’t accepted that they no longer run the party, as evidenced by myriad Republican focus groups — whose attendees affirm their commitment to voting Trump—and the millions spent in ads intended to weaken Trump — but have the opposite intended effect.

“It’s been impossible to draw these regressed followers away from the cult not only because of their wishful belief in their charismatic god, but also because leaving the cult would mean the loss of support and identity from the other cult members.”

$1 trillion in anti-Trump would help—not hurt—Trump. Electorally defeating MAGA is non-negotiable; our democratic republic, almost certainly, would not survive a second Trump presidency (which I also fear could be a permanent presidency). It’s important to be candid with the American people: electorally winning, however, is the start—not the finish—of de-traumatizing our nation from MAGA.

Joe Walsh was a Republican congressman and a leading Tea Party conservative. He is now a prominent conservative voice against Donald Trump and the host of the podcast “White Flag with Joe Walsh.”

It is a cult. How many times must that be said. One of America’s two major political parties has become completely radicalized and has given up on democracy. Trump is their cult leader. Each and every evidence of his corruption and criminality only strengthens his support within his cult. Our only job now is to defeat them.

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