Trump’s tweets about ‘making friends’ with Kim Jong Un, complete with exclamation marks more befitting an eight-year-old, confirm once again a level of naivety about world affairs which most people, judging his role and the background to such statements, will regard as both terrifying and contemptible. But his online supporters (presuming there are some who are not automated) seem to lap it up, insisting that his appeals for everyone to get along be taken at face value. Their insistence that the most superficial aspects of world affairs – reports of personal conversations between individual world leaders – are the only defining ones also explains their (faux?)-naif response to his statement about Putin’s ‘response’ to his (apparently pretend) questions about election meddling. For one thing, the theme of lying is too adult to acknowledge; for another, they appear to be too deeply embedded inside a particular worldview to truly care about what’s true or false, or, as Reza Aslan wrote last week, ‘Trump has been spectacularly successful at getting his supporters to believe his blandishments rather than their own eyes’.
It’s common to see Trump supporters on social media extol love and friendship, and denounce the ‘hatred’ and ‘negativity’ of his opponents. I’ve written before about the sentimentality of tyrants. With his gold bath fittings, made-up golf trophies and puerile insistence that such tokens of his success – his toys – be explicitly acknowledged and admired, Trump resembles a more insecure version of the man who will inevitably, in the next few days, become his new BDF (Best Dictator Friend): Rodrigo Duterte of (as it’s correctly spelt) the Philippines, who combines unmitigated brutality and obscene outbursts with teen-like melodrama, especially when it comes to karaoke. There is a long history of autocrats seeing their subjects and counterparts in a mawkish light; there’s also a Michael Jackson element to both Trump’s worldview (and that of his immediate family members) and his appeal, which it’s fair to suspect may suggest similar predilections. Maybe some Trump supporters think that Roy Moore, like the King of Pop, just wanted to play innocently with those children, and would react just as nonchlantly if it were revealed that their hero does too.
I’ve long contended that such naivety is a symptom of a retreat to a less complex and frightening world in the face of the changing climate. The infantile depiction of the world of Fox News and the bogeyman worldview of Infowars are cases in point. There are a number of factors that account for the success of such propaganda. For me, such a retreat to a world of fairy tales is a response to our inability to discuss the environmental consequences of our way of life responsibly. If you can deny the facts of global warming, you can (be persuaded to) deny anything. Once confronted, acolytes of the new right habitually deny everything we try to use to counter them: reason, the experiences of others, universally-agreed upon historical fact, intellectual and scientific authority, even what they themselves have just said. This last is telling: owning one’s own statements and the logical consequences thereof is a habit one acquires as one matures. Instead, faced with truly incontrovertible evidence that their argument is based on false premises, both children and self-declared supporters of Trump repeatedly try to shift the blame by changing the subject, and when that doesn’t work resort to insults. I find most of the time that I have no response but to plead with such people to grow up.
Trump supporters and their equivalents elsewhere may perceive and behave in accordance with a cartoon version of reality, but it’s not a innocent or harmless one. It encompasses the cruelties of children: spitefulness and bullying, including racism of the most puerile kind. Read, for example, this exchange between two adult Trump supporters as reported by Kyle Griffin. Then there are phenomena like the trans bathroom controversy and the building of a wall to keep out outsiders. It is not a world defined by and for adults.
Social media exacerbates this. It’s a playground in which it’s extremely easy to discard the standards of reasonable debate. Bullies and political manipulators were much quick to recognise and mobilise its radical potential than defenders of progressive values. I suspect that as fascism takes hold across the planet, meaningful resistence will not be centred on social media in its current form.
Children often begin to distinguish themselves from their parents by forming gangs. Some join cults. I think it’s essential to take seriously the notion that Trump’s base is a cult. Thus in trying to turn the tide – and, Canute-like or not, we have no choice – we need to turn to the wisdom of deprogrammers and those who know how to counsel individuals caught up in the cult mindset. Trump (etc) supporters behave and argue like children, because that is the mentality particular to their cult. The critical question is: given that their childish retreat into a more reassuring world is partly a symptom and result of our own failure to begin to address very real problems which, Trump or no Trump, threaten our continued existence, what do we have to offer them which is better than the comfort blanket they are so attached to? How do we engage with them without getting drawn into a cartoon-level battle of good versus evil? Should we even treat them as adults, or as children? I have no idea whatsoever. I think it’s time to read up on how cults work.