Trump supporters
Credit: Gage Skidmore/Flickr

If the 2016 election shook the consciences of Americans who could not believe what their fellow citizens were capable of supporting, the 2020 election has been barely short of psychologically crushing. Yes, Joe Biden won by over 7 million votes. Yes, Democrats did hold the House and have an opportunity to take the Senate. But the fact that Donald Trump (!) was able to turn out an expectations-thwarting and poll-defying number of supporters despite a horrifically incompetent and willfully divisive presidency–combined with the fact that even many of those who rejected Trump still supported the Trumpist Republican ticket downballot–has shocked many Americans.

The Republican Party, meanwhile, continues its lurch toward radicalism. Its most prominent politicians now traffic in conspiracy theories from QAnon to widespread “voter fraud.” They encourage Americans to get infected by a deadly pandemic and mock the increasing numbers of cases across the country. And the GOP base is worse. As Ross Douthat notes, the Republican base is so desirous of maintaining its epistemic closure that not even Fox News is good enough now, nor are explicitly partisan conservative governors and secretaries of state. It’s not just that pied pipers are feeding misinformation to a blinkered, easily duped electorate. Core Republican voters now inhabit a wholly alternate universe. Instead of acknowledging the truth that they are a shrinking minority with illegitimate power maintained only by anti-majoritarian institutions like the Electoral College and Senate malapportionment originally designed to benefit slave states, conservatives imagine themselves to command a permanent silent majority. Still, a conspiracy of shadowy global cabals and swamp creatures conspire to prevent them from achieving the power they are rightly owed.

And it’s getting worse. On everything from elections themselves (blue city votes shouldn’t be counted because they’re inherently suspect) to COVID stimulus (blue states and cities shouldn’t get help because they’re “irresponsible,” although blue states overwhelmingly pay the bills of red states), the Republican Party is, in essence, on a civil war footing against Blue America. Importantly, the reverse is not true. Democrats spend an inordinate amount of time arguing about persuading rural and red-state voters, and no Democratic legislation is designed to explicitly harm Republican voters physically or economically.

So what does the reality-based community do about this? How do you deradicalize a political party whose leadership and base simultaneously seem to be driving themselves off of an ideological cliff into a land of violent conspiracy theory?

Any such project must begin by understanding the scope of the problem and the limits of traditional critical theory or economic determinist approaches to the question.

Yes, racism, sexism, and toxic masculinity remain at the core of Republican anxieties. But they do not explain how Trump garnered even more voters in 2020 than 2016, how he maintained his support among women voters, or how he managed to gain ground among non-whites while losing ground among white men.

A Marxist analysis would note that non-college rural Trump voters clearly have class issues compared to college-educated urban Biden voters, as a brief glance at the audience of Trump rally compared to that of a Democratic event can attest. But that doesn’t explain the reality that, despite the divide between Trump and Biden voters, Biden still won the majority of those making less than $50,000 a year, while Trump won those making over $100,000 a year. Racial wealth disparities account for some but not all of this–and in any case, such a caveat only shows the dominance of race over class in the psychology of American voters, But it’s also true that a large number of non-college whites outside of urban areas are making fairly good money and not necessarily suffering from economic anxiety. To the degree to which a traditionally Marxist analysis can account for all of this with various intersectional footnotes and updates, such an analysis would be so bespoke as to stretch the credibility of its own foundational premises.

Fortunately, many social scientists and psychologists have accurately described the Republican Party as more resembling a self-organizing cult than a traditional party. Most cult experts tend to agree. It also has a personal salience for so many who have seen their loved ones functionally disappear into another universe,  Almost everyone has a “Fox News Uncle” story or a “QAnon Aunt” story, and the stories are virtually indistinguishable from descriptions of loved ones lost to Scientology or the Moonies.

This is not an unusual development for authoritarian parties in a faltering democracy. But it is exacerbated by America’s peculiar penchant for outlandish religious belief and by new social media algorithms that incentivize extremist discourse while allowing radicalized individuals to support and reinforce one another rather than be forced to engage with “normies.” QAnon, in particular, thrives in this fetid water. Its combination of religious extremism and hodgepodge conspiracy theory is part movement, part cult, and part self-organized roleplaying.

So why have so many joined this particular political cult? People tend to join cults for many reasons, but one of the most important is to establish or rediscover a sense of purpose alongside a community of fellow seekers. Loss of purpose is extremely important here because it serves as the best connector between the bigotry- and class-based analyses of Trumpism.

Trump voters–particularly white, predominantly male voters in exurban areas–feel afflicted by a loss of purpose. This is, of course, largely a product of feeling like they no longer control the country’s cultural and economic heights as they did in the old days of “Leave it To Beaver” and “Father Knows Best.” Social critics rightly note that this dominance was enabled by Jim Crow laws, homophobia, and sexist norms; as the old saying goes, “when you’re accustomed to privilege, equality feels like oppression.” The world’s tiniest violin plays for them, as it should.

But those feelings exist nonetheless. And there are also more valid reasons more deserving of empathy. Small town and rural America is under assault principally caused by the monopolization of the economy. Small farmers are increasingly indentured servants of big agribusiness like Monsanto. The small-town corner store has been forced out of business by Walmart. The globalized economy increasingly delivers outsize economic and social rewards to workers with college educations, centralizing them in cities. Tradespeople can still make good money, but modern society accords such work with limited social prestige–and it’s typically the white-collar workers hiring the electricians, not the other way around.

Concomitantly, rural areas and white working-class communities are suffering family breakup and opioid drug crises (also exacerbated by monopolized corporations!), which only serves to reinforce their social anxiety and scuttles what W.E.B. DuBois called their “psychological wage”: the advantage derived from feeling innately superior to non-whites, as they now find themselves ravaged by social problems similar to those experienced by residents of economically oppressed and structurally disenfranchised inner cities.

So, what to do about this? Most modern liberal rhetoric doesn’t really have an answer for it. It either shames them for their prejudices (justified but not particularly useful) or tells them liberals want to “give them a fair shake to get ahead in America” (language that is both bloodless and lacking credibility), or promises to “give them free healthcare, guaranteed jobs, and higher minimum wages (which doesn’t give them a sense of purpose and makes them fear that those things will also be delivered to those people and that they’ll lose their place in line.)

Not all solutions will work for all members of the conservative movement, however. Here it’s probably important to distinguish between two types of Republicans: the wholly committed and the merely Trump-curious. Each belongs to a different type of cult.

The wholly committed identify with Trumpism as a cult of power. QAnon depends on the idea that Trump can never lose, that their allies “have it all,” and their enemies will suffer mass execution and incarceration at Gitmo. More standard Republicanism assumes that Republicans constitute a permanent majority of “real” men who act like men and will always really run society. If any liberals get any ideas otherwise, the “patriots with guns” and their supposed allies in the police and military will step in to make namby-pamby liberals cry and set things right. Mitch McConnell is a paragon because he does what it takes to keep the firmament of power: we blocked Merrick Garland, Barrett now sits on the Court, hypocrisy is a meaningless construct of the whining leftist mind, and wait until Trump takes the election to the Supreme Court that he righteously stacked with the help of White Jesus. Cry more, liberal!

The only way to destroy the cults of power is to smash their power. This is one reason why it is so important to prosecute Trump and his family once they are forced out of office. Not just to protect the rule of law but also to clarify the Trumpist cult that the Trump family and their enablers are not, in fact, above consequences. The God Emperor can also go to prison. Far from destabilizing the country, doing so is essential to the country’s long-term stability.

It’s also why it’s important to eliminate the filibuster, bypass the electoral college, end gerrymandering, and add states to the Senate. It’s not just to allow beneficial legislation to pass, but also to destroy the conservative cult of power. It’s why it’s important to go after conservative news networks and the algorithms that enable radicalism. At every step, it’s important to take the wind out of the sails of those who glory in their own power and the pain of their enemies. As soon as they realize that they are outnumbered by the decent and have no God-given right to dominance, an actual conversation can begin. Until then, there can only be posturing and trolling.

For the more Trump-curious, the left has to provide an alternate sense of purpose for those who are open to it. This is the essence of good populism: to provide projects that people can become a part of, to engage with their communities, and enemies to fight who are actual villains and need fighting.

Providing material benefits to Trumpist white working-class voters won’t cure them of their bigotries. But if the left can communicate that their small towns can be saved, that there can be good jobs available at good wages in both the public and private sectors, and that the Monsanto and Walmart executive in suits can be brought to heel so that the small farmer and hardware store owner can thrive again, that could make the difference at the margins. It could also take the edge off of GOP radicalization and alter much of the conversation.

As the conservative media environment fragments and the inevitability of Trump’s defeat become apparent, the left has a unique opportunity to reach out to many of these voters as well.

None of these are perfect solutions. They will require enormous efforts and may not be possible. But they are answers that comprehend the scope of the problem and the only answer to the increasing radicalization of the right.

David Atkins

Follow David on Twitter @DavidOAtkins. David Atkins is a writer, activist and research professional living in Santa Barbara. He is a contributor to the Washington Monthly's Political Animal and president of The Pollux Group, a qualitative research firm.