Updated: 7 days ago
How did it come to this point? How did it happen that our friends, family, and neighbors would resort to encouraging (or participating) in the violent overthrow of a free and democratic election? How did Trump supporters become so radicalized?
What should not be a surprise to anyone are the events that transpired on Wednesday, January 6, 2021 when pro-Trump rioters attempted an insurrectionist invasion of the United States Capitol in Washington, D.C. with the hope of stopping Congress from counting the electoral votes that would certify Joseph Biden as the next President of the United States. In other words, Trump loyalists, which included elected officials, military veterans, business owners, and regular day-to-day citizens, attempted a violent coup to stop the peaceful transfer of power while intending to retain (indefinitely?) President Donald J. Trump as the leader of the country. How could this have happened at the world’s epicenter of democracy and liberty?
The thesis of this two-part blog post is that the radicalization of the Trump supporters in Washington, D.C., and the people who continue to support them, follows the same psychological patten of radicalization that we see among Islamic terrorists (or, “Islamists”). This extremism typically occurs in a four-stage process where 1) a particular group undergoes an identity crisis due to feeling disenfranchised and subjugated by outside influences; 2) the group then refuses to abandon or adjust their ingroup’s mytho-identity about their own superiority, which causes cognitive dissonance and paranoia; 3) to maintain their mytho-identity, the group identifies a scapegoat to blame for their perceived subjugation; and finally 4) the group is provoked or incited to violence in order to correct a perceived cosmological and political injustice.
In the case of Trump supporters in Washington, D.C., the radicalization began decades ago with 1) a crisis of white identity and economic disenfranchisement due to perceived hostility from increased globalization; 2) an insistence on believing in American exceptionalism and the so-called “American Dream” because it solidifies their claims to superiority; 3) when those myths do not actualize in real life, the blaming of liberals and Democrats ensues; and then 4) an incitement to violence by their ingroup leader, President Trump, based on a fabricated injustice that he claims will further disenfranchise them.
It is important first to recognize the difference between religious extremism and terrorism. The latter refers to politically-motivated acts of terror by individuals, groups, or state-sponsored agents designed to influence policy changes. This distinction becomes apparent once it is recognized that there exist both religious and non-religious terrorist groups. Religious extremism, on the other hand, is characterized by an intense resistance to modernizing, progressive thought and practices. It often manifests through militancy, sectarianism, and dogmatic absolutism. What we witnessed on January 6 was, in fact, a mixing of the two.
Disenfranchisement and Identity Crisis
The most important realization about radicalized Trump supporters is that they are currently undergoing an identity crisis, which has been growing among their specific demographic for several decades now. Political “Trumpism,” which is akin to radicalized Islamist terror groups today, is quite obviously most popular among white Americans who do not have a college degree. What is most notable about this demographic, however, is that radicalized Trump supporters also share heightened anxiety over the encroachment of non-white influence, such as perceived special privileges given to blacks and Muslims. To a lesser degree, Trump supporters also share anxiety over perceived economic inequality. Indeed, the single-most defining character trait that predicts increased support for President Trump is an individual’s longstanding lack of empathy for ethnic minorities and Muslims. In other words, the common trait among radicalized Trump supporters is their disapproval of or hostility toward non-whites.
Much of this disenfranchisement is precisely what happens in Muslim countries where the West is perceived to be an imperialistic force that suppresses the power and authority of Islam. From the perspective of radicalized Muslims, the West has invaded their homes by embedding alien (egalitarian) morals and laws into their culture. Non-Muslims are now ruling over their lands or accumulating more wealth and influence than Islam ever had in the region, making global Muslims the unwitting subjects of a tyrannical (democratic, secular) West. This identity crisis, for both radicalized Trump supporters and Islamic terrorists, results in both a racial and economic sense of inferiority and, thus, disenfranchisement.
What these demographics about Trump supporters have identified is a feeling of racial disenfranchisement. As one early Trump supporter remarked about why he voted for Mr. Trump in 2016, it was a backlash against the growing anti-white and anti-male culture at large. Indeed, much of Trump’s supporters feel that white voices are increasingly marginalized, as well as suppressed from or belittled in national discourse and made to feel unwanted in their own country. Instead of building a true community that benefits everyone, these white Americans view a focus on pluralism and diversity as an agenda that seeks special privileges toward minority groups, which then neglects (disdains) other white Americans. As such, what appears to be overt xenophobia, racism, sexism, homophobia, and Islamophobia is, in many respects, their tribe’s psychological reaction against perceived attacks against their own identity. As Jack David Eller describes it, “The experience of many disaffected Americans who voted for and persist in supporting Trump is loss—losing money, losing status, losing power, and, in sum, losing America.”
Radicalized Trump supporters feel disenfranchised specifically because they have been made to feel that their white identity is inherently bad or unworthy of status. They perceive globalization as a threat to their own sense of place and purpose in the world. To be a white male in today’s multicultural society, so they argue, is to have no other voice except one that consistently apologizes for slavery, racism, and a host of other problems for which they do not feel accountable. The immense acceleration of this globalization has simply created a sense of insecurity and identity crisis for the disaffected people group. The effect of this heterophobia is a paralyzing psychological homophily, which prevents entire subcultures from exposure to different viewpoints, thereby increasing their lack of empathy for “the other.” These radicalized Trump supporters perceive themselves as an “embattled and even disadvantaged group, and this has led to both strong ingroup identity and a greater tolerance for expressions of hostility toward outgroups.”
Because of things like multiculturalism and globalization, Trump supporters feel that they are forced to care for those outside of their community at the expense of their own identity. And because humanity evolved to concern itself only with small tribal units, the pushback from radicalized Trump supporters originates from having to consider the needs of those outside of their own tribe. As such, the collective identity of these supporters is generally hostile toward the notion of expanding their sense of community and empathy. Unlike their political and religious counterparts who do not share the same sense of racial insecurity, radicalized Trump supporters do not perceive or experience the positive effects of intergroup contact. Rather, they view contact with outsiders as an immediate threat. Hence, disgraced New Jersey Chief of Police, Frank Nucera Jr., once identified President Trump as “the last hope for white people.”
This feeling of disenfranchisement also has an economic aspect to it, as well. Much like how Islamic terrorist organizations recruit Muslims from impoverished areas, much of Trump’s early support came from disaffected workers who felt betrayed or left behind by the current global economic system that has continually placed advancement and prosperity just out of reach. By the time of the assault on the U.S. Capitol, after months of economic turmoil due to the COVID-19 pandemic, much of these radicalized supporters were now feasibly underemployed or unemployed like the rest of the nation. And just like everyone else, they also felt the anxiety of growing income inequality and a lack of opportunities in today’s market. Indeed, since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, billionaires in the United States added $1 trillion to their net worth while $1 million new Americans apply for unemployment every week, on top of the 27 million people currently on unemployment already. Just like many of us, these Trump supporters have to live paycheck to paycheck with almost no job security or labor protections. These people suffer from the same lack of access to health care, paid sick leave, or reserve savings accounts to help with expenses and debt. Significantly, the more the gap between the rich and the poor widens, the more politically polarized the country becomes, which then produces more income inequality. All of this means that radicalized Trump supporters likely have the same level of heightened economic anxiety as the rest of us, even if they continue to support policies that actually worsen their economic plight. Unsurprisingly, the anxiety over wealth inequality has simply led to the rise of far-fight authoritarianism elsewhere in the world.
Myths Worth Rioting Over
What is especially unique about the collective identity of Trump supporters is their belief in two main myths: American exceptionalism and the so-called “American Dream.” This, too, parallels Islamic terrorist groups today because of a shared mytho-identity that believes Muslims are the rightful authorities in the world (or at least in the Middle East) because of their unique relationship to Allah. Simply by their assertion that they practice the one true religion, these Islamists look backwards to a time when Muslims were, in fact, superior to everyone else in the region. But over time, the non-Muslim West gained wealth and political superiority while Muslim influence and innovation stagnated. Now, at best, Muslims can merely hope to copy the luxuries of non-Muslims who culturally occupy their lands. Those Muslims who turn toward Islamic revivalism are often the ones who have not modernized at the same pace as the rest of the world and who have failed to adjust to the demands of globalization. The problem is that Islamic terrorists refuse to question the narrative that they and their people are rightfully superior to everyone else. They go on believing such myths despite evidence to the contrary.
The same is true for radicalized Trump supporters who have failed to keep pace with the demands of pluralism, globalization, and modern sensibilities. They do not question the myth that they, as Americans, are divinely privileged for wealth and prosperity because, as their tradition suggests, they inhabit a unique (God-fearing) country. These radicalized Trump supporters genuinely believe in their own exceptionalism as a group and as traditional representatives of a uniquely Christian country. As such, they feel they are the rightful heirs of the same privileges that their forebearers enjoyed. This myth is also the most direct entry point for why Trump supporters overwhelming self-identify as evangelical. Christian Smith summarizes this myth:
Christian Right rhetoric contends: America was founded as a Christian nation and prospered under God’s blessing. Having recently abandoned its commitment to God’s unchanging truth and morality, however, America is now suffering social breakdown. Unless America repents and returns to “traditional” values and morals, America will suffer God’s judgment. Turning America around from its anti-Christian moral drift will require the active struggle of Christians and supportive allies—the moral majority of Americans—against hostile forces.
As Jerry Falwell Sr. once wrote, “We are not a perfect nation, but we are still a free nation because we have the blessings of God upon us. We must continue to follow in a path that will ensure that blessing. We must not forget that it is God Almighty who has made and preserved us as a nation.” For radicalized Trump supporters, America itself is the religious institution that makes them the rightful authorities in the world because of their unique relationship to God. This nationalism is why so many of Trump’s radicalized followers droop themselves in the American flag. The Stars and Stripes have become every bit of a religious symbol as the cross was on a Crusader’s shield. John Seel concurs, “Many American evangelicals have been truly more American than Christian, more dependent on historical myths than spiritual realities, more shaped by the flag than the cross.”
Simply by their assertion that they are Americans, these extremists look backwards to a time when white Americans were, in fact, superior to everyone else in the world, typically during the post-WWII era. The result is a neoconservative movement that tends to have an unhealthy veneration for a time when white heterosexual males dominated the economy, government, and culture. But over time, the non-American world has gained health, wealth, and political authority on par with (or greater than) the United States while American cultural influence and innovation mostly stagnated. This refusal to jettison a misguided patriotism results in the second myth0-identity related to the American Dream, a belief that if a person works hard or goes to school, then they can capitalize on their talents to live a prosperous and comfortable life. The problem is that just like with American exceptionalism, this myth does not become a reality for them, either.
Significantly, Trump supporters view the American Dream as a God-given blueprint for economic mobility. As such, it is given a quasi-religious significance because it imitates prophetic oracles (i.e. “complete these steps and then reap your rewards”). As before, this second mytho-identity has a transformative effect on the type of Christianity practiced by Trump’s supporters. According to Leigh Jordahl, evangelicalism in America has adopted an anti-intellectual and anti-institutional mentality, emphasizing an individualized yet unyielding moralism that distrusts authorities while praising the “self-made man.” The effect becomes a belief that people are responsible for their own fortunes and, therefore, should not blame institutionalized prejudices for their inability to attain upward economic or social mobility.
The result, not surprisingly, is that two-thirds of evangelicals do not believe the government has an obligation to help improve the lives of the black community and over one-third believe too much money has already been spent on the problem of racism. Nearly half simply believe African-Americans ought to overcome prejudice on their own and four-fifths believe blacks ought to “work their way up” in society without the backing of government policies. Likewise, over half of evangelicals believe blacks lack the motivation to pull themselves out of poverty and almost three-quarters do not think the impoverished plight of blacks is due to discrimination.
To their surprise, however, these same white Americans are working longer hours at multiple jobs, and yet they do not experience the prophesied rewards and benefits of the American Dream. The expansion of wealth inequality is one of the major consequences of globalization where increasing numbers of billionaires continue to acquire more wealth, more resources, and more entrepreneurial opportunities at the expense of everyone else. In fact, in 2019, the richest 1% of individuals owned 45% of the world’s wealth. Moreover, Trump’s base supporters likely did not benefit much from his economic policies since almost all of the economic growth was concentrated in the stock market where 10% of the richest US households own 84% of all stocks.
The problem with radicalized Trump supporters is not in their devotion to American exceptionalism or the American Dream. The problem is that they maintain these mythological beliefs despite evidence to the contrary. What distinguishes a radicalized Trump supporter from someone who might simply lean politically conservative is a recognition that the American Dream is not, and never was, part of reality. They stop believing in the myth. The radicalized Trump supporter, on the other hand, continues to hold on to these pseudo-promises as though they are unquestionably true. This is one reason why white southerners have become so “pro-business” that they ignore their own impoverished socio-economic status. They want an America that will make them rich and dominant, just like their slave-owning ancestors.
As with many Americans, Trump supporters are affected by higher unemployment rates, stagnant income wages, and economic policies that disproportionately benefit only wealthy Americans. In response, these conservatives look to a strong savior-type business man who appears to have lived the American Dream and who promises to help them live it, too. The result is a growing dissatisfaction with the socio-economic institutions that appear to work against their ambitions, causing these white Americans to seek out and blame a scapegoat when both their leader and their myths fail to deliver.
Fathali M. Moghaddam, “The Staircase to Terrorism: A Psychological Exploration.,” American Psychologist 60, no. 2 (2005): 161, http://doi.org/10.1037/0003-066x.60.2.161.
George M. Marsden, Fundamentalism and American Culture, 2nd ed. (New York: Oxford University Press, 2006), 4; Rolland D. McCune, “The Self-Identity of Fundamentalism,” Detroit Baptist Seminary Journal 1, no. 1 (Spring 1996): 9‒34; Randall Herbert Balmer, “Critical Junctures in American Evangelicalism,” Ashland Theological Journal 38 (2006): 55‒66; Rick Blythe, “Missouri Synod and the Changing Definitions of Fundamentalism,” Concordia Historical Institute Quarterly 82, no. 1 (Spring 2009): 31‒51.
Jack David Eller, Trump and Political Theology: Unmaking Truth and Democracy (Denver, CO: GCRR Press, 2020), 137-50.
Eller, Trump and Political Theology, 138.
Bernard Lewis, What Went Wrong? The Clash between Islam and Modernity in the Middle East (2002; repr., New York: Perennial, 2003), 82-116; Lewis, The Crisis of Islam, 47-63, 113-19.
Myles Lennon, “Revisiting ‘The Repugnant Other’ in the Era of Trump,” HAU: Journal of Ethnographic Theory 8, no. 3 (2018): 451-52, http://doi.org/10.1086/700979.
Christine J. Walley, “Trump’s Election and the ‘White Working Class’: What We Missed,” American Ethnologist 44, no. 2 (2017): 233, http://doi.org/10.1111/amet.12473.
Eller, Trump and Political Theology, 144-45.
Eller, Trump and Political Theology, 146; emphasis in original.
Fathali M. Moghaddam, The New Global Insecurity: How Terrorism, Environmental Collapse, Economic Inequalities, and Resource Shortages are Changing Our World (Santa Barbara, CA: Praeger, 2010).
The term “homophily” describes a psychological phenomenon where those with similar characteristics tend only to associate with one another (Paul F. Lazarsfeld and Robert K. Merton, “Friendship as a Social Process: A Substantive and Methodological Analysis,” in Freedom and Control in Modern Society, ed. Morroe Berger, Theodore Abel, and Charles Page [New York: Van Nostrand, 1954], 18‒66).
Nicholas A. Valentino, Fabian G. Neuner, and L. Matthew Vandenbroek, “The Changing Norms of Racial Political Rhetoric and the End of Racial Priming,” The Journal of Politics 80, no. 3 (2017): 768, http://doi.org/10.1086/694845.
Fathali M. Moghaddam, Multiculturalism and Intergroup Relations: Psychological Implications for Democracy in Global Context (Washington, DC: American Psychological Association, 2008), esp. 12.
Thomas A. Pyszczynski, Sheldon Solomon, and Jeff Greenberg, In the Wake of 9-11: The Psychology of Terror (Washington, DC: American Psychological Association, 2004). Cf. Thomas F. Pettigrew and Linda R. Tropp, “A Meta-Analytic Test of Intergroup Contact Theory,” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 90, no. 5 (2006): 751-83, http://doi.org/10.1037/0022-35220.127.116.111.
Rory McVeigh and Kevin Estep, The Politics of Losing: Trump, the Klan, and the Mainstreaming of Resentment (New York: Columbia University Press, 2019), 108-9, 131-32.
Fathali M. Moghaddam, From the Terrorists’ Point of View: What They Experience and Why They Come to Destroy (Westport, CT: Praegar, 2006), 13-38. Cf. Jason Burke, Al-Qaeda: The True Story of Radical Islam, 2nd ed. (London: I. B. Tauris, 2004), 116-35; Lewis, The Crisis of Islam, 137-64.
Ira M. Lapidus, A History of Islamic Societies, 3rd ed. (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2014), 573-74.
For more on American exceptionalism, see Seymour Martin Lipset, American Exceptionalism: A Double-Edged Sword (1996; repr., New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 1997); Deborah L. Madsen, American Exceptionalism (Jackson, MS: University Press of Mississippi, 1998); Matthew Avery Sutton, American Apocalypse: A History of Modern Evangelicalism (Cambridge, MA: The Belknap Press, 2014), 47‒78, 263‒92; and Kevin M. Kruse, One Nation under God: How Corporate America Invented Christian America, Pbk. ed. (2015; repr., New York: Basic Books, 2016).
Cf. Morgan Ramsey-Elliot, “From Trucks to Trump: The Role of Small-Town Values in Driving Votes,” Anthropology Now 9, no. 1 (2017): 54-56, http://doi.org/10.1080/19428200.2017.1291182.
Christian Smith, Christian America? What Evangelicals Really Want (Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 2000), 199. In 1996, 87% of evangelicals and 82% of fundamentalists believed America was founded as a Christian nation (pp. 201‒2).
Jerry Falwell Sr., Listen, America! (Garden City, NY: Doubleday & Company, 1980), 20.
John Seel, “Nostalgia for the Lost Empire,” in No God but God: Breaking with the Idols of Our Age, ed. Os Guinness and John Seel (Chicago, IL: Moody Press, 1992), 66.
See Eller, Trump and Political Theology, 111-35 and George M. Marsden, The Twilight of the American Enlightenment: The 1950s and the Crisis of Liberal Belief (New York: Basic Books, 2014).
See George M. Marsden, “Fundamentalism and American Evangelicalism,” in The Variety of American Evangelicalism, ed. Donald W. Dayton and Robert K. Johnston (1991; repr., Knoxville, TN: The University of Tennessee Press, 2001), 22‒35; Roger E. Olson, Reformed and Always Reforming: The Postconservative Approach to Evangelical Theology (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2007), 15‒26; Christopher Catherwood, The Evangelicals: What They Believe, Where They Are, and Their Politics (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2010), 91‒144; Kenneth J. Collins, Power, Politics and the Fragmentation of Evangelicalism: From the Scopes Trial to the Obama Administration (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2012), 54‒86; Richard Quebedeaux, The Young Evangelicals: Revolution in Orthodoxy (New York: Harper & Row, 1974), 5‒17; David E. Fitch, The End of Evangelicalism? Discerning a New Faithfulness for Mission: Towards an Evangelical Political Theology, Theopolitical Visions 9 (Eugene, OR: Cascade Books, 2011), 48‒122; and Balmer, “Critical Junctures in American Evangelicalism,” 67‒75.
Cf. Trevor Mostyn, Censorship in Islamic Societies (London: Saqi Books, 2002).
Leigh D. Jordahl, “The American Evangelical Tradition and Culture-religion,” Dialog 4, no. 3 (Summer 1965): 188‒93. See also, Mark A. Noll, The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1994).
See Douglas R. Sharp, “Evangelicals, Racism, and the Limits of Social Science Research,” Christian Scholar’s Review 33, no. 2 (Winter 2004): 245‒55.
Fathali M. Moghaddam, How Globalization Spurs Terrorism (Westport, CT: Praeger, 2008), 73-89.
Eller, Trump and Political Theology, 142.
Rory McVeigh and Kevin Estep, The Politics of Losing: Trump, the Klan, and the Mainstreaming of Resentment (New York: Columbia University Press, 2019), 108-9, 132, 169.
Cf. Dominique Moisi, The Geopolitics of Emotion: How Cultures of Fear, Humiliation, and Hope Are Reshaping the World (New York: Doubleday, 2009).