The Radicalization of Trump Supporters: How Trumpism Mimics Islamic Terrorism (Part Two)

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?


Click here to read Part One of this blog series.

Scapegoating Liberal Satanists

Cognitive dissonance theory argues that when prophetic oracles fail to come true, religious communities tend to create explanatory schemes to alleviate the anxiety caused by these failed prophecies.[1] Hence, the third basic stage in the development of radicalized terrorists is blaming their disenfranchisement on a manufactured scapegoat. This type of blaming is what happens among radicalized Islamists who feel they do not enjoy the kind of supremacy and prestige promised by their religious tradition (or religious interpretation). Rather than jettison the narratives that have given them false expectations, the Islamists blame America, the West, and Israel as being Satan’s henchmen.[2] For radicalized Trump supporters, however, the perceived threat is one of forced socialization. The narrative of persecution espoused by Trump supporters is that white folks are being told to take a backseat so non-whites can have more jobs, more money, and more opportunities without having to work harder for it.[3] By accepting this pluralistic, liberal agenda, they would have to abandon personal fidelity to the very tribe that looks, sounds, believes, and behaves just like them in favor of multiple alien tribes. Their unique sense of self-identity becomes lost in a great sea of global diversity, causing a fight-or-flight reaction that begins looking for someone to blame for the perceived threat.[4]


For radicalized Trump supporters who want desperately to maintain belief in the American Dream, the only option is to invent a boogeyman figure who is responsible for depriving them of the wealth and prosperity guaranteed by their religious heritage. In this case, the scapegoat becomes liberals, Democrats, the Black Lives Matter movement, immigrants, and other progressivist agendas. They are responsible for attacking the collective white identity and for stealing the American Dream away from them (while offering it to those who do not deserve it). As Brian McLaren describes the situation, “Listeners/viewers are told of vast left-wing conspiracies to ‘destroy the family’ or ‘stamp out religious freedom.’ They are then begged to help fight against ‘the homosexual agenda’ or ‘secular humanism’ or ‘postmodernism’ or ‘terrorism’ or some other real or imagined bugaboo.”[5]


This type of incendiary rhetoric was amplified weeks before the election when President Trump remarked about his opponent, “He’s following the radical left agenda. Take away your guns, destroy your Second Amendment. No religion, no anything, hurt the Bible, hurt God.” The stage is set for a future terrorist attack as the rhetoric places people into a war-like stupor, forcing them to amplify their own righteousness while exaggerating the wickedness of others. In the end, a “politics of resentment” takes over as economic and racial insecurity forces the ingroup to blame those non-deserving segments of society.[6]


This psychological displacement, or scapegoating, is then exploited by political leaders who promise that if they just attack or humiliate the outgroup, their promised mytho-identity would come true. Not surprisingly, then, people whose identity is threatened begin to follow authoritarian leaders under the mistaken notion that this ingroup leader will deliver on his or her promises to restore their prestigious status once again.[7] The tribalism is solidified as the group builds a positive identity based more on who they hate than on the policies that they promote. For radicalized Trump supporters, their only real platform is that Americans should hate Democrats. Thus, voting for Trump is often really just voting against liberals.[8] The result is a groupwide distancing from conventional mores as acts of violence and terrorism now become a justifiable means to an end. Violence becomes solidified as an act of righteousness because it is ultimately in defense of the (American) religion.[9]

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Domestic Terrorists in the Making


Just like Islamic terrorists today, what this disenfranchisement and scapegoating means is that radicalized Trump supporters are desperate for a chance to reclaim their once-prestigious racial and economic status in the region. In the event that group members come to believe their group no longer has positive or distinctive traits, they will then resort to challenging outsider groups in order to achieve (or reclaim) a positive identity.[10] They are animated by a cultural grievance against social and economic equality.[11] Now that the collective identity, the myths, and the mindset are in place, often all that is needed is a (manufactured?) crisis to incite the people to violence. By this point, the ingroup leaders have conditioned them to be so angry at the scapegoat that it is inevitable for it to overflow in violence.

All that is needed is a reason to remove the psychological and social barriers that might normally keep these individuals from behaving badly.[12] In this case, the barriers were significantly lifted when Trump told his would-be rioters that he would personally join them in their march to the Capitol to “take back our country” (though, of course, he didn’t actually join them). Or as Trump’s personal lawyer, Rudy Giuliani, encouraged, the would-be insurrectionists were preparing for a “trial by combat.” It is worth noting that studies have shown a tendency toward aggressive behavior when joined with people of a similar identity. For instance, people are likely to express aggressive behavior if they witness people of their own tribe act aggressively toward a common enemy.[13] The act of violence is then given special significance among the ingroup because it creates a shared sense of meaning and purpose.[14]


And the rest is history. Islamic terrorists will blow up buildings just the same as radicalized Trump supporters will storm the U.S. Capitol building, beating one police officer with an American flag while beating another officer to death with a fire extinguisher. All of this violence to “make America great again.”


Implications for Future Concern


As a political platform, Trump supporters know no other method of governance than obstructionism, absolutism, and a refusal to compromise with opposing viewpoints. Their one mission is to revert society back to a time when the world was much less hostile to their identity.[15] As such, they have become deliberately oppositional in nature to the importation of global ideals.[16] What should be obvious to anybody by now is that the fanaticism and militancy of neoconservatives, especially among radicalized Trump supporters, is that they are singularly preoccupied with power. They do not actually care about democracy, truth, or even human rights. They care about obtaining and maintaining whatever power benefits their small tribe of people. Paralleling the Inquisition, as well as Islamic terrorism today, these self-proclaimed law-and-order Christian patriots are interested only in conducting liberal witch hunts. As Christian Smith writes, “Evangelicals … thrive on fear of impending catastrophe, accelerating decay, apocalyptic crises that demand immediate action (and maybe money). All of that can be energizing and mobilizing. The problem is, it also often distorts, misrepresents, or falsifies what actually happens to be true about reality. And to sacrifice what is actually true for the sake of immediate attention and action is plain wrong.”[17]


One of the main consequences of recognizing the parallels between radicalized Trump supporters and Islamic terrorists is the realization that a focus on President Donald Trump alone will not explain the psychology of those domestic terrorists in Washington, D.C. No matter how much of a cult-like following he has generated, Mr. Trump did not create the context from which these “disenfranchised” nationalists derived their mentality. He merely took the opportunity to incite them to violence when it benefited him the most, thereby giving the crowd permission to lead a violent coup. Their sense of disenfranchisement is what President Trump, and the Republican Party as a whole, opportunistically exploited. Using the language of the 9/11 Commission Report in describing Osama bin Ladin, Mr. Trump and his enablers have become the very “terrorist entrepreneurs” who appealed specifically “to people disoriented by cyclonic change as they confront modernity and globalization.”[18]


The radicalization of Trump supporters occurred because of a sense of loss in the political and cultural wars. Hence, they have only one thought on their mind: the seizure of power. They are no more patriotic or religious than the liberals they hate despite their pious-sounding rhetoric. If allowed to thrive and continue unhindered, this cult-like radicalization will become even more bloody. Indeed, if the parallels with Islamic extremism are predictive, then we will begin to see radicalize Trump supporters turn on fellow Republicans for denouncing the insurrection. For Islamists, there is no greater enemy than treasonous Muslims who do not hold the same violent ideology as themselves. For Trump loyalists, there will be no greater enemy than other conservatives who refuse to engage in sedition against the United States. Indeed, we may have already witnessed such a turning point when footage of the attempted coup shows Trump supporters chanting “Hang Mike Pence,” Trump’s very own Vice President.


What needs to be recognized is that these radicalized Trump supporters resent a secular and pluralistic government that puts liberals and minorities on par with themselves. They genuinely are willing to sacrifice democracy, ethics, and their own religion to achieve political power. Like Islamists and their infatuation with seventh-century Arabia, Trumpism is a political identity that primarily rejects what it considers to be liberal incursions into their closed-off tribe. They tend to romanticize an ahistorical belief about American history that makes Trumpism anachronistic and antithetical to new ways of thinking. As such, Trumpism, just like its Islamist counterpart, is totalitarian in nature, particularly since it molds American (white) culture to fit a particular political agenda.[19]

[1] Leon Festinger, Henry W. Riecken, and Stanley Schachter, “When Prophecy Fails,” in Extending Psychological Frontiers: Selected Works of Leon Festinger, ed. Stanley Schachter and Michael Gazzaniga (New York: Russell Sage Foundation, 1989), 258-69. [2] Moghaddam, From the Terrorists’ Point of View, 71-82; Lewis, The Crisis of Islam, 82-102. [3] Eller, Trump and Political Theology, 144-47. [4] Kenneth J. Gergen, The Saturated Self: Dilemmas of Identity in Contemporary Life (New York: Basic Books, 1991), 1-17, 48-80. [5] Brian D. McLaren, A Generous Orthodoxy (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2004), 245‒46. [6] See Katherine J. Cramer, The Politics of Resentment (Chicago, IL: The University of Chicago Press, 2016). [7] Leonie Huddy, Stanley Feldman, and Christopher Weber, “The Political Consequences of Perceived Threat and Felt Insecurity,” The ANNALS of the American Academy of Political and Social Science 614, no. 1 (2007): 131-53, http://doi.org/10.1177/0002716207305951. [8] Eller, Trump and Political Theology, 143. [9] Moghaddam, From the Terrorists’ Point of View, 71-82. [10] Henri Tajfel and John C. Turner, “The Social Identity Theory of Intergroup Behavior,” in Political Psychology, ed. John T. Jost and Jim Sidanius (New York: Psychology Press, 2004), 276-93, http://doi.org/10.4324/9780203505984-16. [11] For details, see Flo Conway and Jim Siegelman, Holy Terror: The Fundamentalist War on America’s Freedoms in Religion, Politics, and Our Private Lives (Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1982); Sara Diamond, Spiritual Warfare: The Politics of the Christian Right (Cheektowaga, NY: Black Rose Books, 1990); Doug Frank, Less Than Conquerors: The Evangelical Quest for Power in the Early Twentieth Century (Eugene, OR: Wipf and Stock Publishers, 2009); Daniel K. Williams, God’s Own Party: The Making of the Christian Right (New York: Oxford University Press, 2010); and Masood Ashraf Raja, The Religious Right and the Talibanization of America (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2016). [12] An example of restraint reduction can be found in Geoffrey M. Stephenson and Geoffrey T. Fielding, “An Experimental Study of the Contagion of Leaving Behavior in Small Gatherings,” The Journal of Social Psychology 84, no. 1 (1971): 81-91, http://doi.org/10.1080/00224545.1971.9918524. [13] Ladd Wheeler and Lewis Levine, “Observer-Model Similarity in the Contagion of Aggression,” Sociometry 30, no. 1 (1967): 41-49, http://doi.org/10.2307/2786437; George R. Goethals and Arnold L. Perlstein, “Level of Instigation and Model Similarity as Determinants of Aggressive Behavior,” Aggressive Behavior 4, no. 2 (1978): 115-24, http://doi.org/10.1002/1098-2337(1978)4:2<115::aid-ab2480040203>3.0.co;2-z. [14] Chris Hedges, War Is a Force That Gives Us Meaning (New York: Anchor, 2003), 1. [15] Samuel P. Huntington, “Robust Nationalism,” National Interest, Winter 1999/2000, 31‒40; Stanley Aronowitz, “Considerations on the Origins of Neoconservatism: Looking Backward,” in Confronting the New Conservatism: The Rise of the Right in America, ed. Michael J. Thompson (New York: New York University Press, 2007), 5670. [16] Cf. John U. Ogbu, Minority Education and Caste: The American System in Cross-Cultural Perspective (San Diego, CA: Academic Press, 1978). [17] Christian Smith, “Evangelicals Behaving Badly with Statistics,” Books and Culture 13 (January/February 2007): 11. [18] National Commission on Terrorist Attacks upon the United States, The 9/11 Commission Report (Washington, DC: U.S. Government Printing Office, 2004), 48, 145. [19] See Khalid Durán and Abdelwahab Hechiche, Children of Abraham: An Introduction to Islam for Jews, ed. Stephen Steinlight (Hoboken, NJ: The American Jewish Committee, 2001), 51-61.

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