In less than a year, from May 2019 to March 2020, the share of weekly church-attending white Protestants convinced that Donald Trump was anointed by God to be president grew from 29.6 percent to 49.5 percent.
This finding — based on direct responses to the question: “How much do you agree or disagree with the following statement? Donald Trump was anointed by God to become president of the United States” — comes from surveys conducted by Paul A. Djupe and Ryan Burge, political scientists at Dennison and Eastern Illinois Universities. Their study illuminates the depth of quasi-religious devotion to Trump among key segments of the population.
The Trump campaign’s digital sites serve a dual purpose. His supporters are able to enter a self-contained, self-reinforcing arena where Trump reigns supreme, and the campaign gets detailed marketing information about those who go through the elaborate sign-up process — information subsequently used for voter mobilization, fund-raising and volunteer recruitment.
According to Stefan Smith, a Democratic tech strategist, you should think of the Trump campaign website as a casino. Writing in the Daily Beast, Smith argues that the Trump campaign’s website is designed on the Vegas principle, “purposefully built to keep gamblers inside and at the table.”
Trump’s digital infrastructure, Smith wrote,
is performing a similar function — it’s trapping people inside an ecosystem of dangerous misinformation, conspiracy theories, and grievance politics. And it’s doing so while making the experience as fun and exciting as possible.
It is clear that millions of voters willingly enter this arena.
The coronavirus lockdown has turned the internet into a central battleground of the 2020 presidential contest, even more indispensable than it would be under normal circumstances. Trump operatives, guided by his campaign manager, Brad Parscale, are trying to make the most of the situation.
Parscale, who is not given to understatement any more than his boss, tweeted on May 7:
For nearly three years we have been building a juggernaut campaign (Death Star). It is firing on all cylinders. Data, Digital, TV, Political, Surrogates, Coalitions, etc. In a few days we start pressing FIRE for the first time.
“The new Trump campaign app uses gamification to drive voter outreach and valuable data collection,” CNN reported on April 23. “Share the campaign app with a friend, win 100 points. Earn 5,000 points and you can redeem a campaign store discount. Earn 100,000 points, and you can get a picture with President Donald Trump.”
Those who download the Trump app can “watch live ‘shows’ hosted by senior campaign aides and surrogates,” according to CNN, and receive
tutorial videos from top campaign aides and surrogates like Lara Trump, who explains how to become a “digital activist” on social media and host a “MAGA meet up.” Kimberly Guilfoyle, the girlfriend of Donald Trump Jr, explains how to become a fund-raising “bundler” and political director Chris Carr discusses how to be a grass roots “team leader.”
In nightly appearances, Trump loyalists are freed of the constraints of television or campaign rallies.
Donald Trump Jr., the president’s oldest son, joked, for example, that Joe Biden had “the coveted Osama bin Laden endorsement” since bin Laden knew “Biden would destroy America,” The Associated Press reported. Parscale himself told viewers that his favorite item at his Florida home is Hillary Clinton toilet paper: “I have boxes of it,” he said, “and I take it into the bathroom and it’s just enjoyable since she said so many mean things about me and our campaign and our president.”
The Trump app shows “create an echo chamber for true believers,” A.P. reporters Jonathan Lemire, Zeke Miller and Jill Colvin wrote:
Trump officials warmly speak in shorthand, trusting that their audience knows the plot and its characters and are tuning in to see programs that, at times, made the president’s infamously off-the-cuff rallies look tightly scripted.
All of this brings us to an intriguing question: why are so many voters willing to enter this echo chamber?
A series of recent research papers explore reasons for the appeal of the demagogue; the role of anger in Trump’s ascendance; and the political dark triad of psychopathy, Machiavellianism and narcissism.
In “The Authentic Appeal of the Lying Demagogue: Proclaiming the Deeper Truth about Political Illegitimacy,” published in 2018 in the American Sociological Review by Oliver Hahl, Minjae Kim and Ezra W. Zuckerman Sivan, of the business schools at Yale, Northwestern and M.I.T., pose the question: “How can a constituency of voters find a candidate authentically appealing (i.e., view him positively as authentic) even though he is a ‘lying demagogue’ (someone who deliberately tells lies and appeals to nonnormative private prejudices)?”
They conclude that “for the lying demagogue to have authentic appeal,” the crucial ingredient is “that one side of a social divide regards the political system as flawed or illegitimate.”
For such a besieged constituency, they write, the belief that “publicly-endorsed norms are imposed rather than freely chosen” is crucial.
In that case, the three authors continue, “the lying demagogue claims to be an authentic champion of those who are subject to social control by the established political leadership.”
At the same time, Trump and his critics in the liberal establishment enter into an intensifying conflict that serves to strengthen loyalists’ support for Trump:
The more Trump is willing “to antagonize the establishment by making himself persona non grata, the more credible is his claim to be his constituency’s leader.” In a push-me, pull-you process, the more
his flagrant violation of norms makes him odious to the establishment, someone from whom they must distance themselves lest they be tainted by scandal. But this very need by the establishment to distance itself from the lying demagogue lends credibility to his claim to be an authentic champion for those who feel disenfranchised by that establishment.
A crucial element of the sense of disenfranchisement described by Hahl and his colleagues is the anger and outrage of those who believe that their interests are not represented by the political establishment.
This anger has been present for years, if not decades, but, Webster argued,
it is not the case that Trump is merely a vehicle for voter anger. On the contrary, Trump is also a perpetuator of the anger that we see. The relationship between Trump, his supporters, and anger, is circular in nature.
The difference between anger and anxiety, in Webster’s view, helps explain why so many of Trump’s supporters simply disregard his many documented lies and distortions:
When people are anxious they tend to seek out new information. Anxiety rouses people from a sort of ‘autopilot’ mode and causes them to re-evaluate their beliefs.
Anger, in contrast,
has the opposite effect. When people are angry they tend to mentally retreat and dig in on the things that they know and believe to be true.
The psychological nature of anger essentially precludes any sort of attitudinal change against Trump. Anger causes Trump’s supporters to become more reliant on information they receive from him, the RNC, Fox News, etc.
In other words, they become ideal candidates to enter Trump’s digital universe, the realm of suspended belief, a place where supporters are fully insulated from mounting claims of administration failures and mismanagement.
Trump not only taps into his supporters’ anger but he does so with exceptional confidence and a lack of self-doubt, further enhancing his persuasiveness.
I spoke by phone with Cristina Bicchieri, a professor of philosophy and psychology at the University of Pennsylvania and the lead author of the January paper “It’s Not a Lie If You Believe the Norm Does Not Apply: Conditional Norm-Following with Strategic Beliefs.”
One of Trump’s strengths, Bicchieri said, grows out of the fact that “people hate ambiguity,” and if there is one thing Trump is not, it’s ambiguous. Trump’s ability to convey conviction, even when saying things that are demonstrably false, is critically important in persuading supporters to believe and vote for him.
“He is always sure of what he says, when he sends a message, he is always sure,” Bicchieri noted. He may change his mind and say “things are black one day and they are white” the next day, but on both days “he will have the same strength of conviction.”
In an email, Bicchieri cited research that shows “political conservatism being negatively correlated with tolerance to uncertainty.” This supports, she said, “the general notion that conservative voters would enjoy Trump’s simple and ‘certain’ declarations about the world.”
How can Trump maintain this certitude in the face of explicitly contrary facts?
Paul Chen, a political scientist at Beloit College is the lead author of “The Dark Side of Politics: Participation and the Dark Triad,” an April 2020 paper. I asked him about Trump’s political style.
Chen responded by email: “Narcissism predicts lower levels of knowledge but higher levels of engagement.”
In addition, narcissism is “a likely factor” in “Donald Trump’s personal ambition to run for office. We consistently find that people high in narcissism tend to overestimate their own abilities in politics.”
The Trump campaign’s drive to create an enclosed political universe where voters are sheltered from any criticism of the president is aided and abetted by political allies like Fox News and conservative talk radio.
One less-noticed source of essential support comes from the pulpits of the churches with predominately Republican parishioners.
The study by Paul Djupe and Ryan Burge I mentioned at the outset demonstrates how the belief that Trump was anointed by God to be president rises in direct proportion to the frequency with which ministers raise “political speech topics.” These topics include immigration, gun rights, impeachment, same-sex marriage and abortion.
For Republicans, the two authors write,
clergy speech is driving up the religious significance of Trump. There is no effect of clergy speech on anointment beliefs for Democrats and Independents. But there is quite a strong effect for Republicans.
At the same time, they continue,
more Republicans believe in Trump’s anointment when they attend a political church. Though some of this effect surely reflects the political engagement of the respondent, a fair bit of congregational experiences are beyond the control of the individual.
The results are shown in the accompanying chart.
Share agreeing Trump was anointed by God
Political topics* mentioned by clergy
Share agreeing Trump was anointed by God
Political topics* mentioned by clergy
While elite “right wing media are having a profound effect on public opinion, serving to insulate Trump supporters,” Djupe and Burge write, the process is also “built and sustained from the bottom up. That is, political churches, among Republicans especially, reinforce the argumentation that is also coming from above.”
While most acute among white evangelical Republicans, Djupe and Burge continue, belief in the divine sanction “of the presidency is swelling across the board for the religious” of all faiths.
David Kreiss, a professor of journalism and the media at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, suggested in an email that there has been a dramatic shift in the political environment over the past 12 years:
What has changed between 2008 and 2020 on the right is the emergence of a vast extended network of digital and other media that is designed to strengthen the collective identity of the right and its constituent groups and generate internally consistent narratives and ideas about politics.
The conservative media, he continued, is
designed to create that self-referential universe. It exists to not only deflect criticism but literally to create new narratives of Trump (such as transforming his handling of the virus into a success), and to strengthen political and social divisions, undermine opponents, and provide people with identity and ideational resources to refute counter-narratives.
The 2020 election, Kreiss predicted, will be “a big test of whether empirical reality will outweigh motivated partisan reasoning.”
If the test Kreiss anticipates does determine who our next president is, and if the digital world becomes a key battleground, as it certainly will, Democrats believe Joe Biden and his campaign need to be better prepared.
Jim Messina, Barack Obama’s campaign manager, warned in an April 9 appearance on David Plouffe’s podcast, that
the numbers are pretty stark. Joe Biden has 4.6 million Twitter followers. Donald Trump has 75 million. Joe Biden has 1.7 million Facebook fans. Donald Trump has 28 million.
Messina didn’t stop there: “Biden’s first virtual online chat got 5,000 people. Just one with Lara Trump gets 945,000.”
Biden did not ease the anxieties of his fellow Democrats when, on May 7, he attempted to hold a virtual campaign event for supporters in Tampa, Fla. The Tampa Bay Times headline and accompanying story captured the Biden campaign’s digital quandary: “Joe Biden hosted a virtual campaign rally in Tampa. It didn’t go great.”
There is some evidence that as innovative and efficient as Trump’s digital operation is, he will struggle to overcome the liabilities he has acquired over the past three and a half years.
In the 2016 election, Trump won in part because the 14 percent of voters who disliked both him and Hillary Clinton chose Trump 69 percent to 15 percent.
Going into the current election, the opposite is true. The April 10 NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll found that among the 11 percent of voters who dislike both Biden and Trump, Biden had a 60-10 advantage — despite misgivings about Biden’s cognitive health, voiced by even such liberal outlets as Vox (“He’s always been gaffe-prone, to be sure, but something about it feels worse now to a lot of Democratic voters).”
It is difficult to calculate the vulnerabilities of Trump’s digital casino strategy: the number of voters willing to abandon their critical faculties is limited, even if it’s in the tens of millions. The majority of American voters may not yet be ready to take a second step into this nether world.
Still, the Covid-19 pandemic has created an aura of chaos; a certain amount of fear is pervasive; naturally there is a hunger for safety and shelter. In this climate, does Trump’s self-referential, illusory, confected, digital-marketing universe offer a solution to those hungry, anxious, angry voters predisposed to believe in a savior like Trump? Incredible as it may seem, it is an all-too-vivid possibility.
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