Psychologists have explained quite a lot about Donald Trump ’s political invincibility and the unconditional allegiance of his followers. One well-supported explanation is that the president keeps his base loyal by keeping them fearful. Through persistent fear-mongering, with scary messages like, “Illegal immigrants are murderers and rapists,” and “Islam hates us,” Trump gets to play the role of the great protector.
But there is another major reason why Trump loyalists do not waver no matter how he behaves or what scandals come to light. For most evangelicals, it is not only fear that keeps them in line, but it is also faith. As a cognitive psychology researcher who has been writing about the science underlying Trump’s unshakable support since he began his presidential campaign, I have learned—through comments, emails, and discussion forums—that a significant portion of his supporters literally believe the president was an answer to their prayers. He is regarded as something of a messiah, sent by God to protect a Christian nation.
As obvious as this might sound to some, it is something I did not give serious consideration to initially. As someone who is not particularly religious, it did not occur to me that anyone might actually believe that a politician would be sent by an all-powerful supernatural deity to change the course of human history unless it was in a highly abstract or purely metaphorical sense. It is simply not built into my hardwiring to see someone that way. That kind of thinking is precisely why dangerous cult leaders are able to rise to prominence. Nothing good can come from putting any single person on a spiritual pedestal. No one is infallible, no one is free from bias, and no one is honest all of the time, no matter how hard they may strive to be. Because of this fact of human nature, we must always scrutinize our leaders, and always question their decisions and motivations. What makes a good president is their ability to survive our constant scrutiny and the scrutiny of the free press. Through this process, which is critical, we can get a better sense of whether a politician is trying their best, and whether or not they generally have Americans’ best interests in mind.
I am not saying that Donald Trump does not have the bests interests of some groups of Americans in mind. He has certainly done a lot to help the wealthy with tax cuts. I’d like to believe that he genuinely wanted to make America safer from real threats, like ISIS and violent gangs such as MS-13 (whether he has truly done so remains to be seen). The problem with Trump is that his desire to win and amass power is a priority above all else. He surely knows that most Muslims and most immigrants are not dangerous and want to see America prosper. But he quickly found out, through trying various strategies, that fear was effective as a political tool, especially for someone who lacks substance. When he learned that, he quickly abandoned his morals and chose to demonize innocent people and to promote blatantly false conspiracy theories like #PizzaGate, which put lives in jeopardy. When he chose to invent or exaggerate threats to take attention away from personal scandals, he acted against the best interests of millions of Americans—particularly those who were not white and Christian.
Bobby Azarian is a neuroscientist affiliated with George Mason University and a freelance journalist. His research has been published in journals such as Cognition & Emotion and Human Brain Mapping, and he has written for The New York Times, The Atlantic, Psychology Today, and Scientific American. Follow him on Twitter @BobbyAzarian.