April 8, 2024 | Reading Time: 9 minutes

Trump super fans are impossible to argue with because they don’t actually believe in logic

Helping people out of a cult begins by understanding why they are in it, writes Matthew Sheffield.

Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.
Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

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Editor’s note: The following, delivered to Editorial Board subscribers only, first appeared in Flux, Matthew’s newsletter. –JS

Ever since Donald Trump emerged on the American political scene, many of his critics have sought tirelessly to raise many different arguments about his policies, rhetoric, and criminal actions to help his supporters see just what their unrequited loyalty is enabling. Occasionally, these efforts have yielded fruit, but overwhelmingly, they are unsuccessful.

Last September, the head of an anti-Trump Republican political action committee called Win It Back formalized the despair of many critics in a memorandum summarizing what his group had learned after testing more than 40 different television ads on 12 in-person focus groups.

“All attempts to undermine his conservative credentials on specific issues were ineffective,” David McIntosh wrote.

“Every traditional postproduction ad attacking President Trump either backfired or produced no impact on his ballot support and favorability,” McIntosh continued. “This includes ads that primarily feature video of him saying liberal or stupid comments from his own mouth.”

Whether acting in a personal or professional capacity, many Trump critics have seen similar results. Trying to use logical persuasion with your Trump-worshiping friend or relative is not likely to work, not necessarily because they are stupid, but because they have completely different moral and epistemic viewpoints than you or almost anyone else — they genuinely believe that facts do not derive from science, reason or history.

Lately, this moral viewpoint has been called “fascist,” which according to scholars of fascism, makes a lot of sense. But fascism is actually part of a much older tradition that goes back to be very beginning of recorded history. That tradition, authoritarianism, is so deeply embedded in most cultures that it is almost never even recognized as a moral philosophy. It is simply “common sense” as far as adherents are concerned.

In popular usage, the word authoritarian generally seems to be a synonym for jerk, but this should not keep us from understanding that authoritarianism is an actual worldview, one in which identities and individuals matter more than moral principles, and that the rightfulness of actions derives from the status of the person committing them rather than their adherence to specific objective moral standards.

Trying to use logical persuasion with your Trump-worshiping friend or relative is not likely to work, not necessarily because they are stupid, but because they have completely different moral and epistemic viewpoints than you or almost anyone else — they genuinely believe that facts do not derive from science, reason or history.

Outsiders see hypocrisy when they hear Trump supporters claiming in 2024 to hate “political prosecutions” even though their hero ran for office in 2016 promising to “lock up” his main opponent for an all-too-common legal infraction, but seen through the lens of moral authoritarianism, there is no inconsistency whatsoever. Morality flows downward from authority. People in a higher status are not only more truthful, they are also more moral.

Trump himself seems to have been shocked when he first encountered authoritarian morality, he expressed this surprise in his infamous remark that “I could stand in the middle of Fifth Avenue and shoot somebody, and I wouldn’t lose any voters.”

Unlike so many of his boasts, this one was no exaggeration. The act of shooting someone would be immoral based on Christian teaching, but because Trump had been established as the tribal leader by that point, this action would either be of no moral consequence or could even be seen as positive.

The roots of authoritarian morality extend deep into human history. Many ancient civilizations operated under theocratic or monarchic systems where rulers were seen as divinely appointed or even incarnations of deity. These systems established a precedent where the ruler’s will was equated with moral rightness, a moral order centered around authority and obedience.

As humanity progressed scientifically and cognitively, the principles of authoritarianism remained attractive for many people. Its ideas provide simple and clear directives for social and political order: Loyalty and submission to the leader are paramount, and the leader’s actions are inherently justified by virtue of his/her position.

Submitting to authority figures had particular appeal to many early and medieval Christian fundamentalists who devised the moral argument known today as “divine command theory,” the idea that all morality is determined by God alone; anything God says is right.

Other moral viewpoints can exist, but if they are found to be in conflict with divine will, then they are by definition immoral or incorrect, even if science, history or other scholarship may support them.

The roots of authoritarian morality extend deep into human history. Many ancient civilizations operated under theocratic or monarchic systems where rulers were seen as divinely appointed or even incarnations of deity. These systems established a precedent where the ruler’s will was equated with moral rightness, a moral order centered around authority and obedience.

Although plenty of Jews and Christians do not believe in divine command theory and there are several stories told in the Bible that contradict it, there are a number of narratives throughout Hebrew and Christian scripture that support the idea. The most prominent example is the legend of Abraham being willing to kill his son Isaac after being commanded to do so by God.

At the end of the story, God intervenes and stops Abraham from committing murder, but this is pure happenstance and there is no moral instruction provided to him by God that killing Isaac would have been wrong:

When they reached the place God had told him about, Abraham built an altar there and arranged the wood on it. He bound his son Isaac and laid him on the altar, on top of the wood. Then he reached out his hand and took the knife to slay his son. But the angel of the Lord called out to him from heaven, “Abraham! Abraham!”

“Here I am,” he replied.

“Do not lay a hand on the boy,” he said. “Do not do anything to him. Now I know that you fear God, because you have not withheld from me your son, your only son.” [Genesis 22, NIV translation]

Later on in the Bible, it becomes clear that if Abraham had killed Isaac, he would have been righteous to do so.

The tale of Jephthah is much less famous than the sacrifice of Isaac story, and there is good reason to see why. As related by the narrator of Judges 11, Jephthah was an Israelite warrior chieftain who covenants with God that if he is given victory in an upcoming battle, he will kill the first being he sees upon his return home. It was his daughter, and he kept his promise, burning her to please the Lord:

Then the Spirit of the Lord came on Jephthah. He crossed Gilead and Manasseh, passed through Mizpah of Gilead, and from there he advanced against the Ammonites. And Jephthah made a vow to the Lord: “If you give the Ammonites into my hands, whatever comes out of the door of my house to meet me when I return in triumph from the Ammonites will be the Lord’s, and I will sacrifice it as a burnt offering.”

Then Jephthah went over to fight the Ammonites, and the Lord gave them into his hands. […]

When Jephthah returned to his home in Mizpah, who should come out to meet him but his daughter, dancing to the sound of timbrels! She was an only child. Except for her he had neither son nor daughter. When he saw her, he tore his clothes and cried, “Oh no, my daughter! You have brought me down and I am devastated. I have made a vow to the Lord that I cannot break.”

“My father,” she replied, “you have given your word to the Lord. Do to me just as you promised, now that the Lord has avenged you of your enemies, the Ammonites. But grant me this one request,” she said. “Give me two months to roam the hills and weep with my friends, because I will never marry.”

“You may go,” he said. And he let her go for two months. She and her friends went into the hills and wept because she would never marry. After the two months, she returned to her father, and he did to her as he had vowed. And she was a virgin. [Judges 11, NIV translation]

Of course, claiming that morality flows from God is a bit of a problem when it is obvious to anyone that there are no divine beings walking around giving instructions, and that people claiming to see such sites are regarded as out of their minds. Believers in divine command theory got around this conundrum by venerating the concept of hierarchies as an expression of authority as Christian and secular humanists began drawing upon the ideas of ancient authors to construct contemporary democratic moral theories. Christian monarchists crafted a response of their own, an amalgamation of divine command theory, the deistic naturalistic philosophy of Aristotle, and the Apostle Paul’s pronouncements that earthly authorities are the direct servants of God:

Let everyone be subject to the governing authorities, for there is no authority except that which God has established. The authorities that exist have been established by God. Consequently, whoever rebels against the authority is rebelling against what God has instituted, and those who do so will bring judgment on themselves. For rulers hold no terror for those who do right, but for those who do wrong. Do you want to be free from fear of the one in authority? Then do what is right and you will be commended. For the one in authority is God’s servant for your good. But if you do wrong, be afraid, for rulers do not bear the sword for no reason. They are God’s servants, agents of wrath to bring punishment on the wrongdoer. Therefore, it is necessary to submit to the authorities, not only because of possible punishment but also as a matter of conscience. [Romans 13, NIV translation]

The end result yielded two political philosophy concepts known as the “divine right of kings” and the “great chain of being,” ideas have existed ever since the Middle Ages into the present.

Since God is not literally telling us what to do, we must follow the people who are God’s chosen instruments, and as Paul said, the hierarchies that exist around us are not instances of happenstance or historic oppression, they are the creations of God himself. Observed inequalities are not just societal phenomena, they are practical guides for behavior and judgment within authoritarian movements. The higher up one is in the hierarchy, the greater one’s moral status.

At the top of this hierarchy sits the supreme leader, whose actions are deemed inherently moral by virtue of status. Beneath the leader and his/her lieutenants, the hierarchy extends to encompass political party allegiance, wealth, religious affiliation, race, gender, and locality. Each of these factors contributes to an individual’s position within the moral order, with those closer to the top enjoying greater legitimacy and authority. This stratification reflects and reinforces existing social and power dynamics, legitimizing the privileges of those higher up while marginalizing those at the bottom.

The moral hierarchy of authoritarianism operates on the principle of loyalty and obedience. Supporters are expected to align themselves with the leader and the movement’s goals, viewing dissent or criticism as moral failings. This expectation creates a homogenized group identity, where individual moral agency is subsumed under the collective will of the leader and the movement. The moral righteousness of the cause justifies actions that might otherwise be considered unethical, blurring the lines between moral principle and political expediency.

The implications of this authoritarianism extend beyond the political sphere, influencing social norms and behaviors. It fosters an environment where power and authority are the primary determinants of moral worth, encouraging a culture of submission and conformity.

Even as authoritarian philosophy has become less popular thanks to the efforts of countless people, divine command theory and its offshoots are taught informally by many modern-day authoritarian Christian traditions, including Mormonism, whose founder, Joseph Smith, articulated the principle in 1842 while trying to convince a teenage girl to become his “spiritual wife” against the wishes of her parents and herself.

“Whatever God requires is right, no matter what it is, although we may not see the reason thereof till long after the events transpire,” he wrote to her in a private letter which invoked his claim to speak for deity. She rejected his advance.

In the current moment, today’s Christian nationalists draw heavily on the authoritarian religious tradition, particularly the work of R.J. Rushdoony, a prolific mid-century American Protestant theologian who wrote thousands of pages about his concept of “theonomy,” a divinely ordained form of political Christianity that formed the basis of the home school movement and which informs the views of influential political leaders such as former Rep. Michele Bachmann (R-Minn.) and many of the people in the orbit of Russ Vought, Trump’s former head of the Office of Management and Budget, a radical activist who is overseeing the construction of a shadow cabinet for the disgraced ex-president as he plots his return to the White House.

Of course, most of the people who blindly follow Trump or his criminal acolytes like Steve Bannon have no knowledge of the moral theory and epistemology described above, nor do they need to. The authoritarian framework not only simplifies moral decision-making, it also strengthens group cohesion and identity among supporters, fostering a powerful sense of belonging and solidarity. Letting the people “above my pay grade” worry about things has a lot of appeal for many people, particularly those who cling to religious beliefs they know to be unprovable and embarrassing.

This is, unfortunately, why trying to use rational thinking or fact checking to help your MAGA relatives come to their senses is not likely to work. Not only are they consuming information sources which filter out anything remotely critical of the dear leader (talk about media bias!), they also simply do not think the same way. The idea that everyone has the same moral stature or authority is anathema. It literally must not be believed, because to do so is to invite spiritual and psychic death.

Besides viewing dissenters as incorrect, authoritarians view people who disagree as inherently evil and less deserving of political rights, even if they are the majority of Americans. Stephen Wolfe, a self-described Christian nationalist author who is being praised by MAGA leaders everywhere distilled the concept in his book, “The Case for Christian Nationalism:”

The issue here centers on whether a Christian minority can establish a political state over the whole without positive consent of the whole. I affirm that they can. […]

Non-Christians living among us are entitled to justice, peace, and safety, but they are not entitled to political equality, nor do they have a right to deny the people of God their right to order civil institutions to God and their complete good.

We lack the spirit for this sort of dominion today — a once-uncontroversial spirit that animated the magisterial Protestant reformers and Christians prior to the Reformation. We must revitalize and return to it. The Christian’s posture towards the earth ought to be that it is ours, not theirs, for we are co-heirs in Christ.

The first and most important thing to realize about authoritarianism is that it will never compromise with opponents, even if it may seem to. Beneath the surface, there is always a hidden motive or ulterior agenda, a principle I embraced in my early life as a fundamentalist Mormon.

Wanting to help your deluded friend or relative escape from the clutches of traditions that bind their minds, steal their money and waste their time is a wonderful desire, but you should understand that people who are caught deeply in the clutches of authoritarianism’s embrace have tremendous difficulty escaping. The best way to help them out is to attack the ideas and emotions that make Trump-worship appealing. Attacking their belief in the leader himself is ineffective, because submitting to Trump has become part of their very self-concept.

Helping people out of a cult begins by understanding why they are in it.

Matthew Sheffield is a podcaster, writer and media entrepreneur. He hosts three podcasts: Theory of Change, Doomscroll, and So This Just Happened.

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