Does Donald Trump Have the Charismatic Power To Turn Good People Evil?
It has become a piece of conventional wisdom this year that Hillary Clinton was absolutely in the wrong when she described supporters of Donald Trump supporters as belonging to two groups: Half of them willing to reconsider their support for Trump in favor of a more reasonable alternative, and the other half in a “basket of deplorables”. Almost any political commentator who speaks on the subject will offer something like the rhetorical question, “How could she say such a thing?”
The reason for this condemnation of Hillary Clinton’s comment, however, typically comes from the moral judgment that it couldn’t possibly be true that half of Donald Trump’s supporters – approximately 50 million people – are morally deplorable. They couldn’t possibly, this argument claims, actually support racism, sexism, religious discrimination, torture, mass executions without trial, the creation of massive spy networks and prison camps within America, government censorship of the Internet, and other deplorable ideas. We’re told that these 50 million people are extremely decent and lovely – it’s just that they enthusiastically support a presidential candidate who loudly and proudly announces plans to impose racism, sexism, religious discrimination, and so on.
Often, people who make this argument leave this matter at the level of mere assertion. 50 million Americans couldn’t possibly be so deplorable as to actually approve of Donald Trump’s ideas, even though they support Donald Trump… because the idea that so many Americans think this way is terrifying.
Others commentators come up with absurd justifications with elaborate logical constructions that never quite link together. They argue that 50 million hard-core Donald Trump supporters don’t actually support Trump’s racism, sexism, etc. No, it’s really all about anti-elitist populist economics: These Trumpist die hards support Trump, a billionaire lifelong political insider who brags about bribing politicians to get his way, has a long history of abusing his workers, and plans to give special favors to the wealthy, they say, because they believe Trump is going to stick up for the little guy. X wants Y, they argue, which is why X is supporting not Y.
A third explanation of how Trump supporters can support the delplorable campaign of Donald Trump without themselves being deplorable is that Donald Trump has magical powers to make good people into wicked scoundrels. David Plotz of Atlas Obscura provided an example of this argument when he commented on the most recent installment of Slate’s Political Gabfest podcast that, “I think we make a mistake when we attribute to these, when we say that these Trump supporters are this particular way, and he has brought it out of them. The thing that is so horrible about Donald Trump is that he makes people, that his presence and the way that he acts, makes people behave in ways that they themselves actually probably don’t feel. He makes people worse than they are. That’s a disgusting way to be. He makes people feel more angry and more violent and more vicious and more prejudiced and more hateful than they actually would feel had another politician approached them in a different way.”
This claim about Donald Trump repeats the asserion that many people have said about Adolf Hitler. How could the enlightened nation of Germany support the deplorable Nazi Party, they asked. Answering themselves, they said that Adolf Hitler had some kind of unusual charisma that could make good people fall under his spell, cheering as they gave up their democracy, started a bloody, unwinnable war, and doomed millions of people to ghettoes, then concentration camps, then death.
What is this magical power shared by Adolf Hitler and Donald Trump? How does it work? When has such a psychological phenomenon been scientifically documented? Believers in the Magical Charisma theory can never answer questions like these, and they don’t usually try to even consider them.
The reason for this avoidance is that that the belief in political leaders with magical spells that can transform good people into nasty, violent extremists isn’t based on observable facts. It’s based on what people hope to be true, what they need to be true.
Pundits have emphasized that Hillary Clinton was wrong to describe half of Trump’s supporters as being in a “basket of deplorables”, because describing Trump’s supporters in this way will make Trump supporters angry, and therefore less likely to switch their support to Hillary Clinton’s campaign. In other words, it’s politically inconvenient for Hillary Clinton, and her Democratic supporters, to point out that Trump supporters have moral responsibility for their support of the reprehensible, fascist agenda of Donald Trump. It’s much more politically convenient for Clinton and her followers to place all the blame on Donald Trump, even if that requires making ridiculous claims, like the idea that Donald Trump hypnotized people to make them say and do wicked things that they would never otherwise say or do.
This argument of convenience helps both Democrats and Republicans avoid confronting the frightening reality that a third of American voters are happy to support a political agenda to create a fascist regime that will brutally impose sexism and racism through the force of the federal government. It enables Americans to avoid dealing with the fact that many Americans react to an ideology that is remarkably similar to that of the Nazis with enthusiasm rather than repulsion.
It’s no fun to contemplate the ugly, dangerous character of our own culture, but the only way to diminish this aspect of the American identity is to look it straight in the eye and name it.
It’s deplorable, and so are the people who embrace it.