In previous articles, I have discussed the notion that Donald Trump’s flip-flopping on issues, far from being something that hurts him in the eyes of his followers, is actually something that helps him. And this is because people have become so immersed in screen reality devices and other digital machines that they have become dangerously numb. For some people, the numbness leads to the defense of the kicks from opioid addictions. For others, it leads to either mass murders or attempted suicides. For still others, it leads to becoming a Trump supporter and being constantly shocked to life by his flip-flops among other manoeuvers. Trump does have other strategies for shocking people to life. Rather than flipping back and forth on one issue, Trump sometimes simply flips over from one issue to the next. First he builds a crisis sensitivity around one issue, and then when it loses its shock value for his audience, he switches to another issue and builds a sense of shock around this second one. We can call this the “change the subject” strategy.
Of course, changing the subject all the time does not mean that one is flitting from issues to issues that are anchored, at least to some extent, in external world reality. Many of the issues that Trump brings up or supports are totally confabulated. Many are conspiracies like QAnon, the theory that says many well know political, entertainment and sports figures are involved in a pedophile ring. The fact that the theory has been totally discredited by objective investigators is totally irrelevant to true believers. And Trump gives a wink to these believers, because many of them are strong supporters who believe that Trump is in a major battle secretly against these supposed pedophiles. Of course, why Trump can’t just come out and admit that he is in this conflict has never been explained. Except that it heightens this us vs. them connection with Trump and augments the emotional intensity of fighting what believers perceive as an evil conspiracy. Fighting an ambiguous enemy can give numb people a long sustained period of traction that helps them feel alive. If only because the fact that it is imagined means that it can never be effectively defeated and killed off in external world reality. Because it is imagined, that means that the sources of the conspiracy can shift from person to person, from group to group, and thus it gets kept alive.
The key here is the intensity of the shock, the intensity of the kick. The greater the shock, the greater the kick, the more a person gets pulled out of his numbness. It’s not a natural organic aliveness, but it is what a numb person in modern technological society has available to pull him up and out. And Trump knows how to manipulate this through flip-flopping, changing the subject and conspiracy theories. Trump knows how to shock people by throwing them off guard. And the more he is able to successfully do this for people, the more attached they become to him.
And something else is going on here. With the riots and looting in the States, Trump claims he is for law and order. But the way he supports predatory police and right-wing vigilantes gives these groups the green light to be more aggressive against their adversaries, thus creating new disruptions and more lawlessness and more disorder. Which is, of course, exactly what Trump’s supporters thrive on. They get a rush out of public social and political situations that are crumbling apart. And they cling to Trump, even as he flip-flops, changes the subject and elaborates his conspiracy theories, the way that they would cling to a bucking bronco.
People cling to Trump even as he shocks them to life with fear. Trump’s world is filled with unknown inchoate dangers. And Trump as well as the people around him are shapeshifters. Not only does Trump constantly shift his position on issues, but Trump perceives most of the people around him as people who are shifting in relation to him. Although, in truth, who can keep up with all of Trump’s shifts.
But Trump’s followers cling to him, hoping to find some constant essence within him for grounding, even as they thrive on all the shocks Trump gives them from his flip-flops, changes of subject, conspiracy theories and disruptive interventions. The more disruptive Trump becomes with his words and deeds, the more his followers cling to him.
Trump is a cult leader who wants people to merge with him, become one with him. He may be the only way that a person can endlessly ride a bucking bronco, becoming one with him. Become one with the bucking bronco and he will protect you from all the fears that he himself generates. Trump is like an opioid kick. And even if he loses the presidential election, his followers will remain around. There are rumors that if Trump loses, he may start his own television station to compete with Fox News for the right-wing audience. But what is certain is that Trump and his followers are not going to go quietly into the night. Even, let’s assume that Trump does decide to retire and disappear, there are people who would take up his mantel and gather his supporters. Just as addicted people can shift between drugs, so addicted people can shift between charismatic leaders. When one is addicted, one is addicted. And numbness doesn’t simply disappear. Americans have an addiction problem.© 2020 Laurence Mesirow