The conventional wisdom that Trump supporters took him seriously, but not literally, was challenged on January 6, 2021, when hundreds of his supporters–literally–answered his call to march to the Capitol and “fight like hell!” His supporters crossed a line on that infamous day into a new kind of Trump fundamentalism. Although there were hints of this before in the Trump Presidency, with the storming of the Capitol, the fervor of this new political fundamentalism, or Trumpalmentalism, resulted in violent insurrection.
I had hoped that after January 20, 2021, I would no longer feel compelled to write about Donald J. Trump. Sadly, this is not the case. With the tragic insurrection attempt of January 6th still fresh in our collective memories, revelations are coming to light every day that reveals Trump’s culpability in inciting the riot. With an unprecedented second impeachment trial for the former President looming in the Senate, one thing is clear: as much as we might like to be exempt from thinking about Trump, we are not.
However, my chief complaint in this piece isn’t necessarily with him specifically as much as it is with his followers, who still repeat his lies and conspiracy theories and seem immovably convinced that their political messiah will have a second coming. In the fascinating work, When Prophecy Fails, Leon Festinger, Henry W. Riecken, and Stanley Schachter detail the strange phenomenon of how true believers remain loyal and even register an uptick in their enthusiasm not only in spite of but especially when the object of their faith’s validity is disconfirmed. What we are witnessing among Trump supporters is a religious experience with apocalyptic fervor. As Festinger et al. point out, “A man with a conviction is a hard man to change. Tell him you disagree and he turns away. Show him facts or figures and he questions your sources. Appeal to logic and he fails to see your point… Indeed, he may even show a new fervor about convincing and converting people to his view.”
Trump, along with his supporters, have shown us that this is who they are from the moment when he descended the escalator at Trump Tower and first spouted his racist views, in June of 2015. Trump supporters have only grown more vitriolic with time. But what is surprising is just how deep this loyalty seems to run in the Republican party. I had once thought that after Trump left office the GOP would be more forward-looking, but if the past few days are any indication, it remains in lockstep with Trump. Where it initially appeared that there was some movement among Republican leadership to distance themselves from Trump, that effort seems to have evaporated in a chorus of questions surrounding the supposed Constitutionality of holding this President accountable.
This phenomenon certainly seems to emulate the conclusion of When Prophecy Fails. What sustains these types of movements in spite of evidence demonstrating a total lack of validity is that, “The individual believer must have social support. It is unlikely that one isolated believer could withstand the kind of dis-confirming evidence we have specified. If, however, the believer is a member of a group of convinced persons who can support one another, we would expect the belief to be maintained and the believers to attempt to proselyte or to persuade nonmembers that the belief is correct.”
What Trump supporters have found in him, and maybe more importantly in one another, is a sense of community that fosters an identity. This identity provides misguided hope to the “forgotten men and women” as Trump labels them, resulting in fear at the prospect of the demographic and economic changes that are taking place in our nation. Their sense of community and identity is inextricably tied to xenophobia, white supremacy, and patriarchy. To root out any of these systems would predicate a reckoning with the very foundation of their worldview, and that is too high of a price to pay to change systems that they believe are benefiting them. The sad truth is, these same systems are also the source of some of the hardships they face. It is puzzling that so many of these supporters also view themselves as Christians who would, in concept, already belong to a community that promises real hope that is realized not in fear, but in faith in Christ.
Many Trump supporters are preoccupied with the belief that there will be a reckoning brought about through their efforts, correcting what they perceive to be a host of evils rooted in unfounded conspiracy theories, including a widespread child prostitution ring led by Democrats and wide-reaching election fraud that overturned a landslide Trump victory. As I type these words, I’m in awe of just how ridiculous this sounds, yet just a few weeks ago hundreds of people were motivated to storm the Capitol and beat a police officer to death with a noose in tow while chanting, “Hang Mike Pence!” These actions–motivated in large part by the repeated lies of Donald Trump–should not be dismissed as mere politics. There is something far more seditious at work here, and Trump must be held accountable for his words and actions, along with those who supported him in this attempted insurrection. I hope the Senate will be convinced by the evidence that this kind of behavior should never be tolerated or endorsed in America, and will convict Donald Trump, rendering him unable to wield political influence in our nation ever again.
Early on in his bid for the Presidency, I was among the millions of Americans who took the ridiculous things that Trump said: “literally, but not seriously”. I was wrong. I pledge to never make that mistake again with demagoguing politicians because, with the lines of religion and political persuasion now successfully blurred, it is evident that those looking for nationalistic salvation are prone to take their views, like their Bible, both seriously and literally.
If the past four years and a few months have demonstrated one thing to me, it is that there is a great need for the gospel of Christ to be proclaimed once again in its simplicity and beauty. What is bandied about today in too many of our churches is a conflation of Christianity with white nationalism that undermines the fundamentals of our faith and renders it impotent in the face of cataclysmic shifts in culture. What Trump supporters are attempting to cling to is not the historical faith in Christ, but rather a cult-like commitment to an imaginary America. I pray that they will discover that the America they dream of returning to, like the lies told by Trump about the results of the Presidential election, isn’t rooted in reality, but in a misguided fantasy that has dangerous implications should it ever come to pass.
This essay is from our Anastasis Series where we resurrect articles from the past that are either still relevant today or can be easily updated. This piece was first published on January 29, 2021, and has been lightly edited and updated.