Trump is conditioning MAGA for the next stage

Authoritarian leaders train and condition the public to follow and obey them -– or at the very least to not oppose them. This training takes various forms, such as threats of violence and acts of intimidation, propaganda with an emphasis on disinformation and misinformation, generating a state of constant precarity, fear, and death anxieties (what I have termed “horror politics”), manipulating White Christianity and other belief systems, and more generally offering incentives and rewards for supporting the authoritarian and the movement and the regime. Those who resist or are not sufficiently supportive will be punished – severely.

In a 2021 essay, historian Ruth Ben-Ghiat offered these insights into the power of propaganda and its role in authoritarian training and conditioning:

Propaganda gains traction through repetition and saturation. The same message is disseminated through multiple channels and institutions, with small variations, to lead a maximum number of individuals “in the same direction, but differently,” as the sociologist Jacques Ellul wrote….

Seeing the same messages over and over can lead some to tune out, but it may also boost confidence that the content is truthful. Repetition can lead to familiarity, which increases acceptance — especially when the state has silenced alternate voices.”….

Moreover, once people bond with the leader, they may be inclined to dismiss any evidence that conflicts with his claims, or overlook contradictions in his messages. They believe him because they believe in him. Or, in an interesting twist, they know he is lying, but they decide that they don’t care: better him than his enemy (who, as they have been taught to believe, lies even more). And some people actually approve of all the lying, seeing it as rule-breaking by a rogue they adore.

The authoritarian regime does not have the resources to monitor every person’s behavior at all times (totalitarian regimes such as Nazi German, Stalin’s Russia, and North Korea aspire to have such control, but even they are unable to fully accomplish it). Emotional training and other forms of conditioning to Power are a way of creating compliant subjects that are self-regulating – and who will in turn monitor and impose the rules of the regime on their peers and the larger society.

This is the playbook that Donald Trump and his MAGAfied Republican Party and the other enemies of democracy on the right are using to target the American people. The abnormal and aberrant are being presented as normal and desirable.

In a recent speech at the National Rifle Association convention in Texas, Trump once again basically threatened to kill and imprison Joe Biden, calling the president a “Manchurian candidate” and a “traitor.” Trump and his propagandists are attempting to normalize the fascist practice of executing political rivals.

Last week, Donald Trump shared a video that invoked the rise of Hitler and the Nazis and celebrated a Trump Reich, when/if he takes power as the country’s first dictator in 2025. This is part of a much larger pattern of behavior: Donald Trump has repeatedly channeled Adolf Hitler and the Nazis with his eliminationist threats and other promises to purge the “blood” of the United States of human “vermin” when he takes power.

Trump and his propagandists are now telling the lie that President Biden and the Department of Justice wanted to assassinate him during their search of his Mar-a-Largo resort for stolen classified and top-secret documents. The search was conducted according to standard protocols. Moreover, the Department of Justice and FBI timed the search in such a manner as to ensure that there was no danger to Donald Trump. The lie that President Biden and the Department of Justice wanted to “assassinate” Donald Trump is an act of projection and an attempt to incite his MAGA people into committing acts of terrorism and other acts of public disorder and insurrection.

Unfortunately, Donald Trump and his agents’ campaign of emotional training and conditioning is working.

Public opinion polls and other research show that a large portion of the American public are willfully unaware of Trump’s threats and promises to be a dictator who will end multiracial democracy. Even more troubling, a large percentage of the American public is so deluded that they have somehow convinced themselves that Donald Trump’s disastrous time as president was somehow successful, a recent golden age to which they want to return.

In reality, Trump’s presidency was one of the worst in American history where his negligence and choices led to the deaths of hundreds of thousands of people in this country from COVID, he was impeached twice, put tens of thousands of people in concentration camps, and attempted a coup on Jan. 6 among his many other ignominious “distinctions”. 

The most basic and important evidence of the effectiveness of this authoritarian training and conditioning is how Donald Trump (a man who is a coup plotter, sexual assaulter as confirmed by a court of law, and now criminal defendant in four felony trials) and President Biden are tied in the early 2024 election polls. President Biden continues to trail Donald Trump in the key battleground states.

As the truism goes, those who do not study and learn from history are doomed to repeat it. In an excellent new essay at The Guardian, Peter Pomerantsev highlights how Donald Trump and his propagandists and other agents are emotionally training and conditioning the MAGA people and other members of the Trump political cult using techniques that are similar to those used by Adolf Hitler and the Nazis:

Hitler gave people the sense of being part of a huge mass, a Volk, which appealed to many after the confusing changes of the early 20th century, when the old social order had been upended. He also gave people roles to play when the old ones had vanished: in the confusing cabaret of Weimar Germany, where identities were in flux, you knew who you were when you became a Nazi party member or an SS man. These roles were emotionally satisfying: they allowed people to submit to a strong leader, and feel strong and superior through him; they also allowed them to feel the victim, which in turn legitimised anger and cruelty to others. Some psychoanalysts who observed the rallies believed these grievance narratives gave people the chance to blame external forces for all the things they didn’t like about themselves. Orators like Hitler make us feel we can crush the voice inside of us that tells us we are not good enough, by projecting it on to others.

Today’s propagandists play on the same needs. In a time of rapid economic, social and technological change it can be comforting to be part of a large, angry crowd. Online conspiracy theory communities are particularly effective at pulling together a sense of being part of a group with a secret knowledge and mission. Such media also give people a role to play in a confusing world: as a Proud Boy or a “patriot” storming the Capitol. Social media, where you are encouraged to label who you are, only exacerbates this performance. Meanwhile the allure of “strongmen” has never gone away. Whether you buy into the psychoanalytic theories, the grievance narratives work – from Trump’s crusade to Make America Great Again to Putin promising to get Russia back off its knees.

Trump’s MAGA followers are energized. By comparison, President Biden’s supporters and voters, and the American people as a whole, are tired, exhausted, and succumbing to a state of learned helplessness.

At the Atlantic, Charles Sykes evaluates the emotional and psychological health of the American people in the Age of Trump and concludes that they are disoriented and experiencing something akin to societal air sickness:

“At what other moment in American history,” Anne Applebaum recently asked, “could a presidential candidate praise a fictional serial killer, and inspire almost no reaction at all?”

Even by the standards of the times, what she was referring to did seem a vertigo-inducing moment. Amid an anti-migrant tirade at a rally earlier this month in New Jersey, Donald Trump gave a shout-out to the “late, great” Hannibal Lecter, referring to the fava bean–loving cannibal played by Anthony Hopkins in the 1991 film The Silence of the Lambs as a “wonderful man.”

And the nation shrugged, because this was simply the latest in a long list of 2024’s bizarre and disorienting moments (including an earlier recent reference to cannibalism from the president himself). “The scale of the abnormality is so staggering,” ABC’s George Stephanopoulos argued recently, “that it can actually become numbing.”

But Americans’ reaction is less like numbness and more a response to something like airsickness, which results when we experience a disconnect between our senses—a nausea-inducing conflict between what we know and what we see. Motion sickness is caused by a discrepancy between what the inner ear detects and what the eye sees. The effect can be vertiginous—so the way people avoid being nauseated is by trying to ignore the dissonance.

We’ve been led to believe that things work in a certain way, that there are mores and norms. We thought our world was right side up, but it now feels as if it’s been turned upside down. Words don’t mean what we think they do. Outrage is followed not by accountability, but by adulation. Standards shift, flicker, vanish. Nothing is stable.

At The Guardian, Margaret Sullivan emphasizes realpolitik and how Donald Trump’s “strongman pose” is working:

For the most part, exhausted Americans yawn. They shrug off the latest outrage as regrettable but harmless, just another case of Trump being Trump. The Wall Street bigwig and Republican mega-donor Ken Griffin even told Bloomberg News recently that he might change his mind and support Trump because the former president would “exude a level of strength” that would help to stabilize the world in trying times.

The “strongman” pose, in other words, is working: an authority figure is the one to deal with a chaotic world. Just don’t look too carefully at where the chaos originates. As Trump claimed during the 2016 campaign, the world is in crisis and “I alone can fix it.”

Much of the mainstream media covered this week’s “unified reich” posting as if this were just part of a typical campaign. “Trump’s latest flirtation with Nazi symbolism draws criticism,” one headline in the Hill put it. Yes, and so did President Obama’s decision to wear a tan suit.

Despite all of Trump’s misdeeds – the criminal indictments, the abhorrent words, the sordid relationships, the clear plans to dismantle democratic guardrails – he rolls on undaunted.

With the “unified reich” video, as with all the earlier outrages, you’ll hear no apology, no disavowal, no expression of regret. And certainly no promise that this will never happen again.

It will happen again. After all, it’s working.

Writing at The New Republic, Greg Sargent succinctly summarizes how the American people are being emotionally trained and conditioned into accepting the end of their democracy and the rise of neofascism as, “Understood this way, the conspicuous offering of such heinous policy “solutions” by Trump and MAGA thinkers seems designed to measure public tolerance for authoritarianism.”

The American people have a choice to make. They can continue to sleep-walk, zombified, even deeper into the Age of Trump and his first dictatorship or they can wake up and resist. The emotional training and conditioning into accepting Trumpism and American neofascism does not take hold quickly. It is a years and decades-long process. The American people still have agency and time to resist. But the most important thing is to acknowledge and internalize that none of this is normal, and then to create a bulwark around our internal emotional and intellectual and spiritual lives as a defense against the authoritarian(s) and their forces’ assaults. The next step is to form meaningful relationships with other people who believe in and are willing to defend the country’s democratic life. Demagogues and aspiring dictators like Donald Trump and his MAGA enforcers want you to be isolated, alone, alienated, overwhelmed, and exhausted. In such a state, a person is a compliant and ideal subject for the allure of fake right-wing populism and other forms of authoritarianism and neofascism. Resistance is never futile. But at this point in the Age of Trump it seems that too many Americans have preemptively surrendered.   

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