There’s No Escaping the Truth About Trump

The former president has imprinted his moral pathologies and will-to-power ethic on the Republican Party.

Black-and-white picture of Donald Trump speaking to a crowd from a podium with a sign that reads "USA THANK YOU TOUR 2016"
Mark Makela / Getty

That Donald Trump has acted recklessly and lawlessly, without empathy, as if he lives in a world devoid of moral rules, should surprise no one. Some of us warned back in the summer of 2016 that Trump was erratic, unstable, and temperamentally unfit for office. He had what I referred to then as a “personality disorder.” I believed then and I believe now that it is the most essential thing to understand about him. Trump in power couldn’t end well.

Trump never found a way to escape the antisocial demons that haunt him. But here’s what turned a personal tragedy into a national calamity: He imprinted his moral pathologies, his will-to-power ethic, on the Republican Party. It is the most important political development of this century.

The GOP once advertised itself as standing for family values and law and order, for moral ideals and integrity in political leaders. Such claims are now risible. The Republican Party rallied around Trump and has stuck with him every step of the way.

Republican officials showed fealty to Trump despite his ceaseless lying and dehumanizing rhetoric, his misogyny and appeals to racism, his bullying and conspiracy theories. No matter the offense, Republicans always found a way to look the other way, to rationalize their support for him, to shift their focus to their progressive enemies. As Trump got worse, so did they.

Republicans defended Trump after the release of the Access Hollywood tape and alleged hush-money payments to a porn star. They defended him when he obstructed justice to thwart the investigation of Russian interference in the 2016 election and sided with Russia over U.S. intelligence during a press conference in Helsinki, Finland. They defended him after learning of his effort to solicit foreign interference in the 2020 presidential election. They defended him despite his effort to overturn the election by pressuring state officials to “find” votes and send fake electors, by wallpapering the country with lies, and by instigating a violent assault on the Capitol. The ex-president continues to peddle the Big Lie to this day, and any Republican who challenges it is targeted.

Something malicious has occurred since Trump won the nomination in 2016. Six years ago, Republicans jettisoned their previous moral commitments in order to align themselves with the MAGA movement. Today, they have inverted them. Lawmakers, candidates, and those in the right-wing media ecosystem celebrate and imitate Trump’s nihilism, cynicism, and cruelty. What was once considered a bug is now a feature.

This is the result of individuals’ and institutions’ accommodation of one moral transgression after another after another. With each moral compromise, the next one—a worse one—becomes easier to accept. Conduct that would have horrified Republicans in the past now causes them, at best, to shrug their shoulders; at worst, they delight in it.

How does that change play out in our politics? Five years ago, leading Republicans were publicly critical of Trump’s statements following the white-supremacist rally in Charlottesville, Virginia. Now consider that just a few weeks after far more ominous actions by Trump—inspiring and provoking an insurrection—House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy flew to Mar-a-Lago to grovel before Trump. Initially, Republicans accepted the need for a bipartisan commission to find out what had happened on January 6; since then, they have undermined every effort to uncover that day’s events and how central a role Trump played in them.

The 2016 Republican platform said, “The next president must restore the public’s trust in law enforcement and civil order by first adhering to the rule of law itself.” Today, Republicans, in response to a lawful search of the home of a lawless ex-president, compare the FBI to the Gestapo and the Stasi. Trump himself, during a rally, referred to the FBI and the Department of Justice as “vicious monsters.” And no political party in living memory has done as much as the GOP to undermine civil order and the public’s trust in law enforcement, or to attack the rule of law.

In hindsight, January 6, 2021, was a milestone along not just one path of radicalization, but two. Of course, it represented an unprecedented assault on democracy by the violent mob on Capitol Hill and the president who incited it. But it also represented what turned out to be the last moment when Republicans considered repudiating Trump. For a few days, party leaders seemed, at last, horrified enough to break with him. But when McCarthy slunk to Mar-a-Lago, hat and apology in hand, and when then–Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and other Senate Republicans backed away from Trump’s impeachment and removal, the moment was over, and a door slammed shut. There would be no more wavering. Today, the dominant faction in the GOP is not conservative in the American tradition; it is authoritarian and revolutionary, like far-right parties in Europe.

Karen Stenner, a political psychologist and the author of the groundbreaking The Authoritarian Dynamic, argues that about a third of people across 29 liberal democracies seem to have a psychological predisposition toward authoritarianism. The tendency exists on both ends of the political spectrum, though it’s more prevalent on the right.

Stenner defines authoritarianism, which she believes is about 50 percent heritable, as a deep-seated psychological predisposition to demand obedience and conformity—what she calls “oneness and sameness”—over freedom and diversity. Authoritarians have an aversion to complexity and diversity. They tend to be intolerant on matters of race, politics, and morals; to glorify the in-group and denigrate the out-group; and to “reward or punish others according to their conformity to this ‘normative order.’”

The danger, Stenner says, arises when that tendency, which is often latent, is activated by “normative threats,” a deep fear of change, and a loss of trust in our institutions. She also made this point to my colleague Helen Lewis: In normal, reassuring, and comforting conditions, people with authoritarian tendencies could be your best neighbor. But those predispositions “are activated under conditions of threat and produce greater intolerance to differences.”

Donald Trump has made his supporters feel “permanently panicked,” according to Stenner. He “never got past the constant-rage-and-fear stage.”  And it doesn’t help that modern life’s complexity is overwhelming for many people.

For those with authoritarian tendencies, Stenner says, there’s a need “to reassure them and calm them down.” Her goal is “to help authoritarians live in peace with liberal democracy.” We need to reintegrate, rather than triumph over and banish, the authoritarians. Demeaning and dismissing a significant part of the country won’t turn out well. And so the focus of her work is to find practical ways to bring “activated authoritarians” back from the brink, including by means of normatively reassuring messages. The key, she believes, is to reduce the feelings of being threatened and to find the right language—language that is less alienating to those with authoritarian tendencies—to talk about things such as diversity and immigration. She and the social psychologist Jonathan Haidt point out that moral elevation, the response we have when we witness virtuous acts, can also be helpful.

This approach is commendable; my guess is that right now it might have sway with the minority of Republicans who are uneasy about Trump. Perhaps, combined with an indictment of Trump, it might be enough to weaken the ex-president to the point where the Republican Party breaks with him. But will its members break with the authoritarian tendencies that now define the GOP?

That seems unlikely. The majority of the party has gotten more radicalized, more aggressive, and more conspiracy-minded, not less, since Trump left office. The MAGA movement has provided many of its adherents with an identity, a source of personal meaning, and a cause for which to fight. They have created a narrative in which they are heroic figures fighting malevolent forces. They find psychological satisfaction in relentless conflict; their lives seem more vivid and more purposeful within MAGA’s ever-combative frame. Politics has become, for them, an ersatz religion. In this activated state, they are not reachable by reason or open to amelioration. In fact, many in MAGA world are looking for reasons to take offense, to feel victimized, to lash out.

There is an analogy to nature: When a thunderstorm cloud has sufficient electrostatic charge, it has to discharge toward the ground. If the lightning bolt doesn’t find one target, it will find another. So will Trump supporters.

“We have a big faction of one of our two major political parties who wants to unravel our democracy because it no longer serves them,” Barbara Walter, a professor at UC San Diego and the author of How Civil Wars Start and How to Stop Them, recently told CNN. “The reality is if you don’t say anything, if you stick your head in the ground, this makes it easier for those who do want to create some sort of authoritarian or strongman, minority-rule government—sort of what you have in Hungary—it simply allows them to do that more easily. They can do it quietly behind the scenes when no one’s looking.”

I’m of two minds about all this. I admire groups such as Braver Angels, which is attempting to bridge partisan divides, decrease affective polarization, and help Americans understand one another beyond stereotypes. If we can help those with authoritarian tendencies reintegrate themselves into liberal democracy, we should certainly do so. It’s important to hear perspectives that differ from our own. And it’s imperative that we relearn how to talk with one another as fellow citizens instead of as combatants.

I also believe we should continue to stay in relationships whenever possible, including with family members and friends whose authoritarian attitudes have been activated, even as we look for the right moment and the right way to name our differences and express our disappointment with those who have aligned themselves with malignant political figures and movements. We should speak with candor but not with malice, striving for grace as well as for truth. It’s an impossible balance to always achieve, at least for me; my frustrations can sometimes get the better of me, and perhaps they get the better of you too. But the balance is still worth fighting for.

But even though we shouldn’t give up on individuals, I can’t escape concluding that the time for mollifying grievances is over. In our political endeavors, the task is now to contain and defeat the MAGA movement, shifting away from a model of psychological amelioration and toward a model of political confrontation. This is the model that Liz Cheney embraces, and so do I.

It requires defeating Trump Republicans at the polls, but it goes well beyond that. It also means rallying the forces that must rise up to oppose authoritarianism by speaking honestly about the nature of the threat. It means telling the truth about not just Trump but many of his supporters, who remain complicit in a corrupt and corrupting enterprise—one that is inflicting grave injury on our nation and its ideals.

MAGA supporters have had countless opportunities to take the exit ramp, and they have always found reasons not to. At some point, when an enterprise is thoroughly corrupt, staying a part of it, helping it along, refusing to ever speak up, is not just a mistake in judgment; it is a failure of intellectual and moral integrity. This doesn’t mean that every area of a MAGA supporter’s life is devoid of rectitude, of course. But it does mean that one important area is. And that needs to be said.

So, no, I am not suggesting “giving up” on individual MAGA supporters, writing them off, throwing them out of polite society—even if I were in a position to do any of those things, which I’m not. I am suggesting that much of MAGA world is authoritarian, that Liz Cheney is right to turn all her political energies to opposing it, and that containing and defeating MAGA—not hoping it will change, not placating its grievances—is now the No. 1 priority for friends of democracy. Maybe we’ll succeed, maybe we’ll fail, but the mission is unavoidable. And honorable.