Four Forces Bind Trump’s Supporters More Tightly Than Ever

Reckoning with their enduring adherence to a broken man

An illustration of a silhouette of a man with a screaming mouth at the center of his head
Illustration by Paul Spella / The Atlantic. Source: Getty.

During a CNN town hall earlier this month, Donald Trump acted as expected. He used the phrase “whack job” to describe E. Jean Carroll, who was awarded $5 million in damages because a jury unanimously concluded that Trump had sexually abused and defamed her. His statement elicited applause and laughter from the mostly pro-Trump crowd. He also described the January 6 insurrection as a “beautiful day” and declared that, if reelected president in 2024, he would pardon a “large portion” of the rioters. Those statements, too, brought applause from the raucous audience.

There was more. Trump called the Black police officer who had shot and killed one of the rioters storming the Capitol a “thug,” falsely claiming that the officer had bragged about the incident. Trump defended taking top-secret documents to his Mar-a-Lago estate. He wouldn’t say whether he hoped that Ukraine would win the war against Russia. And he spewed lie after lie after lie about the 2020 election and virtually every other topic that came up.

As the CNN anchor Jake Tapper said of Trump, summing up the night, “He declared war on the truth, and I’m not sure that he didn’t win.”

The day after the town hall, I asked a person in the talk-radio world how his listeners had responded. “One hundred percent approval of Trump’s performance,” this individual, who requested anonymity in order to speak candidly, told me. “I even tried to get people to call me who didn’t think he did well, but no luck. And I received a number of calls saying they had been either leaning towards [Ron] DeSantis or were firmly in his camp, and they said they have now decided to fully support Trump, based on the town hall.”

The question I’ve been asked more than any other during the Trump era is how Trump supporters—including tens of millions of evangelical Christians and Republicans who have long viewed themselves as champions of “family values” and “law and order”—justify their enthusiastic support for the former president. How do they rationalize their embrace of a man whose ethical transgressions and moral depravity so far exceed that of Bill Clinton, whom many of them attacked in the 1990s on moral grounds?

I’m intentional about trying to better understand the mind of Trump supporters. I read their articles and social-media posts, listen to their interviews, and track the findings of focus groups. I engage them in conversation and reply to their emails, less to debate than to listen. I think I’ve come to understand their perspective, even though I profoundly disagree with it.

Trump supporters can’t simply be dismissed as “a basket of deplorables.” Many are devoted parents and spouses, loyal friends and good neighbors, willing to reach out a hand to those in need. I can’t deny what I have seen with my own eyes; I can’t let my own aversion to Trump turn his supporters into caricatures. At the same time, they have aligned themselves with a malignant figure whose corruptions are undisguised. How can these things fit together?

Part of the explanation can be found in the realm of human psychology. None of us live comfortably with cognitive dissonance, the mental stress that results when people’s beliefs and actions come into direct contradiction with one another. This disharmony causes distress, agitation, and self-loathing. It can’t be sustained; something has to give.

The human mind creates defense mechanisms to eliminate such negative feelings: avoiding or ignoring the dissonance, undermining evidence of the dissonance, belittling its importance. What we human beings don’t do nearly enough is change our behavior so that it aligns with values that are estimable and ennobling.

If a person is on a diet and spends late nights eating snacks, they may tell themselves that they’ll work out the next day to burn off the extra calories. A smoker may justify her habit by reassuring herself that even though smoking can cause cancer, she knows people who have smoked and lived long, healthy lives. A man who cheats on his spouse may justify his actions by saying that the marriage was irretrievably broken, that he felt unloved by his wife, that he hasn’t felt happy for many years and she’s to blame.

“By coming up with these rationalizations, people are able to preserve the impression that their behaviors and attitudes are consistent,” Benjamin Le, a psychology professor of Haverford College, has written.

Which brings me back to supporters of Donald Trump. It’s a challenge for many of them, especially those who identify as people of faith, to reconcile what they claim to value—integrity, honor, truthfulness, decency, compassion—with the fact that they support a misogynist who has cheated on his wives and sexually abused women; threatened judges, prosecutors, and election officials; used hundreds of millions of dollars in military assistance to pressure a foreign leader to dig up dirt on his political opponent; catalyzed a violent insurrection and engaged in a multipart conspiracy to overturn the lawful results of the 2020 presidential election; dined with white supremacists and anti-Semites; cheated on his taxes; lied pathologically; routinely used cruel and dehumanizing rhetoric; and promoted political violence.

So what are the psychological defense mechanisms Trump supporters employ to relieve feelings of dissonance, shame, and embarrassment?

First, Trump supporters deny the worst things he has done. Jury verdicts against him are always unfair; impeachments are unjust partisan acts. Investigations of him that have found wrongdoing, all of them, are “WITCH HUNTS.” That is true in perpetuity. So whatever Fulton County District Attorney Fani Willis and Special Counsel Jack Smith find, whatever indictments they may bring, the charges are by definition unwarranted. Trump is always the victim of persecution. “I think I have been violated as badly as anybody that's ever walked,” he recently said.

Trump is not perfect, most of his supporters will concede; he may be rough around the edges—a “bull in a China shop,” in the words of one friend of mine; a “wrecking ball,” in the words of another—and a man who does some unsavory things. But all of that, and far more than that, is acceptable because he is a “fighter” for their cause, which they are convinced is just, true, and right. His conduct may not always be ideal, and you may not want your son to model his life after Donald Trump’s. But more than any other Republican politician, he understands the viciousness of his opponents and will respond in kind. Trump will bring an AR-15 to a cultural knife fight, and his supporters find that to be anywhere from tolerable to thrilling.

Second, Trump supporters catastrophize the threats of the left. It’s one thing to believe, as some of us do, that the progressive movement includes dangerous, illiberal elements that need to be opposed. But that is quite different from believing that if Democrats gain or maintain power, calamity follows and America as we know it dies.

What we’re talking about isn’t just fear; it’s a sense of desperation and impending doom. Trump supporters feel that the political right has lost on every front over the past several decades, even though that’s clearly not the case. Since 1990, for example, the right has gained significantly more power in the courts, in Congress, and in the media—hardly unimportant institutions. Roe v. Wade was overturned after a half century, securing one of the great goals of the American right, and no land has afforded more religious-liberty protections to Christians than the United States today. Yet none of these victories offers much reassurance to people addicted to “doomscrolling,” searching social media for upsetting news.

Moreover, the unwillingness of others to share in their despair—the unwillingness to fight as if our lives depended on the outcome of this or that political election—is viewed as a sign of weakness. All of this is reinforced by a media ecosystem that is constantly promoting narratives that elicit feelings of fright, grievance, agitation, and rage. Those outlets take their cue from Trump, who last year said Democrats are responsible for “blood, death, and suffering on a scale once unthinkable.” He added, “Our country is going to hell.”

If the threat is truly existential, then it justifies—indeed, it demands—that patriotic Americans stand with Trump, regardless of his ethical transgressions. To offer anything less than full support would be a betrayal of our nation. A significant number of Trump supporters see themselves as embattled but heroic figures, involved in a great drama, standing against the demise of almost everything they cherish.

But this disposition comes with a price. Perfect love may cast out fear, as the New Testament says, but the converse is also true. As Aldous Huxley wrote, “Fear casts out love. And not only love. Fear also casts out intelligence, casts out goodness, casts out all thought of beauty and truth.”

Third, Trump and his supporters are frantically trying to portray President Joe Biden as more corrupt than his predecessor. If Trump is an innocent man forever being framed, Biden is the head of a “crime family,” according to Trump, who labeled a set of unproven allegations against Biden as “Watergate times 10.”

The charge against Biden is led by the Republican chair of the House Committee on Oversight and Accountability, James Comer, who declared himself a “Trump man” shortly after the January 6 assault on the Capitol.

Comer’s target isn’t simply Hunter Biden, the president’s son, who has engaged in problematic business dealings. The U.S. attorney in Delaware, David C. Weiss, will soon decide whether Hunter Biden should be prosecuted for crimes related to taxes and a gun purchase. (The investigation into Hunter Biden began in 2018 and initially centered on his finances related to overseas business ties and consulting work, but later shifted in focus.)

However, Republicans are after the president himself, not his son, and so far, despite months of investigation, they have yet to uncover incriminating material about him. That doesn’t stop Republicans from accusing President Biden of wrongdoing. The Trump acolyte Charlie Kirk has admitted that “one of the reasons why Joe Biden is tough to beat is because he’s tough to hate.” Portraying Biden as unscrupulous is one way to change that impression, even if the specific charges made against him are false. If Republicans are able to get at least a draw between Biden and Trump on personal and public morality, they’ll take it.

A fourth justification that supporters of Donald Trump have constructed is that his presidency was an unqualified success, that Trump did practically everything right. There is plenty of evidence to the contrary: failing to build the wall or to get Mexico to pay for it, to reduce illegal immigration, to handle the coronavirus pandemic, to close the trade gap, to narrow the deficit or, pre-pandemic, substantially grow the economy and real wages. The Trump presidency, however, did witness health-care costs and drug prices increasing; income inequality growing; abortions rising after a three-decade decline; homicides spiking, including the largest single-year increase in murders in more than a century; the erosion of U.S. credibility worldwide; a posture of petty feuding with allies and abject capitulation to dictators; and a U.S.-Taliban agreement and subsequent announcement that the American military would withdraw, which had a devastating effect on the Afghan military’s morale and was a “catalyst” for its collapse, according to a May 2022 interim report by the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction. Yet all of these things, and more, are either ignored or explained away.

Let’s assume that Trump supporters believe, contrary to the facts, that every bad thing that happened on Trump’s watch was not because of his policies but in spite of them. Even then, they’re conceding how easily thwarted Trump was and how, in many cases, he was ineffective.

A fair-minded assessment would conclude that on Trump’s watch, some things got better and some things got worse, some of which he’s responsible for and some of which he’s not. But no one can reasonably make the case that America was markedly better or stronger during the Trump presidency than under either his predecessor or his successor. And certainly America under Bill Clinton, reviled by many on the right, prospered in ways that far exceed anything we saw under Trump. But back then, unlike now, we were told that character mattered.

The psychological phenomenon I’ve described in this essay isn’t exclusive to members of one party or to politics. We all live in ways that are at odds with our deepest beliefs. We all rationalize our shortcomings; we all engage in forms of denial. Each of us has blind spots, seeing confirmation bias in others but not in ourselves. But there are varying degrees of self-deception, different lengths to which we go to justify our decisions. What is so striking is just how much Trump demanded of his supporters. He has gone to the darkest places, and they have followed him every step of the way.

So, will anything invalidate the rationalizations of Donald Trump supporters? Or do his violations bind them to him more tightly than ever? For almost eight years, the answer has been the latter. Trump’s sensibilities have become theirs; they have thoroughly internalized his will-to-power ethic. An extraordinary psychological and moral accommodation has occurred.

If a decade ago you had told Trump supporters that this is the kind of man they would defend, that this is what they would become, most of them would have been horrified.

At this stage, though, for Trump supporters to call him out would be to call out themselves, and that’s too painful for too many people. The greater the ethical compromises we make, the fiercer our justifications become—and the angrier and more frustrated we get at those who won’t go along for the ride.

If most Republicans finally do break with Trump—and at this point, very little evidence suggests they will—it won’t be because of any road-to-Damascus revelation. It will be done respectfully, even reverentially, not because they have rejected his style of politics, but because they sense that his time has come and gone. And if Trump is dethroned as the leader of the Republican Party, whoever succeeds him will have modeled themselves after him. Trumpism will outlive Trump. It’s the cost of the lies we sometimes tell ourselves.