What Are Trump Supporters So Afraid Of?

The voice inside that tells them how wrong they are.

Arizona House Speaker Rusty Bowers, Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger, and Georgia Secretary of State Chief Operating Officer Gabriel Sterling are sworn in during the fourth hearing of the January 6 committee.
Arizona House Speaker Rusty Bowers, Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger, and Georgia Secretary of State Chief Operating Officer Gabriel Sterling are sworn in during the fourth hearing of the January 6 committee. (Michael Reynolds-Pool / Getty)

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As more truths about Donald Trump and his attempted coup come out, I fear there will be more irrational anger and threats from people who cannot bear the truth.

But first, here are three new stories from The Atlantic.

Secret Doubt

As the January 6 hearings restarted today after the long weekend, I was thinking about the weird, psychotic fear that has overtaken millions of Americans. I include in those millions people who are near and dear to me, friends I have known for years who now seem to speak a different language, a kind of Fox-infused, Gish Galloping, “what-about” patois that makes no sense even if you slow it down or add punctuation.

Such conversations are just part of life in divided America now. We live in a democracy, and there’s no law (nor should there be) against the willing suffocation of one’s own brain cells with television and the internet. But living in an alternate reality is unhealthy—and dangerous, as I realized yet again while watching the January 6 committee hearings and listening to the stories of Republicans, such as Arizona House Speaker Rusty Bowers and others, describing the threats and harassment they have received for doing their duty to the Constitution.

And the threats don’t stop with political figures; families are now in the crosshairs. Representative Adam Kinzinger, for example, tweeted Monday about a letter he received in which the writer threatened not only to kill him, but to kill his wife and infant son.

There have always been unstable people in America, and they have always done frightening things. But there seem to be a lot more of them now. Some of them are genuinely dangerous, but many more are just rage-drunk nihilists who will threaten any public figures targeted by their preferred television hosts or websites, regardless of party or policy.

The more I think about it—and I spent years researching such problems while writing a book about democracy—the more I think that such people are less angry than they are terrified.

Many of you will respond: Of course they’re terrified. They’re scared of demographic change, of cultural shifts, of being looked down upon for being older and uneducated in an increasingly young and educated world.

All true. But I think there’s more to it.

I think the Trump superfans are terrified of being wrong. I suspect they know that for many years they’ve made a terrible mistake—that Trump and his coterie took them to the cleaners and the cognitive dissonance is now rising to ear-splitting, chest-constricting levels. And so they will literally threaten to kill people like Kinzinger (among others) if that’s what it takes to silence the last feeble voice of reason inside themselves.

We know from studies (and from experience as human beings) that being wrong makes us feel uncomfortable. It’s an actual physiological sensation, and when compounded by humiliation, it becomes intolerable. The ego cries out for either silence or assent. In the modern media environment, this fear expresses itself as a demand for the comfort of massive doses of self-justifying rage delivered through the Fox or Newsmax or OAN electronic EpiPen that stills the allergic reaction to truth and reason.

These outlets are eager to oblige. It’s not you, the hosts assure the viewers. It’s them. You made the right decisions years ago and no matter how much it now seems that you were fooled and conned, you are on the side of right and justice.

This therapy works for as long as the patient is glued to the television or computer screen. The moment someone like Bowers or Kinzinger or Liz Cheney appears and attacks the lie, the anxiety and embarrassment rise like reflux in the throat, and it must be stopped, even if it means threatening to kill the messenger.

No one who truly believes they are right threatens to hurt anyone for expressing a contrary view. The snarling threat of violence never comes from people who calmly believe they are in the right. It is always the instant resort of the bully who feels the hot flush of shame rising in the cheeks and the cold rock of fear dropping in the pit of the stomach.

In the film adaptation of the Cold War epic Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, John le Carré’s fictional British intelligence officer George Smiley describes his opposite number, the Soviet spymaster Karla. Smiley knows Karla can be beaten, he says, because Karla “is a fanatic. And the fanatic is always concealing a secret doubt.”

What this means, I regret to say, is that there will be more threats, and more violence, because there will be more truth. It’s going to be a long summer.


Today’s News
  1. The director of the Texas Department of Public Safety called law enforcement’s response in Uvalde “an abject failure.”
  2. The Supreme Court ruled against Maine’s exclusion of religious schools from a state tuition program.
  3. This past weekend, a historic European heat wave broke daily, monthly, and all-time highs. Heavy rain also left at least 84 dead in India and Bangladesh this past week.


Evening Read
Illustration, with Sheryl Sandberg photograph
The Atlantic; Antoine Antoniol / Getty

Sheryl Sandberg and the Crackling Hellfire of Corporate America

Story by Caitlin Flanagan

In publishing, there are some books that are too big to fail. Very early on you get the message that this is a Major and Very Important Book. In 2013, that book was Sheryl Sandberg’s Lean In: Women, Work, and the Will to Lead, which sold more than 1.5 million copies in its first year. She was the chief operating officer of Facebook, back when most of us had no understanding of the platform’s fearsome powers—in the halcyon days when we thought it was just for sharing pictures of the grandkids and ruining marriages.

Read the full article.

More From The Atlantic

Culture Break
Chris Hemsworth

Read.A Substitution,” a short story about a play, middle age, and a Manhattan storage unit. Then check out this interview with the author.

Watch. Chris Hemsworth transforms from hero to villain in Spiderhead, a new star-studded Netflix thriller.

Listen. On this week’s episode of How to Start Over, our hosts ask when it’s time to end a marriage.

Play our daily crossword.

That’s it for today. If you’re a fan of John le Carré (who died in 2020) or are new to his canon, I have a recommendation for you: Do not start with Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy. Instead, read The Spy Who Came in From the Cold from 1963, and then read his 1990 The Secret Pilgrim, which was a kind of valedictory farewell from Smiley as he recounts his entire career to a group of young spies in training. Perfect summer books, both of them.

P.S.: If you’ve seen an Atlantic headline about “the heroism of Biden’s bike fall” circulating on social media, it’s not real. It seems to be a parody of this edition of The Atlantic Daily—and if so, it’s a pretty good one—but The Atlantic did not actually publish this.

— Tom

Katherine Hu contributed to this newsletter.