Selling Fear and Anger: The Why and How of Trump

Editor’s Note: This article previously appeared in a different format as part of The Atlantic’s Notes section, retired in 2021.
Last week in Cleveland. (Brian Snyder / Reuters)

In response to recent items on what Donald Trump is doing, four readers offer views on why.

1) Id laid bare. In response to Time Capsule #54, “They Applauded for Me,” a reader says:

Today’s Trump™ Time Capsule reminded me of another example of unaware self-revelation.

Some 50 years ago I worked with a guy who volunteered at a meeting the statement, “I don’t get New Yorker cartoons.” He said it not without pride, as though it were somehow a badge of honor. There was no visible rolling of eyes and we went smoothly on with the meeting, but the remark explained much in my later encounters with him.

In Vital Lies, Simple Truths: The Psychology of Self-Deception, Daniel Goleman recounts in the preface a story of a woman talking about how much her family loves her, and how funny her mother is. If she was saying something that her mother didn’t like, her mother would just pick up what was at hand and throw it at her. “And once, we were eating dinner, so what she picked up was a knife and threw that at me,” told as a humorous anecdote.

Trump is id laid bare, so far as I can tell, and appeals directly to those controlled by the id.


2) Big versus little lies. This next reader email is very long but builds to a worthwhile point.

Thank you for the Time Capsule series. I think a lot of the commentary from all over on Trump is missing the main question, however. The fundamental question is seldom what people do; the fundamental question is why they do it.

Any “rational” analysis of Trump will fail. (“Rational” in both the “logical utility” and in the “sane” sense.) He is not presenting a logical way for attaining real benefits, nor is he presenting himself as sane.

What he is selling is fear and anger. It is those two emotions, and just  the emotions, that his supporters want. They want to be deathly afraid of the world, and they want to use that fear to justify an all-consuming anger. They are not looking for justification for those emotions; they just want the emotions themselves.

If you see his supporters as masses of the frustrated and disenfranchised who are seeking a voice at the table of power, then it makes no sense. Anybody like that would not want to be lied to. They have been lied to too many times by the powerful. Trump is an obvious liar, and he is never going to do what he says is is going to do. Anyone who simply feels betrayed by the political process isn’t about to set themselves up to be betrayed again. Those types will simply stay home on election day like they always do.

There is no point going into who said it, but it was said that “people would rather believe a big lie than a small one.” Once you lie, and once you lie very very big, then you are in constant fear of being found out. The only possible face-saving response is to use the energy of that fear to violently insist that you are right.

Once you stand up in public and say you believe that the Earth is flat, then you simply can’t back down. The fear of ridicule is so great that the only way forward is to be angry at all attackers. That anger then becomes its own validity. It is an addiction, pure and simple. It is an addiction to strong empty feelings. No one believes that the Earth is flat because of any logical argument. They believe that the Earth is flat because the panic that is caused by believing that lie sustains their desired anger. And their anger is all they have and all they want. Believing the lie is a deliberate and calculated act to drum up an overriding state of blind emotion.

Trump’s big lies are the whole point of his appeal.

Hillary’s fault is that she makes small lies (about the e-mails and a lot else). Small lies can be proven to be false, and the small liar shown to be a fool. You can say that you believed her about the e-mails, and then be shown that that small lie was wrong, and then say that she is a scoundrel for fooling you like that.

But if you swallow a big lie, you can’t back down. Any backdown would be such a loss of face, that your identity won’t allow it. You get trapped in a world of fear of discovery and anger at your critics and you can’t get out.

Most importantly, however, most people don’t want to get out. Most importantly, most people get in that position on purpose. That is why they support Trump. They live off the anger that believing a big lie produces in them.

I hate to always be bringing this up, but every year 250,000 Americans die from medical mistakes. That is over 600 a day, every day, all year long. That is more than a fully loaded 747 crashing every day due to preventable errors.

And the Wall Street Journal reports that immigrants have a lower crime and incarceration rate than natural-born Americans.

Where were the teary-eyed speakers at the RNC talking about their loved ones killed by medical mistakes or by native-born American criminals? There are only a couple hundred thousand more of those to be found than the ones they trotted out. But that is only if you believe in the weight of evidence.

There is no either sane or utilitarian reason to put the fear of immigrant criminals or Islamic terrorists anywhere within the top 100 things to worry about in life. But that is not the point. The point isn’t in believing in the truth what that does for you. The whole point is in believing the lie and what that does for you.


Trump is giving his followers what they want and what they insist on: a big lie that will feed their anger. They want to be lied to so that they can be angry at those who call them liars. That is all they want in life, and Trump is delivering the goods. Trump isn’t doing this because he has some carefully calculated path to power on backs of his supporters. He is doing it because he is an idiot and can’t do anything else. He is just a meaningless tool of the times. The more he lies the more his supporters feed off the anger those lies cause and it goes on and on.

The “Vichy Republicans” are just along for the ride, knowing full well that all they want is power and that they will get it and find a way to cover themselves no matter what happens. As you know, in politics, losing is often the best choice, because then you get all of the talk and none of the responsibility.

It is all up to democracy. If most of the people want to be lied to so that they can be angry, then goodbye the good old U.S.A. If Hillary isn’t up to bringing out the vote, then that’s the end.

But Trump isn’t stopped by showing him to be a liar. That just feeds the beast. You don’t convince someone that the Earth isn’t flat by telling them that they are stupid. They want you to say that, so that they can get angry at you for saying that, and that anger is all they really wanted from the beginning. If you are angry enough you don't have to deal with anything else in the world. It is the cheapest and most powerful drug in the world. And once you are addicted, it is hard to stop. Once you are addicted you simply don't know how to do anything else. And you want more and more of it.

You narrow his support by giving his supporters a way out. I think the best way to stop him, as has been pointed out by others, is to simply insult him. That way he will wind it so far out that even his supporters will see the humor in it. Get him to trash talk more about the U.S. and start bringing in UFOs and it will all turn into stand-up comedy even to his supporters. A good laugh puts you in charge, and gets you out.

Either that, or he starts insulting pockets of his own supporters, and then they start wondering who is next. Get some surrogates to insult him in public, and trust he handles it badly. Not call him a liar, but actually insult him. He’s afraid of the very thing he does to others. That’s why he does it. Reagan would have put on that famous smile and say “there you go again.” Trump will probably loose it.

That and when the Trump U case comes up, he’ll be shown to be a small liar.


3) Roots of his appeal. A reader with another tip:

Another magazine [apart from The Atlantic!] I’ve recently discovered that has a lot of insightful articles is The American Conservative. Below is a link to a great article discussing the appeal of Trump to the white working class.

Yes, this interview with J.D. Vance, author of Hillbilly Elegy, is interesting and important. It intersects with the themes Deb and I have been covering, and we’ll return to it.


4) On Trump, Putin, and a bias toward chaos. Last for today:

I haven’t slept well since Trump’s RNC speech when it dawned me how close the alignment of Trump’s and Putin’s behavior and interests are. I plead that you dig deeper, much deeper. That you encourage your compatriots to uncover this connection.

In general, I am not a conspiracy believer, but Trump certainly is.  I believe that most of us see the world through the prism of our own beliefs. Therefore, Trump believes that the world is run and “won” by using fixers, by rigging the game. This has clearly been how he has operated his businesses and been his experience within New York real estate. Trump says as much in his acceptance speech. Putin has the power and inclination to help Trump fix or tilt our election—with cyber warfare (DNC email leaks?), terrorist attacks, and promoting social unrest.

Putin has been in a cold war with us for several years now and has become adept at using asymmetric warfare against democratic nations.  I expect there to be more fear-inspiring activity before and during the DNC, during the Rio Olympics and leading up to election day. Russia can facilitate terrorist groups, even fake terrorism through Chechen connections that can be passed off as ISIS. Russia could fake an Iranian or North Korean cyber attack on the US or an ally (Israel?). They can incite, even arm, the crazies in any democracy. The possibilities are many—arm some militant Black Panthers in the U.S., set off a few car bombs close to the election, send some anthrax around, release some Zika mosquitos, leak embarrassing and incendiary information.  

There will be an act of terror somewhere in the world practically every day to light up cable news and remind us how scared we should be, to keep our flag at half mast.

How else does the RNC and Trump’s victory speech make any sense? He’s tripled down on chaos. He wins the election only if the electorate is scared and all we want is “law and order.” Trump is not worried that his convention was a mess, that his party is not united or that he has no staff or ground campaign; this is a cable-news assault.

Russia helps make the chaos and get Trump elected. In exchange Russia gets the Ukraine, the Baltics, greatly weaken democracies and a narcissistic U.S. President that is prone to their manipulation.

Crazy? Yes. Is Trump crazy? Yes. I believe he is crazy enough that there could actually be a direct link between Putin and Trump. Either way, whether a real conspiracy or a confluence of toxic nationalistic waste streams the only vaccine is suspecting the truth before the fact.