Author’s Note: This article was written by invitation for Secular Nation Magazine for publication in early 2017. Sadly, Atheist Alliance of America (the magazine’s parent organization) appears to have had major internal turmoil; the Spring 2017 issue was never published, there appears to have been a major internal upheaval, and their web site hasn’t been updated in about a year. I rather liked this article and, although it is now a bit dated, thought it should at least see the light of day somewhere. I hope you enjoy it.
Trump the Messiah? How Could This Happen?
The most baffling single fact of President Trump’s election is that over eighty five percent of evangelical Christians voted for him.
Let that sink in for a minute. Trump is the very antithesis of Christian values like honesty, decency, family, and the teachings of Jesus Christ. Prior to campaigning, he talked like an atheist. Trump has been married three times, had highly publicized extramarital affairs, was caught on tape making crude remarks about grabbing women’s genitals, and owns gambling casinos. He was caught lying repeatedly, a fact that even staunch Republicans acknowledge. Hardly a week passed without a new gaffe, crude remark, misogynistic recording, overt lie, or racist innuendo from candidate Trump. Past indiscretions, lies, and unsavory business practices bobbed to the surface daily like debris from a torpedoed submarine.
Trump embodies the very opposite of Christian morality, yet he got almost complete support of the most conservative religious group in America, people who, if they were honest with themselves, would despise his achievements, actions, and words.
What possible factors could have made Donald Trump into the political Messiah of evangelical Christians? Why would an evangelical Christian vote for Donald J. Trump, the least Christian presidential candidate in the history of America?
The answer lies in three surprising factors: social parasitism; the inability of deeply religious people to tell truth from fiction; and the “democratization” of news via blogs and videos. These three factors worked synergistically, forming a “perfect storm” of deception that propelled Trump into office.
Leeches, Cuckoos, and Preachers
The first part of the answer lies in something called social parasitism. Donald Trump turns out to be one of the best examples of a social parasite in history.
When we talk about parasites, most of us think of leeches, lice, tapeworms, and other unpleasant creatures that try to make their homes on our bodies. These parasites are best described as biological parasites: they use biochemistry, stealth, and other physical tricks to prey on us without our bodies rejecting or killing them.
Social parasites, by contrast, prey on the behaviors of their host. Cuckoo birds are the favorite example: they lay their eggs in the nests of other bird species. When the baby cuckoo hatches, it behaves exactly like the other baby birds. The “parent” birds are fooled by its behavior, and nurture it as they would their own.
A telemarketer who calls you at dinner time is a great example of social parasitism. We are socially conditioned to answer our telephones when they ring, to give the benefit of doubt to a stranger, and to follow conversational rules such as acknowledging a greeting, not interrupting someone who is talking, and saying a polite goodbye before hanging up. This conditioning is remarkably hard for us to ignore; it’s what makes society work. A telemarketers knows this and use it against you. He preys on your social conditioning to get you on the phone and keep you on the phone while he sells his wares.
Social parasites take advantage of long-established social conditioning. They find an existing social relationship and replace one half of it, behaving in a way that tricks the “host species” (in the case of a telemarketer, that would be you) into providing resources.
Now consider the relationship between charismatic preachers and the congregations that support them. It is a mutually beneficial relationship: the preacher provides hope, excitement, reassurance, and is the “father figure” for the congregation, and in return the parishioners provide support, usually in the form of money. It is a very powerful social relationship that, for most evangelical Christians, is established very early in life, reinforced weekly for decades, and deeply embedded in the evangelical culture. It is a strong, mutually beneficial social partnership.
Enter Donald Trump, the charismatic salesman and reality-show host extraordinaire. Trump was the perfect social parasite for the evangelical world. Handsome, confident, brash, charismatic, even fatherly, and with an instinctive ability to appeal directly to his audience’s emotions, Trump’s personality perfectly mimics the mannerisms of an evangelical preacher. He looks and sounds like a preachers and speaks with the same confidence and charisma. And just like a preacher, he fanned their fears with bad news, then offered hope and salvation.
And it worked: exit poll interviews indicate that something like 86% of evangelical voters cast their vote for Donald Trump rather than Hillary Clinton. This isn’t just an upset, it’s stunning when you consider that prior to this campaign Trump talked like an atheist, had been married three times, had highly publicized extramarital affairs, was caught on tape making crude remarks about grabbing women’s genitals, and owns gambling casinos. He was also caught lying repeatedly, a fact that even staunch Republicans acknowledge. And it’s doubly stunning because Hillary Clinton is a lifelong Methodist, married to a Baptist, has attended church all of her life, and regularly invokes God and faith in her speeches.
But Hillary Clinton didn’t know how to put on the plumage of a charismatic preacher. Donald Trump did, and as a result, the most un-Christian presidential candidate in history was able to use social parasitism to get near-total support of the conservative Christian community.
This is Your Brain on Evangelism
This leads to even deeper questions. Trump’s personality fit the preacher role, allowing him to be the cuckoo’s egg in the evangelical nest. But why wasn’t he quickly outed as a fraud? It’s as though a penguin hatched in a robin’s nest and nobody could see the difference. Why didn’t evangelicals notice, or if they did notice, why didn’t they care?
These questions require a deeper investigation in order to fully understand Trump’s appeal to evangelical Christian voters. It turns out the answers are linked to the personality traits that are shared by most evangelical Christians, traits that are not common among their more liberal counterparts, that allowed Trump to disguise himself.
Journalist Chris Mooney, author of The Republican Brain, jumped headfirst into one of the most politically-incorrect branches of psychology: politics. Is a person’s politics entirely a rational choice, or is there something hard-wired into our brains that shapes our beliefs?
“[P]eople are deathly afraid of psychology, and never more so than when it is applied to political beliefs. Political journalists, in particular, almost uniformly avoid this kind of approach. They try to remain on the surface of things … [never taking] the dangerous journey into anybody’s head.”
— Chris Mooney
Many of us have the idea that all human brains are put together more-or-less the same way, that given the same upbringing, environment, intelligence, and information, we would all reach the same conclusions. It seems somehow immoral, undemocratic, even arrogant to suggest that your opponent’s political views might be the result of how their brain is wired. Because the unspoken and unavoidable implication of such a claim is that some people’s brains are wired better than others.
Yet a huge body of evidence from political science itself, as well as psychology, neuroscience, evolution, and genetics, proves conclusively that our brains are indeed wired differently. Mooney’s books bring this down to a practical level, describing in fascinating detail how heritable biological traits are a much stronger predictor of a person’s politics than any other single factor.
We’re going to examine three psychological traits that are shared by most conservative evangelical Christians: authoritarianism, how they resolve conflicts in their beliefs, and their ability to detect lies.
Authoritarianism is the strongest single personality trait tied to political and religious conservatism. It describes a person’s general tendency to value obedience and to follow and respect strong authority.
The study of authoritarianism has a somewhat checkered past. It arose after World War II with the “F Scale,” a diagnostic questionnaire that purported to identify “fascist tendencies.” Although the F-Scale was widely criticized as politically motivated and biased, the concept of the authoritarian personality type evolved and endured in the fields of psychology and sociology.
Political scientists developed four questions that since 1994 have been widely used to identify authoritarians. The questions invite participants to express their preference for children who:
1) have respect for elders versus independence;
2) are obedient versus self-reliant;
3) have good manners versus being curious; and
4) are well behaved versus considerate.
Anyone who chooses the first of each of these pairs of traits is high on the authoritarian scale. Authoritarians tend to follow strong leaders, prefer conformity over individualism, be respectful rather than independent, and be well-mannered rather than inquisitive.
Not surprisingly, the vast majority of evangelical Christians fall strongly on the “authoritarian” end of this scale. It fits well with the basic structure of the Christian religion itself, with the God/Jesus authority figure dictating morality and demanding obedience and conformity, and it also fits with the social structure of Christian churches, in which priests and preachers have strong authority and expect obedience and good manners.
A second trait of very conservative religious people is how they handle conflicting beliefs. It turns out that liberals and conservatives take very different paths when faced with facts that contradict their political or religious beliefs.
Over sixty years ago, a Chicago housewife named Dorothy Martin predicted that a cataclysmic flood would end the world at 7:00 AM on December 21, 1954, but that “true believers” would be rescued by aliens in a flying saucer at midnight before the flood. This sounds tragically comical today, just another crazy-prophet story in a seemingly endless stream of such stories. But this one was different: her group had been infiltrated by Professor Leon Festinger and his graduate students, who were formulating a new branch of psychology that came to be known as “Cognitive Dissonance Theory” (CDT).
Festinger was studying how people manage conflicting beliefs, and he knew that Dorothy Martin’s prophecy would fail. By infiltrating the group before the apocalyptic date, he and his students were able to study the cult’s commitment to their beliefs. And it turned out Dorothy Martin’s followers were very committed indeed: they sold their houses, left spouses behind, and gave away their money.
When midnight came and went with no alien flying saucer, Martin and her followers were forced into what is now known as “cognitive dissonance,” the result of holding conflicting beliefs. They had high confidence in Martin, but Martin was plainly wrong. How did they handle this?
Through this and other studies, Festinger discovered that people handle conflicting beliefs and actions in three ways:
1) Change the belief or behavior;
2) Acquire new information that outweighs the belief; or
3) Reduce the importance of the belief.
In Dorothy Martin’s case, choice one, “change the belief,” would have required her followers to reject her and her prophecy and to admit that she was deluded or an imposter. But this was nearly impossible, because they had already invested heavily in their belief in her. Instead, they used strategies two and three:
2) Acquire new information: Just four hours after the aliens’ flying saucer failed to appear, Dorothy Martin received a new message from God via “automatic writing” informing her that the cataclysm had been called off. This new information overrode the original belief that the world would end.
3) Reduce the importance of the belief: Because God’s message superseded the original prophecy, the importance of Martin’s original prophecy (and failure) was diminished.
Martin informed her gathered followers that, “This little group, sitting all night long, had spread so much light that God had saved the world from destruction.” Problem solved.
How do evangelical Christians react when a respected religious leader says that evolution is false, the Earth is 6,000 years old, and homosexuality is a choice? These claims directly conflict with well-established scientific facts. Christians could use CDT choice one: change their beliefs by rejecting the religious leader’s opinions. But to someone with an authoritarian personality, rejecting a respected leader’s opinion is disrespectful, nonconformist, and just bad manners.
Instead, like Dorothy Martin’s followers, evangelical Christians typically use choices two and three from Festinger’s CDT theory:
2) Acquire new information: They seek out authoritatively presented information that contradicts the scientists, such as the creationism pseudo-science popularized by the likes of Ken Ham and the Answers in Genesis web site.
3) Reduce the importance of the belief: They minimize the authority of science. One of the most fundamental Christian beliefs is that faith is more powerful than reason. This was first laid down by Tertulian of Carthage, one of the most influential of the early Christians, who wrote, “Divine revelation, not reason, is the source of all truth.” This removes cognitive dissonance quite nicely by dismissing the importance of science and elevating the power of faith.
By preferring choices two and three over choice one, evangelicals are able to maintain beliefs that directly contradict well-established scientific and historical facts.
A third trait of very conservative religious people is that they have difficulty distinguishing fact from fiction. In a fascinating recent study, Corriveau, Chen, and Harris of Boston University subjected children ages 5-6 to a variety of stories, some true and some fictional, in which the fictional stories were characterized by magical or impossible events. They discovered that secular children were almost always able to identify the fictional stories, whereas their religious counterparts were not. The religious children (identified as those who attended religious schools and/or attended church regularly) had a much more difficult time realizing that fantastical or magical events couldn’t be real.
Although no similar scientific studies have been done on adults, there is plenty of evidence that the pattern endures into adulthood. Entrepreneur Jestin Coler became the godfather of the fake-news business during the 2016 election cycle. His company, Disinformation Media, employed twenty writers all through the election campaign, writing fake (but plausible) news with shocking headlines. His goal was to making money—lots of it. Although Coler wouldn’t disclose his income, he hinted that he earned several hundred thousand dollars per year by duping voters.
But here’s the fascinating part: Coler’s fake news only worked on conservatives.
“This is a right-wing issue. … [Trump’s] whole campaign was this thing of discrediting mainstream media sources, which is one of those dog whistles to his supporters. … He knew who his base was. He knew how to feed them a constant diet of this red meat.
“We’ve tried to do similar things to liberals. It just has never worked, it never takes off. You’ll get debunked within the first two comments and then the whole thing just kind of fizzles out.”
— Jestin Coler, founder of Disinformation Media
Apparently political conservatives (and by implication, religious conservatives) are either unable or unwilling to distinguish truth from fiction.
These three personality traits explain the biggest mysteries of why evangelicals supported Donald Trump. He was their preacher, their authority figure. When faced with glaring contradictions in his own statements, he simply denied making them. Liberals were incredulous, but conservatives, faced with cognitive dissonance, weren’t able to change their beliefs. Instead, they overlooked the lies or decided they weren’t important. Trump was able to lie, obviously and repeatedly, and evangelical Christians simply let it slide. An authority figure said it, and what’s more, he said his accusers were the real liars! And that was enough to either convince them, or make them believe it didn’t matter.
Burn Him! Burn Him!
We’ve now discussed how the personality traits of evangelical Christians, combined with their lifelong habit of following and admiring charismatic leaders, made them uniquely susceptible to the charms of a man like Donald Trump. But why 2016? Why didn’t someone like Trump come along sooner?
Years ago, long before I even knew Donald Trump’s name, I found myself under a dark, moonless New Mexico night sky screaming “Burn him! Burn him!” in unison with a huge, frenzied mob. Pounding drums throbbed through us, clenched fists punched the air in unison, and the raw emotions of the crowd of thousands rose and fell as though we were all a single, primitive creature. On the stage in front of us, dozens of dancers mirrored the frenzy as they swirled around Zozobra, the huge, fifty-foot-tall effigy who represented our gloom. Zozobra’s eyes flashed and rolled, he gnashed his teeth and pointed at us with his marionette arms, then roared out horrible moans and groans. As the drumming and voices reached a crescendo, a dancer stepped onto the stage with a flaming torch held high. The earsplitting chant of “Burn him! Burn him!” redoubled, the drums got even louder and faster, and Zozobra’s moans and groans became frantic as he realized his end was at hand. With a dancer’s grace, the woman put the torch to Zozobra and stepped back. Within moments, Zozobra was engulfed in flames. A visceral roar erupted from the crowd as the intense heat seared our faces and lit the night sky.
I had never experienced anything like this before. Unless you’ve personally experienced a mob, it’s not something you can easily understand. It pulls you almost irresistibly into the mob mentality in an intense, primitive way. I like the story of Zozobra because it illustrates how even a guy like me, highly trained in math, engineering, and science, can be sucked into a visceral mob experience (and enjoy it!). But it’s not just an amusing story. Evangelical Christianity has mob experiences at its core, and Donald Trump instinctively knew this.
The “mob mentality” is an effect that is well known to psychologists and widely used and abused by charismatic preachers. In the case of Zozobra, it’s all in good fun, a community tradition that lets everyone blow off steam and have a big party. But it illustrates something important: you can’t experience Zozobra on paper. Humans are profoundly social animals, and when it comes to mob events, we respond to audio/visual cues, not to written words or second-hand reports. Having read my account of Zozobra, you may be intrigued, but I can guarantee that you didn’t feel the same emotions I felt while standing in the dark in the middle of that mob.
This is well known to evangelical preachers. They require two things: direct, unfiltered access to their audience, and a mob-arousing audio-visual experience. They appeal directly and viscerally to our emotions using the power of their voices, their body language, facial expressions, and perhaps most importantly, the power of the mob mentality. As they preach, they stir up their audience, and as the audience gets excited, mob emotions spreads, amplifying the preacher’s effect until people get pulled into a deeply spiritual experience.
It’s Not Just Cat Videos and Madonna
It turns out that you don’t have to be in the same room as the preacher to experience mob emotions. The effect can travel past the actual venue—via television. Preachers started using radio in the 1920’s, but it was the rise of television in the 1950s that enabled the real business of spreading Christianity electronically. By 1957, Oral Roberts’ broadcast was available to over 80% of the possible television audience, and by the 1970s men like Billy Graham, Jimmy Swaggart, Jerry Falwell, and Pat Robertson were preaching to millions of viewers every week.
But television was controlled by a few very large corporations. The average citizen’s access to the television medium was limited to a few VHS video tapes that could be mailed to friends and family.
That all changed on Monday, February 14, 2005 when the YouTube.com domain name was registered. By the summer of 2006, YouTube was one of the fastest-growing web sites in the world, with 65,000 videos online and 100 million video views per day. For the first time, the average citizen had access to a mass-distribution channel for high-quality video. And for the first time, large corporations completely lost editorial control of what people watched. Facebook, Twitter, and every other major social-media web site quickly followed, making streaming videos ubiquitous.
This was a sea change in the history of news distribution. In addition to cat videos and entertainment, YouTube enabled the rise of democratic news reporting. Anyone could post a video of a tornado or freeway accident. And it allowed a political candidate like Donald Trump to bypass the mainstream news organizations and get direct access to the conservative evangelical movement.
Donald Trump’s videos went viral among the conservative Christian community. Their natural affinity for charismatic leaders and mob experiences of intense emotions made the evangelical community a ready-made “ecological niche” for Trump. They flocked to his campaign in record numbers. Every speech he gave was recorded and posted online for fast consumption. Every visceral moment, every audience reaction, could be felt and experienced by people sitting at their computers. Instead of a weekly sermon, they got the experience daily.
Donald Trump, the “cuckoo bird” in the evangelical nest, was able to sneak into the evangelical movement undetected. And it wasn’t into just one congregation—the internet brought him into the living rooms of virtually every evangelical Christian in the country. And Donald J. Trump, entertainer extraordinaire, was able to hijack the hearts and minds of over 80% of evangelical Christian voters.
It was the “perfect storm” of sociological factors: a huge voting bloc strongly inclined to follow an authority figure, unwilling or unable to detect falsehoods, preconditioned by charismatic preachers, and made available to Trump via the rise of direct, unedited, high-quality streaming video.
And the rest, as they say, is history. Many people voted for Trump for many reasons, but the ninety one million American who identify as evangelical Christians unquestionably pushed Donald Trump over the top to victory.
Altemeyer et al (1992). Authoritarianism, Religious Fundamentalism, Quest, and Prejudice, Bob Altemeyer and Bruce Hunsberger, The International Journal for the Psychology of Religion, Volume 2, 1992, Issue 2, pp 113-133. Published online 16 Nov 2009.
Cirriveau et al (2015). Judgments About Fact and Fiction by Children From Religious and Nonreligious Backgrounds, Kathleen H. Cirriveau, Eva E. Chen and Paul L. Harris, J. Cognitive Science, Volume 39, Issue 2, March 2015, pp i-iii, 227-456.
Article full text: http://www.bu.edu/learninglab/files/2012/05/Corriveau-Chen-Harris-in-press.pdf
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