Many of us will be missing someone this Thanksgiving, another casualty in the war of attrition that is American politics today. Some won’t abide the presence of another liberal elitist and their anti-American opposition to making it great again. Others can’t stomach a meal with those they see as tearing America apart again.
There will, of course, be some outlying exceptions. A Never-Trumper whose transgressions will be overlooked so long as the conversation is steered away from impeachment. The MAGA cousin invited to the table on the understanding that Stephen Miller will not be mentioned. The progressive who promises not to leave the TV tuned to MSNBC or force others to eat avocado toast and drink goat milk.
Thus Thanksgiving tables around the country [but not waistlines] will be shrunk by the absence of those persons whose views are too deplorable (or too politically correct) to include in the rest of the family’s celebration of national gratitude. “Dangerous Charisma,” a new book by Stephanie Doucette and (the original CIA psychological profiler) Jerrold Post seeks to answer how we have come to such a sad and possibly perilous moment in our great democratic experiment.
The authors suggest that in times of societal crisis, we mere humans are drawn to charismatic leaders. One type is the healer and unifier, as in Martin Luther King or Gandhi. The other type inspires through division, scapegoating and enemy-making: the Stalins, Mussolinis and David Koreshs. In either case, the leader serves as the key that turns the lock of the follower: a match made in heaven, or hell, as the case may be.
Crises producing these sorts of leader can be very real: war, plague, profound economic upheaval. The book does not delve into how the divisive sort of leader nonetheless manages to thrive when a crisis seems lacking — say when unemployment is at a 50-year low — so we’ll offer our own theory. With a network of harmonized voices singing the same, well, fake news, the follower still manages to operate in crisis mode, as if under attack.
Example: assuming modern migrants will destroy our way of life when in fact they are no more a threat to us than Jews were to pre-World War II Germany. Dare to read the Facebook memes your missing Trump-loving friend/relative is spreading: They’ll reveal a level of fear and hatred unrecognizable in the person you knew and liked not so long ago. The book warns of the genocidal tendencies that historically flow from such merging of charisma and paranoia.
The authors describe the divisive charismatic leader as certain of everything, leaving no room for weakness or doubt. Followers ingest certitude from their leader, absorbing and then reflecting it back to the whole community in a circle of self-amplification. Per the authors, the nagging inner voice that tells the follower he or she is a failure and at fault for being such thus is finally quieted.
The leader and follower jointly purge what they otherwise find to be unacceptable internal weaknesses and imperfections. They have identified the enemy and are profoundly grateful for reassurance “he” is not “we.” True: It’s less pain to the brain to join in fighting off a perceived foreign invader than to admit we citizens may have allowed the American Dream to die. It simply hurts too much to acknowledge we leave to our children a world worse off than we found it, to confess we for too long exalted the 1% to the long-term detriment of the other 99.
The book contends it is not unusual for the follower at some point to realize the charismatic leader is not in fact a deity and to turn on that leader with as much gusto as once was applied to discipleship. But in Trump’s case, he’s had the foresight to inoculate his devotees not to trust what they see or hear and to conclude that a lost election could only occur from fraud and that a won election is but further vindication. Thus, until your friend/relative changes the channel or turns off the talk radio, chances of escape from this echo chamber are slim.
We acknowledge that forces on the left are capable of falling prey to the same sort of dangerous charisma. Consider a Nov. 9 Guardian editorial that concluded by remarking that what the “New Left is and ought to be doing” is “naming enemies, politicizing issues, creating polarizations, all to push the kind of change that can improve millions of lives.” When the day comes that a Trump of the Left arises, you justifiably will expect us to join opposing him or her.
But the current clear and present danger is on the right. From a man for whom reading aloud the diagnostic indicators of extreme narcissism might be mistaken to be an autobiography. Fundamental insecurity and lack of empathy paved over with an arrogance and aggressiveness that can have no storybook ending. Producing a fear and loathing so profound we cannot reasonably expect your disoriented but entirely free-of-doubt relative/friend to reappear at your holiday gatherings anytime soon. Nor for you to soon be invited to theirs.
In the meantime, we suggest you send a card and hope against hope that 2020 brings a greater measure of peace on earth and goodwill toward the eternal “them.”
David Gallagher is a transplanted Texan, living and working in London and tweeting at @TBoneGallagher. David Schleicher is an attorney splitting his time between Waco and D.C., blogging at ContranymTimes.com.