In the wake of Donald Trump’s indictment on his alleged efforts to overturn the results of the 2020 presidential election in the United States, it’s worth remembering that democracy, as a system of government and a way of life, is the exception historically.
Peaceful transfers of power between different political parties, or even ruling families or authoritarian regimes, are also exceptional.
Trump’s rhetoric and communication tactics in his refusal to admit defeat and follow American legal and cultural norms are tools in an ongoing attempt to end the American democratic experiment. His indictments and his forthcoming trials may be another such step.
The former president’s objective is to destroy American democracy for his own benefit. Why, then, do his supporters remain so committed to him? And why does he have a significant chance to be re-elected?
The most serious Trump indictment yet – a criminal law scholar explains the charges of using ‘dishonesty, fraud and deceit’ to cling to power
Support to increase?
Trump’s hold on a specific portion of the American population will likely grow stronger with these indictments and trials — the most recent polling seems to confirm this likelihood.
Two reasons: His legal woes will nourish and strengthen his rhetorical style, and his followers will continue to be persuaded by how he makes them feel, not by reason, facts or critical thought.
Trump has long known that attention means persuasion. He has struggled since leaving office, especially after he initially lost his Twitter account, to command the attention of the news media.
That will no longer be the case. These trials will be a spectacle and Trump will be at centre stage. That stage will allow him to repeat, over and over again, his central campaign messages — the 2020 election was stolen, some Americans are being treated unfairly, he is the only genius who can make America great again.
The combination of attention and repetition is a dynamic and effective mechanism for political persuasion, and so the indictments and trials will fuel Trump’s re-election campaign.
Heroes and villains
Trump also communicates in overly simplistic and puerile narratives, constantly using ad hominem attacks, to map a world in which there are heroes and villains and dramatic tensions between so-called forces of good and forces of evil.
Special Counsel Jack Smith is now a new villain to be contrasted with Trump’s self-inflated “heroism.” This fresh chapter in Trump’s invented narrative conflict will stoke the emotions of his followers, return them to the affective sense that they continue to be treated unfairly, and, therefore, accelerate the stewing resentment that has always been at the heart of Trump’s attempts at political persuasion.
The narrative of Trump — and his followers — that he’s the victim of a corrupt liberal elite will be reinvigorated. Of course, that narrative also drives media attention, and we will all be sucked into the competing narratives around the trial. Those narratives will be more important politically than any legal arguments.
Perhaps the sadder truth is that Trump’s base will likely become more fervent believers. The attachment to Trump has always been emotional, a leveraging of deep-seated feelings of anger, disgust and fear of a changing world.
These emotions create the condition for confirmation bias, whereby Trump’s supporters will likely adhere more strongly to the narrative he tells despite the evidence in front of them. Many people have compared this kind of thinking to what happens in cults or religious sects — faith in Trump blinds reason.
What lies ahead
Trump’s ongoing legal proceedings will probably strengthen the faith of the believers; the facts will be twisted for that end. It’s unlikely that detailed, careful legal arguments will speak to or persuade Trump’s base. We have already seen Trump’s willingness to leverage this faith for violent ends. We should expect more of that.
America remains a country obsessed with Trump. His rhetoric fuels this obsession. Democracy, as it is lived and when it is practised well, can be boring and unfit for a media age with its sober forms of deliberation, compromise and slow problem-solving.
This gets us to the core of what will be on trial. Democratic institutions and systems were designed to improve collective decision-making. They were also aimed at allowing citizens to live peacefully together without resorting to violence as the means for co-ordinating action.
Smith, and many members of the Democratic party, likely believe in the legal institutions within which these trials will unfold because they are spaces for non-violent, rational deliberation. Trump wants no part of such spaces and his followers don’t trust them.
The allure of rhetoric
Trump’s rhetoric is not reasonable; it instead inflames passions and emotions for the purposes of violence. Tribalism, the cult of personality, fervour and hyperbole are intentional components of authoritarian rhetoric.
The trouble lies with how compelling and seductive authoritarian rhetoric can be. It’s been a common tool over the course of human history; rhetoric has precipitated violence and citizens often succumb to its allure.
The guardrails of democracy are supposed to sideline such dangerous rhetoric, but they cannot outlaw it outright because such restrictions on free speech would ironically be anti-democratic. Trump’s indictments and trials will simply bring that rhetoric into the spotlight once more.
This time around, American democracy, like other examples from the past, might not survive that rhetoric.