Trump and anti-vax partisans – the deep hole of Denial

Once in a while in life, one comes across one or more individuals who have backed themselves into a corner or dug themselves into a hole over an issue or an event.

They usually defend their position by repeating the same general rhetoric over and over again, peppered with tough-sounding justification phrases like “it’s the principle!” (that, folks, is a really big Tell that you are dealing with somebody who is dug in and not coming out).

The ultimate fate for these people (which some of them actually come to embrace) is martyrdom. Martyrdom, giving up your entire life for a cause, be it personal or a group cause, removes you from the planet, but probably gets you into the history books. Ashli Babbitt, one of the January 6th insurrectionists, who was shot and fatally wounded while attempting to break into a secure area inside the Capitol building, is being re-born as a martyr as I write this.

Cults and cult followers often end up in a hole, sometimes because they collectively break laws, or because they adopt ideological positions that are incoherent, self-contradictory, or in many cases, totally at variance with reality. When a belief system does not match reality, it becomes a collection of delusions.

Right now, in the USA and the UK, there are millions of people who have adopted beliefs totally at variance with reality. Those people are trapped in a worldview that they adopted. They are also usually surrounded by people who have identical or mostly similar worldviews. Those people are their social circle, comprising friends, family, church and other sources of social and ideological validation. Those sources provide powerful and continual reinforcement.

The insistence by supporters of Donald Trump that he won the November 2020 Presidential election, for example, is being perpetuated today, 9 months after the election concluded with him losing the Electoral College to Joe Biden. The delusion that Trump won extends far beyond the insistence that he was in fact the winner. There are people out there insisting that Trump really is in charge, and that the images of President Biden are digital manipulations, and that Biden is under arrest or has been executed. To an observer who deals in facts, the people making these claims look utterly deluded, and are living somewhere between Lalaland and Cloudcuckooland.

Any attempt to engage with these people on social media is largely futile, except for the grim amusement of seeing how many ways they can contradict themselves in the course of a discussion, and how many more and more bizarre methods of rationalization they can invent. Their fundamental convictions and beliefs remain fixed, immovable, and insistent. When stressed by contrary fact, they act like 8 year olds found stealing from the cookie jar, throwing tantrums, blocking people and ultimately stalking off in a huff.

I have yet to see a single person in this group admit to making a mistake. Nor do I expect to. The reason, as explained in this article, is that people dug into a defective worldview are sustained in that worldview by their social world, which is their primary support system. They are not going to pay attention to any perceived opponents, since those people are outside of their social circle already. Nor are they going to pay much attention to experts, which explains the parallel (and often overlapping) resistance of anti-vaccine individuals to inputs from epidemiologists and medical professionals. An experienced epidemiologist on TV doesn’t stand a chance next to Fred down at church.

A parallel contributory factor to the communication failure is the infantilization of communication and interaction in the modern USA. Covid-19 has magnified this tendency by dramatically limiting social interaction opportunities, where people congregate together for extended periods of time to discuss all manner of subjects. Now, instead of talking over dinner or drinks, exploring issues, people huddle over smartphones and consume limited-bandwidth soundbites that neatly summarize a complex issue down to binary math. This good, that bad. Me good, you bad. This helps to explain why so many partisans, especially Republicans, seem to have adopted the interaction style of emotionally stunted adolescents, complete with all of the signs of Oppositional Defiance Disorder. “You’re not the boss of me!” is merely a different version of the adolescent foot-stamping cries of “Shan’t” and “You can’t make me!” that most parents get to hear at some time in their life as parents. Of course, most adolescents eventually do learn how to Adult, at least most of the time. But right now, when it comes to political issues, an awfully large number of people seem to have regressed to adolescence, or something preceding adolescence.

They are, to some extent, taking their cues from above. Donald Trump’s communication style, right now, is that of a jilted, emotionally injured adolescent. One thing I have had to come to terms with is that people spend far too much time imitating those above them, and too little time asking the question “is this person talking or acting like a dick?”

The evidence is all around us that being pro-Trump and being anti-vaccine are positions which are deluded, and dangerous for the collective welfare of society.

Desperate supporters of Trump believe that insurrection is a valid tool for redressing their electoral grievances, since Trump told them that the election system is corrupt and rigged, which therefore justifies seizing power by other means.

Anti-vaccine activists believe that harassment, intimidation and refusal are valid tactics, despite all of the visible evidence that people that refuse vaccination are harming not only themselves, but also their families and wider society. One would think that the sheer numbers of prominent people who ranted against vaccines, only to contract Covid-19 and die from its effects, would be having some impact on anti-vaccine activists. So far, the impact seems to be limited.

The big question is how long the Trump and anti-vaccine cults (when you examine their collective behavior, the parallels to religious cults are obvious) will keep up their collective and individual positions.

The likely answer is: quite some time. We are dealing with people who are in the first stage of change: Denial. The other stages, classically analyzed by psychologists, are Anger, Bargaining, Acceptance and Commitment.

This, as you will have noticed, is the classic transition that all addicts go through. And, as Nick Carmody has pointed out, the supporters of Trump show all of the signs of addicts, in that they eagerly accept and like any information that reinforces their convictions that they are right. Any and all information of that type gives them self-validation, the dopamine high of “see! I am right!”.

Right now, the rapid transition of Trump partisans to anger when their delusions are challenged tells me that many of them are in the transition from Denial to Anger. This is dangerous, since angry people tend to do stupid things as individuals, and as groups, can do terrible things to others. I would not be surprised if highly hyped individuals try to assassinate or attack politicians and government officials who are seen as supporters of Biden or supporters of authoritarian measures related to Covid-19 mitigation. There is plenty of evidence of this latent anger, in the form of activists harrassing and threatening medical professionals and people wearing masks. (Ironically, in Florida, the state government is adopting the Orwellian position that being required to wear a mask at school can be defined as harassment).


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