Narcissism, egotism, aggression, dishonesty, far-right extremism, xenophobia, and white nationalism—all elements of the growing sociocultural phenomenon known as Trumpism—are on the rise around the world, affecting citizens and politicians alike, and compromising our efforts to promote and uphold the common good. This is how to stop it…
What follows is a slightly revised, late-night train of thought on our current state of affairs. It is, in many ways, a contemplation on the complex interactions between AGENCY and COMMUNION, the two primary modes of human experience and behaviour. Many of these considerations are based on psychological research, which goes uncited this time around…
1. Imagine a relatively small-scale human society in its infancy; cooperators and coordinators, working together for the purpose of survival. (Consider the value of communion here—it has been an essential means to our evolutionary success as a species. Had we not learned to work together and “get along,” it is unlikely that we would be here today.)
2. Now consider the narcissistic, power-motivated aggressor-cheater who appears in said small-scale society. In a group of cooperators, the aggressor-cheater (who we will refer to as The Hostile) gets ahead simply because he’s the only aggressor-cheater in the group. If there were many more like him, his adaptive advantage would be lost because the cooperators would learn to better discern and restrict such behaviour at higher frequencies. (This is supported by evolutionary research, which has found that uncooperative traits tend to be maintained at low frequencies in human populations.)
3. In his transgressions against the cooperators, The Hostile evokes from them two responses (not one): (A) Some try to stop the aggressor-cheater or respond to the aggression and cheating in a disapproving way; (B) Others admire the behaviour, learn that it is sometimes effective, and follow in the cheater’s footsteps (either supporting him or imitating him, or both).
4. As The Hostile gains power through the support of Group B, he separates himself both physically and emotionally from the group as a whole. (Consider here the scientific evidence that empathy declines as income and power increase. Rich and powerful people have a tendency to become emotionally disconnected from other members of society.) It is in this physical and psychological separation from others that the cheater-turned-leader more fully realizes his power and ability to manipulate others. (Empathy and compassion are the equalizers of the Dark Traits—narcissism, psychopathy, Machiavellianism, and sadism. Without empathy and compassion, our agency has the potential to consume us; it drives us towards ever greater agency and power. This is the ‘upward’ spiral of the megalomaniac.)
5. To be precise, the self-appointed, power-driven leader manipulates others in the following ways: (i) By actual force and power (physical, emotional, social), making concerted efforts to marginalize and oppress others. This is the more easily discernable approach. (ii) By way of fear-mongering; by creating false threats (through the manipulation of truth, deceit, and fabrication) in order to shift the population (especially his followers) towards authoritarianism and conservatism (as well as nationalism), an age-old tactic that has immediate consequences and serves to further secure his authority and power. (Consider here the research demonstrating that heightened threat perception and mortality salience increase feelings of conservatism, authoritarianism, and nationalism in research participants. This is a demonstrably effective psychological strategy.)
Now, in consideration of the above processes (which I argue are relatively universal among Trump-like leaders today), let’s consider the most reasonable solution….
6. The solution to The Hostile is to not attack him directly. The solution is to provide a convincing alternative to his faithful followers—to those who believe the lies and support the hate, and to those who are scared by the false threats he has created. There is no point in going after the megalomaniac leader, especially as he gains further power. The power and authority are his air and water; they are in his blood, and he lacks the self-awareness needed to conceive of the possibility of living any other way (which is uncoincidentally a defining characteristic of both narcissists and psychopaths). His ways are far more deeply ingrained, while the followers, in contrast, are generally acting on fear and false pretense. The only reasonable option is to change those who have been misled. Target the followers, not their leader.
7. Problematically, however, the followers cannot be changed through logic or reason alone. This is important. Regardless of intellect or IQ, devotees of The Hostile will not simply be “convinced” of an alternative, as it was not logic or reason that motivated them in the first place. Let me say that again: It was not logic or reason that motivated them in the first place. The only way to change the attitudes and beliefs of the followers is by creating an independent, alternative narrative that is (a) safe, (b) equally motivating and inspiring, and (c) not accompanied by the slightest hint of criticism of the currently followed/worshiped megalomaniac Hostile. Such division in criticism, even if only slight, immediately positions the critic as the enemy (regardless of character or virtue), rather than as a potential leader or saviour. To successfully disable The Hostile, one must instead present a safe alternative with the same confidence displayed by The Hostile. (Research has suggested that making people feel safe leads them to adopt more liberal social attitudes and feel less inclined to support authoritarian leaders.) The focus must be on influencing the followers, not the followed. The followed in this scenario is unchangeable.
Remember, the power-driven megalomaniac—whether Donald Trump, Vladimir Putin, Jair Bolsonaro, or Bashar al-Asad—is powerless without his followers; powerless without those who will let themselves be led in such nefarious and indecent ways. Indeed, the only way to disable the narcissistic cheater-aggressor-leader is to leave him attention-less and unadmired. Strip him of all that he believes that he is but isn’t. And he will, eventually, crumble.
Target the followers, not their leader.
Inspire. Be genuine. Listen. Demonstrate strength in honesty and humility (because there IS great strength in honesty and humility). Do everything that The Hostile isn’t doing, but do it with strength and presence. Be humble with confidence. Make it seen. Make a viable, supportive, and secure alternative seen.