Republicans rolled out a preview of their suicidal final act last week, gathering in Madison for a massive C19 party, spreading the virus to each other to own the libs. It’s a particularly apt gesture of self destruction, as Trump won the state in ’16 by such a tiny margin that natural mortality has already eroded it away. They have no voters to spare. Similar scenes played out in Michigan this week, as Republicans barged into the Michigan Capitol carrying assault weapons to protest measures meant to save their lives.
This follows a press conference in which the President speculated that the C19 pandemic might be cured by injections of disinfectants, or a “very powerful light.” When Dr. Birx, his medical expert, began to explain the realities behind this moronic idea, he cut her off and continued, lecturing her that “it’s a good thing to look at.” Republicans responded to this searing display of incompetence by flooding Facebook with posts about the therapeutic value of light. Dr Birx herself deflected blame to the press, sanctimoniously lecturing that “it bothers me that this is still in the news cycle.”
“Drinking the Kool Aid” is a phrase seared into our collective consciousness by a mass suicide on November 18, 1978. Almost a thousand members of Jim Jones’ “People’s Temple,” including children, drank cyanide-laced Kool Aid under their orders of their mad leader. Their bodies were left strewn about their Guyana compound, rotting in the heat. This horror was seared into our collective memory, written into our vernacular through the now-common expression of blind allegiance, but almost half a century after this incident, we seem no closer to absorbing its lessons.
Over the past two decades, as the GOP absorbed a wave of Dixiecrat refugees from the Democratic Party, Republicans have waged an escalating war on reality in the service of a Lost Cause ideology, utterly at odds with facts, reason, and the nation’s best interests. For most of this time Republicans have been able to limit the damage from their actions to their enemies, but as one addled Trump supporter mused in an interview last year, “He’s [Trump] not hurting the people he needs to be.” As happens in any cult, realities carefully ignored eventually exact a toll so severe that the members must bear it personally, all the way to death. C19 is bringing the Kool Aid to Trump country and they love the flavor.
Real American John McDaniel took to social media on March 15 to rant about the Ohio Governor’s stay at home order, calling it “bullshit,” “paranoid,” and “a political ploy.” He became Marion County’s first COVID-19 fatality on April 15.
Joe Joyce got his information about COVID-19 from Fox News, where he learned it was at best being blown out of proportion, at worst, a hoax ginned up as stealth impeachment. Against the strenuous warnings of his son, Joyce decided to take a cruise in Spain as that country was entering the worst of its outbreak. He died of COVID-19 on April 9.
Trump supporter, Karen Kolb Sehlke, had the Fox-inspired wisdom to see COVID-19 for the Democratic hoax that it is. In a lengthy, March 14 Facebook rant she carefully and thoughtfully regurgitated the Fox News talking points. She finished with this stirring call, Kool Aid dripping from her frothy lips, explaining:
You don’t need hand sanitizer, toilet paper, and Lysol. You need common sense, a sense of direction, faith, a will to fight, and of course guns!
Now wash your hands and live the life they don’t want you to have!
The guns didn’t save her. That was her final Facebook post. She died from the Democratic hoax on April 2. It wasn’t pretty. As with many patients, the disease caused kidney failure and subsequent septic shock, as documented in an earlier version of her GoFundMe, set up to help defray medical expenses.
Why do people destroy themselves to defend their investment in a lie? We need to understand this dynamic to know how to fight it, and how to prevent these cultists from taking us down with them. Perhaps most importantly, we need to understand this phenomenon to avoid succumbing to it ourselves.
Confronted with displays of cult loyalty we commonly resort to some mistaken conclusions, dismissing these people as crazy or stupid. These assumptions are born of the same logic that leads people to blame the sick for their illness, a desire to manufacture some difference between them and us, something that would leave us immune to their condition. We want to believe that there’s something uniquely broken, inferior, or even subhuman about the people in those pathetically sad images of self-destruction. Those dismissive characterizations of cultists aren’t just false, they are dangerous.
Cultists are showing us something we desperately need to understand about human reasoning. None of us are as rational or logical as we want to believe. A model of political life predicted on the notion that humans are inherently rational is crumbling before our eyes while we refuse to acknowledge its vulnerabilities. These Kool Aid drinkers are not aliens, they are sending us a valuable warning about the limits of our own rationality and its implications for democracy.
We are not inherently rational creatures. By nature, our model of reality is not a product of careful individual inquiry, formed through a critical review of all available data, but a social construct heavily influenced by our preferences, hopes, and the collective will of our tribe. Human beings are capable of independent, rational thought premised on a body of constantly moving data, just like we are capable of juggling or riding a bike. Absent special training, critical, data-centered reasoning is so effortful, difficult and unnatural that any political order premised on the rationality of the average man will be consistently unstable.
Even with careful training over years, a life of critical thought remains a challenging endeavor, costly to maintain and not suited to every circumstance. Riding a bike sounds easy once you’ve learned to do it but try dialing your phone or eating a sandwich while peddling and you’ll see the challenge. Careful, critical reasoning is resource-expensive. None of us engage in it as much as we think we do.
By our nature we reason through shorthand. Our decisions are mostly collective rather than individual. And thanks to that emphasis on collective or tribal thinking, we naturally prioritize loyalty and consensus over accuracy or optimal outcomes in our decisions. Given the right set of conditions, this combination of decision-making preferences can lead us down a destructive funnel toward cult logic and authoritarianism.
No one reasons from first principles consistently, across every aspect of their lives. If we did, it would take us a week to complete every trip to the grocery store as we poured over the merits and competitive value of each different brand of soap. We all rely on shortcuts to make decisions. It’s not because we’re dumb or even lazy. No one has the mental hardware necessary to reprocess a universe of data to reevaluate each and every new choice. Our tendency to rely on habits, loyalties and patterns to make decisions is, in most cases, a strength that enables us to make minimally competent decisions, faster. We adapted these patterns of reasoning because for tens of thousands of years they produced superior outcomes.
When, as in politics, our choices and their consequences involve other people we tend to reason collectively rather than individually, emphasizing consensus over accuracy. In part, this is a strength born of our social and communication skills. I don’t need to know how to do everything necessary for my survival. I can trust someone else to do the farming, another to be a doctor, another still to operate heavy machinery or fly an airplane, while still benefiting from all of their skills. We evolved to incorporate circles of trust into our reasoning process. In an age before science, complex math or portable data, being in harmony with our clan was far more important to our survival than arriving at accurate factual conclusions. In most cases, almost all of us prefer being in harmony with our tribe over being right about questions of fact.
I might think I’m too clever or independent to fall for the lure of a cult, but I’m made of the same gray matter as everyone else, vulnerable to same logical shortcuts that produce cultists and Nazis. Consider this example, how does it feel emotionally to discover that you were wrong about something, even something relatively unimportant? Logically, I should welcome this, just like I’d welcome someone who found a valuable object I’d lost, but that’s not our primary, base response.
We become emotionally invested in our model of reality. Our first response to a challenge to that model, even if that challenge might improve that model’s accuracy, is some blend of fear and anger. Cognitive dissonance is the psychological strain we experience when new information creates a conflict with our established model of reality. As with juggling and riding a bike, we can train ourselves to sustain a degree of permanent dissonance, a condition absolutely essential to survival in a big complex world of constantly changing conditions. But it sustaining this dissonance never ceases to be a strain. The more complex and sophisticated my model of reality becomes, the more uncertainty, conflict and unresolved doubt will be constantly churning within that model. The more complex the living conditions for a group of people, the greater the aggregate burden of cognitive dissonance, and the larger the fraction of the population surviving at the edge of their wits.
If you feel invested in Joe Biden’s campaign for President, what was your immediate emotional response to news that someone had accused him of sexual assault? Resist the urge to recount potential weaknesses or inconsistencies in that report, and focus instead on your initial emotional response, prior to learning any of the details. Did you welcome an opportunity to update your model of reality to something that might be more accurate, or did you feel a powerful urge to shoot the messenger? How do you think you would have responded if the claimant were more credible, and stronger supporting evidence was available? Honestly.
We are not coldly rational creatures. Even with years of education and training, we feel an urge to defend our imagined reality against a relentless tide of cognitive dissonance. By our innate evolutionary programming, we want mental peace and harmony with our peers more than we want accuracy.
Our resistance to cognitive dissonance can be weaponized by making us feel threatened as a group. One of the core tactics of a cult leader is to redefine “us” for their followers, and frame that “us” as embattled by a menacing “them.” Those who possess the special qualities to see the reality defined by the cult leader are redefined as chosen elites. They are trained to tune out dissonant data emerging from the “them” of the uninitiated. If the leader is sufficiently embattled, they might call on this special band of initiates to sacrifice themselves, sometimes in nothing more significant than a display of idealized loyalty, to inspire and discipline the ranks.
When an ambitious leader identifies an already existing set of fears that can assemble a group of people into a frightened unit, he can play those fears like music. Our collection of cognitive glitches, of little real concern under normal daily circumstances, can be composed into a mental orchestra, moving those with ears properly tuned to dance. No one is naturally immune to this psychology, just like no one is born with an immunity to heart attacks or diabetes, but certain conditions, experiences and attitudes leave people more vulnerable to manipulation.
For Republicans in our time, that cult loyalty was assembled out of an already embedded American pathology of race. Since Southern Democrats completed their long migration into the Republican Party, the GOP has become the bastion of whites worried about the erosion of their racial dominance and patriarchal power. Trump convinced them to set aside all reason, morality and ethics for a promise to restore their lost privileges. He gave them an enemy. Redefined them as special elites, the initiated capable of seeing his special reality. He played on their racial fears and their “flyover country” insecurities, teaching them to hate all sources of empirical or objective facts, with a special loathing for journalists. He began as their prophet and has become their god.
White people, particularly men, and particularly those over a certain age, hear Trump’s music like the march of their gods. Of course, people carry marginally more resistance to this tune the more their education, exposure and global experience, but Trump is tapping an emotional matrix wired deep into the psychology of white Americans. His cultists will die for him. They are already dying for him. And if they will die for him, you can be sure they will kill for him as well. For Republicans, no source of information be trusted unless it has passed a test of loyalty to Trump.
The greater the emotional investment in an idea, the more that person will resist dissonant facts. When someone considers an idea central to their personal identity, then that resistance becomes nearly absolute. There are no casual Trump supporters. Support for Trump is not a vote, it’s a membership. As damage from their disastrous decisions swells around them, they will lash out with greater force. Resurrect one of the dead Trumptists after their failed bout with C19 and they’d probably keep spouting Fox News talking points. Your odds of persuading a Trump supporter today with facts or reason are about equal to your chances of stopping someone from drinking the Kool Aid at Jonestown.
Why does this matter for those us outside the cult? Once this dynamic takes shape on such a large scale as national politics, it extends like a hydra across everything. Republicans have created an environment in which half of our political system functions as a death cult. What does that mean for the other half?
Republicans’ descent into a cult dynamic creates the conditions necessary to cultify the rest of the political culture. Democrats are now an embattled “us” locked in an existential clash against a “them.” A Republican cult won’t be defeated by persuasion or outreach, but in a bare-knuckled battle of power against power. All the space that would once be available for nuanced debate and healthy public discourse is under fire. When a Tara Reade arrives on this scene confronting Democrats with their own #MeToo logic, she is greeted as a traitor or a heretic before the first elements of her story emerge. Reade’s story carries relatively little credibility, but what are we being trained to dismiss? In an environment like this, where the temptation to cult logic runs so strong, we have to ask ourselves: what wouldn’t we let Biden get away with to rescue us from Trump?
It is not necessary to become a cult to defeat a cult, but it certainly makes things easier. How much of our hope for a better world will we bargain away just to avoid a worse world?
We are all made of the same stuff. I may not be moved by appeals to restore a lost racist paradise, but the mental logic of us versus them still tugs at me when it’s tuned to the right pitch. Those doughy white Republicans dressed up for racist Halloween with their camo and mechanical penises look ridiculous, but they should serve as a warning. There, but for the grace of God...
Republicans are communicating their willingness to kill themselves and us for their cult leader. We have to destroy their power by any means necessary, but we do not have to sacrifice reason for survival. We do not have to manufacture our own gods to defeat the cult gods of our enemy. We do not have to permit our leaders to loot or rob to defeat the Republican griftocracy. We do not have to become a cult to defeat a cult. That temptation will come. There is nothing special about us that makes us immune to the disease of cult logic infecting Republicans, beyond our willingness to sustain the cognitive dissonance that defeats it. Fighting a cult by becoming a cult might be an easier way to win, but what would we be winning?
From The New Yorker: Why Facts Don’t Change Our Minds
Book: The Enigma of Reason
From Vox: How politics makes us stupid
From Yale Law School: The Cultural Cognition Project
From The Journal of Empirical Legal Studies: Explaining the White Male Effect in Risk Perception
Book: Thinking, Fast and Slow
From The Los Angeles Times: George Lakoff’s theory on political framing
From Wait, but Why: A series on the interplay between our thought patterns and society.