The senate has acquitted Trump, thus setting two precedents. One is that a president with adequate backing from the senate can engage in impeachable offenses in the last days of their term without consequences. While there are bad faith arguments that impeachment cannot occur when a politician is out of office, this ignores the established precedent for doing so and ignores the fact that impeachment is not solely about removal from office but can also result in a ban on holding office. The second is that a politician, with adequate backing from their party, can engage in insurrection and attempt to overthrow an election with no consequences. Both are dangerous to American democracy. Trump’s victory also impacts his followers by either reinforcing their false beliefs or encouraging their bad behavior (or both).
I recently finished teaching the ethical theory of St. Thomas Aquinas and this provided me with the inspiration to write more about Trump’s supporters. While this is not completely faithful to Aquinas’ view, people can go wrong because of two reasons. One is a failure of knowledge: they want to do good, but their beliefs are in error. The other is moral failure: they are aware they are doing wrong but do so anyway because of moral defects. A person can, of course, also have false beliefs while acting wrongly because of moral defects. As in past essays, I divide this failings into epistemic defects (errors of belief) and ethical defects (moral failures). One area where Trump’s supporters fail is in their moral assessment of Trump’s virtues.
It is normal for people to have biases in favor of those they like and see them as better than they are. In most cases, this bias stays within healthy and sane limits. For example, parents tend to see their children as better than they are, but usually this does not become delusional or pathological. Those who create images of people they like also tend to stylize and improve on the original—think of a drawing done for Valentine’s Day by a talented artist for their beloved. As such, it is normal for Trump’s supporters to be biased in his favor—to see him as better than he is. In some cases, they stay within the realms of normal hyperbole—but many seem to go far beyond that.
When asked why they support Trump, often after he has done something awful, his supporters will often praise his exceptional virtues: Trump is strong, successful, generous, honest, patriotic, and manly. Debates about moral theories and the virtues can be quite reasonable as can debates about how exceptional a person is. For example, a sane debate can be had about who is the best basketball player in history and one can compare great players such as Jordan and Kobe—this is because the claims of greatness are founded in fact. But what about in the case of Trump?
While we can certainly quibble over how to define virtues and rate them, they are generally well understood and can be assessed with a high degree of objectivity. For example, honesty is a matter of telling the truth and this can be assessed by examining how consistently someone says what they believe is true. As such, when Trump’s supporters speak of his honesty, they are making claims that are utterly false. Trump is an infamous liar. As another example, his supporters speak of his great strength and images of Trump as Rambo (and other manly figures) are quite popular with his followers. But these claims are patently untrue. Even adjusting for his age, Trump is not strong—he can barely handle a ramp. The Rambo image is especially ironic given that Trump had multiple chances to be Rambo for real by serving in Vietnam, but managed to avoid the draft by getting a doctor to diagnose him with bone spurs. This creates a logical problem for his supporters: if Trump is a strong manly Rambo, then he must have lied to avoid the draft. If he lied to avoid the draft, then he is not honest. Also, if he is a strong manly Rambo, then he would have fought in Vietnam—as John McCain did. A defender of Trump could take Trump’s view that people who sacrifice for the country are suckers and losers—but in what would Trump’s great strength and patriotism consist in on that view? As far as Trump’s moral strength, that is clearly absent—he melts like a dainty snowflake and loses control under the slightest criticism. His weakness of character is thus evident. One could, of course, grind on and on showing how Trump is nothing like what his devoted supporters claim—but that would simply prove again what is already evident and obvious.
In terms of why Trump’s devoted followers profess this view of him, there seem to be two options (getting back to Aquinas). One is that they have a failure of knowledge: they are believing what is obviously false. Given the vast gulf between the Trump envisioned by his most devoted followers (the Rambo Trump) and the reality there are some grounds for concern that they have moved beyond errors of logic and belief and into the realm of delusion. That is, they could not be helped by developing their critical faculties and revising their beliefs in the face of the available evidence—they require medical treatment to even reach a place where they can attempt to start engaging with reality. This level of delusion is something common in cults and authoritarian movements and some of Trump’s followers have reached those depths. But there is some hope for even these people—if their moral conscience is still working, then they can be rescued using the same methods that have been used to recover people from cults and authoritarian movements.
There are also Trump supporters who praise him but are aware that he is not what they say he is. That is, they are simply lying to appease him and his base. In this case, the failure is a moral one. There is still hope for these people—at least if they have some residue of a conscience left.
In addition to the false beliefs (or lies) about Trump there is also the big lie, that he won the election. Trump engaged in 62 lawsuits relating to the election and lost 61. In court, his lawyers never alleged fraud—they know that lying in court carries consequences. Republican officials also certified the results and made it clear that the election was run properly. One could go on and on about the lack of evidence for widespread fraud, grind through each lie on the part of Trump and his defenders and assesses the vast evidence in favor of a secure and accurate election. There is also the fact that Smartmatic and Dominion are suing over the damaging lies told about them. Since truth is an absolute defense against claims of slander or defamation, it is telling that even OAN and other far right “news” operations have quashed the election lies. They know that they would lose in court because their claims are both damaging and untrue. Naturally, one could spin a crazy conspiracy story about how the Democrats control all the courts and intimidated the right with their cancel powers. The problem, as I have argued before, is that to make the conspiracy theory work they must postulate a conspiracy so vast that if all those involved in it simply voted for Biden, then Biden would have won.
While it is reasonable to have concerns about election security and fairness, believing that the election was stolen would require rejecting a sea of evidence in favor of sources that lack credibility. This does explain how some of Trump’s supporters can be engaged in what is merely bad reasoning. A person who believes and relies solely on sources such as Fox, OAN, Trump and Republican politicians would be committing many errors of reasoning (such as falling victim to fallacious arguments from authority) but they need not have crossed over into the realm of delusion. After all, we all engage in bad reasoning and hold false beliefs and do so without suffering from psychological disorders.
While there is not an exact line demarking the boundary, a person can leave the realm of bad logic and false beliefs and enter the realm of psychological issues. Being a philosopher rather than a psychiatrist or psychologist, I have no expertise in those areas—but I can assess when a person has gone beyond the realm governed by philosophy (epistemology, logic, and critical thinking). To use a fictional example, imagine a student who is using fallacies in their paper and making untrue factual claims based on what they hear from a scam web site—that falls under philosophy. Now imagine a student who thinks their roommate is a lizard person Satanist who is directing Jewish space lasers with their psychic powers to destroy the evidence that proves voter fraud occurred. While their claims can be assessed using logic and critical thinking, they have clearly gone beyond merely bad logic and merely incorrect beliefs. Treatment of such conditions goes beyond philosophy and would require professional intervention of another sort.
Given that there are so many sources and (dishonest) authorities pushing Trump’s big lie, it seems likely that most of those who believe it are merely using bad logic and merely holding false beliefs. But there certainly can be those whose belief forming mechanisms are so deranged that they have legitimate psychological issues that take them outside of the concerns of philosophy and into the realm of mental health. This sort of assessment needs to be strictly confined to medical professionals—there is, after all, a terrible history of using charges of mental illness as a weapon. As such, I would never assert that any specific election denier is mentally ill.
There are obviously Trump supporters who know that Trump’s big lie is a big lie. “Liddle Marco” is an excellent example of this—he knows exactly what Trump is (he warned us about Trump when he ran against him) and exactly what Trump has done. And yet he supports Trump. With some notable exceptions, the Republican members of Congress also fall into this category: they know Trump lost and yet choose to support his lie and his insurrection. For those who believe that truth and democracy are good, these people are evil—they are lying and doing grave harm to American democracy. On a positive note, since they are not delusional in terms of the facts, it might be possible to make a moral appeal to them. But perhaps they have placed themselves beyond redemption—they will heed no calls to do what is right and will instead willing serve evil. There will be some rewards for their servitude, but there will also be costs. For example, “Liddle Marco” seems to be suffering from his choice to back the man who humiliated and degraded him. There are also rumors that Trump plans to replace “Liddle Marco” in the senate with his daughter Ivanka. While Ivanka would be worse than “Liddle Marco”, there would be cruel justice in having what he traded his soul for taken away by the man he sold it to. But shed no tears for “Liddle Marco.” He has made his demon bargain and the price must be paid.