Can Trump’s Hard-Core Fans Be Deradicalized?

By kelly.weill@thedailybeast.com (Kelly Weill)
Photo Illustration by Sarah Rogers/The Daily Beast / Photos Getty

President Donald Trump’s rally in Greenville, North Carolina, this week made scholars of fascism sit bolt upright. Trump spouted racist conspiracy theories about Somali-American Rep. Ilhan Omar to his fans, who chanted “Send her back!”

Trump has long stoked bigoted grievances among his followers, but the Greenville rally saw him act as a more overt radicalizer than ever before. And with a portion of Trump’s fanbase now openly clamoring for the physical removal of several prominent Democrats of color, experts are questioning whether the country can repair the damage—even if Trump loses in 2020. 

“He’s always embodied these sentiments,” Zoé Samudzi, author of As Black As Resistance and a scholar studying genocide said. “But I do feel like there’s a feedback loop: he’s both animated by and responsive to the base that is eager to discipline a black Muslim immigrant woman. His long held racial animus fuels his supporters (who never need permission for their virulent racism but are emboldened by him all the same), and their enthusiasm energizes the president who in turn keeps ratcheting up his rhetoric.”

How the Ilhan Omar Marriage Smear Went From Fever Swamp to Trump

While extreme actions like the “send her back!” chant, and the presence of fringe conspiracy theorists have drawn attention to his rallies, it’s unclear how many of his supporters subscribe to those individual beliefs.

“Some people might be there because they genuinely believe in this ideology,” said Mary Beth Altier, an assistant professor at New York University specializing in radicalization. “Some may be questioning those beliefs. They’re toying with them, and they go because a friend brought them or they think it’d be cool to go. They go and get swept up. People start chanting, are you going to be the only one standing there not chanting?”

Wednesday night’s “send her back!” chant followed similar rhetoric by Trump directed at Omar and fellow lawmakers Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Ayanna Pressley and Rashida Tlaib. All four are freshman congresswomen of color, who have broken with Democratic House leadership to promote a more progressive agenda, in part over wanting to confront Trump more aggressively.

In a series of Monday tweets, Trump laid the groundwork for Wednesday’s “send her back!” chant.

“So interesting to see ‘Progressive’ Democrat Congresswomen, who originally came from countries whose governments are a complete and total catastrophe, the worst, most corrupt and inept anywhere in the world (if they even have a functioning government at all), now loudly and viciously telling the people of the United States, the greatest and most powerful Nation on earth, how our government is to be run,” Trump tweeted of the four congresswomen. “Why don’t they go back and help fix the totally broken and crime infested places from which they came. Then come back and show us how it is done. These places need your help badly, you can’t leave fast enough.”

Though the tweets were indistinguishable from white nationalist talking points (and all but one of the congresswomen were born in the U.S.), Trump’s popularity with Republicans spiked after his racist tweets, a Reuters poll this week showed. It’s possible very little will bother his most devoted fans, Janja Lalich, a professor studying cults and totalitarian leadership, said.

“There’s this intense devotion and the inability to question or criticize or doubt,” Lalich told The Daily Beast. 

“They seem to be in a state of what we call cognitive dissonance, where what they believe doesn’t match reality,” she said. “People in that state tend to cling to their beliefs over reality. They dig themselves even deeper. I think the things we see at the rallies, where people get into these cheers and adore everything he says, is very typical of what we see in run-of-the-mill cults. There’s what we might call blind obedience or blind followership.”

Trump’s rallies offer a strong sense of community for fans. That’s critical to the people chanting for Omar’s removal, said David Neiwert, author of Eliminationists: How Hate Talk Radicalized the American Right.

Neiwert defines eliminationism as a community-based mentality that promotes “purity” by demonizing its opponents and demanding they be purged from society.

“What they’re doing is participating in a community of hate. This is actually key to a lot of its power and its attraction. It’s almost ritualized,” he told The Daily Beast. “This is how hate crimes work. Hate crimes are always message crimes directed at targets who are seen as corrupting influences and bad for the community. Hate-crime perpetrators see themselves as defending their communities while doing it. There’s always a communal aspect to this. It’s very much the mob.”

Lalich offered a similar perspective.

“Having an us-versus-them mentality is what keeps people strong in their beliefs,” she said. “It creates paranoia, it creates a kind of fighting atmosphere. That kind of mentality is one we typically see. By feeding into that, the leader creates a separation. It also creates a sense of elitism and specialness.”

Trump’s rhetoric has already inspired violent attacks. During a March 2016 rally, Trump asked fans to eject protesters, calling on them to “get ‘em out of here.” Matt Heimbach, a neo-Nazi who was later instrumental in 2017’s deadly white supremacist rally in Charlotteville, complied, assaulting a black protester. In October, a Florida man sent 16 pipe bombs to politicians, news outlets, and public figures who have been critical of Trump. The bomber had attended Trump rallies and described them as “like a new found drug.” Trump’s election has coincided with a marked spike in hate crimes, and a rise in overt white supremacist action.

Trump’s attacks on the four congresswomen are an extension of the racist appeals he made to voters during his first campaign.

“The language about the congresswomen fits into nativist language around a racial purity of citizenship, and inherent to that is an idea of ethnic cleansing either through deportation policies, restrictions on entry, or violence against racialized communities,” Samudzi said. 

“The problem isn’t simply that three of the four women are US-born: the problem is the insinuation that there is an idea of birthright citizenship that could be revoked (as well as the de-naturalization of citizenship) in an attempt to actualize a vision of a white America.”

Experts who help people escape intense groups like cults or hate movements say dialogue with people outside the movement can help deradicalize adherents. 

Christian Picciolini, a former white supremacist who now helps extremists leave hate groups, said his method involves talking and identifying sources of grief and trauma that might underlay hate.

“I listen for those potholes that detoured their life's journey and then try to fill (repair) them,” he told The Daily Beast via email.

Lalich cited the case of Derek Black, the son of a prominent white nationalist, as an example of how deradicalization can sometimes works. 

“What seems to have worked is really just engaging in dialogue, individual by individual,” she said. Black renounced white supremacy after going to college and meeting people of differing viewpoints.

But some of Trump’s most die-hard fans might be removed from dissenting opinions, Altier said.

“Establishing alternative social bonds and networks where they can interact with people with other views” could help, she said, but “we’re not seeing that on social media. We’re seeing more polarization in society on both sides.”

Instead, dedicated fans might turn inward, engaging with more pro-Trump communities.

“I don’t listen to Fox, I don’t listen to CNN. I don’t listen to any of ’em,” Allicyn Steverson, a Florida teacher told HuffPost at the Wednesday rally. “I listen to Trump’s tweets and his QAnons.” (QAnon is a deranged online conspiracy theory that accuses Trump’s opponents of sexually abusing and sometimes eating children.)

A choose-your-own reality media environment might keep people from challenging their beliefs, Lalich said.

“Because people are so divided right now, those folks are mainly watching Fox and listening to Alex Jones,” she said. “They’re not going to get any kind of education that might tap into their critical thinking. That’s what works when we try to do exit intervention: we try to reawaken the person’s critical thinking and get them to see the reality of who their leader is and what their beliefs are. In this case, because this is on a national level, we’ve never quite experienced this before in our country. I think any kind of public education would be very difficult.”

Picciolini stressed that outright confrontation over bigoted beliefs might not help a person abandon them.

“Ideology is usually formed, or led to, by trauma or grievance. If we continue to confront ideology by trying to change it, we will fail,” Picciolini said. “We must instead focus on repairing the motivations that lead to hate-and they are seldom someone else's skin color or religion. Self-hatred or uncertainty lead to hate. Let's fix that.”

Altier also cautioned that some Trump supporters might act out should his rallies stop. 

“While people saying these things is awful and they may radicalize other people, if we quash their ability to say them, my research shows they may become more violent because they can’t express those grievances. It’s a catch-22,” she said.

And even if Trump leaves office, it’s no guarantee that Trumpism will end. “I think it’s only going to intensify,” Neiwert said, citing fears that Trump would not lead a peaceful transition.

It’s a concern Lalich shares. “I think he can still remain their leader. He doesn’t need to have office,” she said. 

“He’s already threatened that it’s going to be rigged and that his people will rise up. I think that’s not going to change very much because he has reawakened such hatred in this country.”

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