I come across this kind of thing all the time. People practically pull their hair out in frustration because they can’t convince others with facts. I do, too. I just can’t fathom why so many people in this country never fail to vote completely against their own interests.
Poor and working-class Trump voters who, even when they hear that he wants to take away their Medicare, still insist that their lives have changed for the better since he became president. Countless poor and working-class white people who vote Republican in every election, even though Republicans want nothing but to lower taxes for the wealthy and to decrease welfare services, public school funding and workers’ rights. It doesn’t matter how much they’re told that what Trump or the Republican Party in general want to do will hurt them, it doesn’t matter how much one proves it with video clips showing Trump and Republicans saying the words themselves, they refuse to believe it.
The same goes for people who stick to the idea that the world is only some ten thousand years old or that the Civil War wasn’t about slavery, despite all the evidence to the contrary and the zero evidence to support their convictions.
It doesn’t make any sense.
But then I thought, what if you look at these groups of people with these belief systems, be they political, racial, religious, historical or environmental, as having some kind of collective Stockholm Syndrome or Battered Wife Syndrome?
So I wondered if there is such a thing as collective Stockholm Syndrome. I Googled it, and sure enough, again I wasn’t the first to come up with an idea. Darn! A few wingnut sites on both ends of the political spectrum have thrown the term around before, but without seriously breaking it down, it seems.
So what is Stockholm Syndrome? (I’m not a psychologist and I lean heavily on the definitions and symptoms of Stockholm Syndrome found in the sources mentioned at the end of this post.)
Stockholm Syndrome is a psychological response wherein a captive begins to identify closely with his or her captors, as well as with their agenda and demands. Stockholm Syndrome is named after a bank robbery in Stockholm, Sweden, in 1973. The bank robbers took hostages, strapped them with dynamite, and held them for 131 hours. Upon release, the victims appeared to have formed an emotional bond with their captors and saw the police as the enemy, even though they had been afraid for their lives for five days.
Stockholm Syndrome is not a clear-cut disorder–there are still unknown variables, like why do some people get it and not others. In general, it is a complex way of coping with a scary situation. It’s a survival strategy. Many researchers believe the term can also be used to explain certain behaviors of victims of domestic abuse, concentration camps and cults.
Three characteristics are central to Stockholm syndrome that most experts agree on: 1) The bond the victims develop with the captors begins when the captors threaten to kill them, think about it, and decide not to, for now. The relief results in the victims developing positive emotional feelings for their abusers; 2) The victims defend the abusers’ motives and behavior; they develop negative feelings for the police or other authorities; they even aid the abusers and stymie efforts by the authorities to secure their release; and 3) The abusers develop positive feelings for the victims.
Several factors are needed for Stockholm Syndrome to develop: 1) The crisis situation has to last for at least several days; 2) The victims have to be in constant contact with the captors, isolated from other perspectives than those of the captors; 3) The captors must show some kindness toward the victims; and 4) The situation seems hopeless for the victims.
There are similarities between someone with Stockholm Syndrome and the victim of domestic abuse–the “battered housewife”, for instance. The abuser often threatens the victim, tells of past incidences when someone tried to get away and what happened to that person. The victim holds on to “small kindnesses”, small gestures of kindness by the abuser that they can hold on to as evidence of hope that the situation can change. A small gift, or even the absence of violence can be seen as a positive sign. The victim also empathizes with the abuser when he opens up about his past, his violent upbringing, for example.
The abuser uses different ways to isolate the victim from the perspective of others–outsiders who might be able to help. If the abuser reacts angrily to contact with others, the victim will avoid it, even show hostility toward the others, see them as causing trouble. The victim becomes so isolated from other perspectives that she loses her sense of identity and feels the abuse is her fault, not the abuser’s. She take on the perspective of the abuser.
The abuser makes the victim feel she couldn’t survive on her own, that she needs the abuser’s help, that she is useless. Threats of financial hardship or separation from the children are often used in a domestic situation, for instance. On the other hand, someone who feels insecure, overwhelmed by change in her life, may seek out a controlling person who simplifies life for her by making all the decisions and telling her what to do.
Both Stockholm Syndrome and domestic abuse are aided by cognitive dissonance: when facts and opinion don’t make sense together, it makes us feel uncomfortable. The victim, doing whatever it takes to survive, bends the facts to suit her, or dismisses them as a conspiracy theory or lies intended to manipulate her. The more one has invested in an opinion that is contradicted by facts, the stronger the bending and dismissing those facts becomes, to the point of complete irrationality. The more potentially helpful others point out the abuse, the more defensive the victim becomes. The more dysfunctional a situation, the more dysfunctional the adaptation to survive.
So back to Trump voters and the like. Let’s break it down.
There has to be existential fear. Trump is nothing if not a fear monger. The Mescans are gonna git ya, the blacks are gonna git ya, women are gonna git ya, the Muslims are gonna git ya, hell, all immigrants are gonna git ya, as well as LGBTQ folks and anyone able to speak more than one language. They’re gonna git ya one way or another. They’re going to bring drugs and rape your beautiful, innocent young daughters, or they’re terrorists, or they’re distracting the army, or they’re taking your manly-man jobs–you name it, if they’re not red-blooded white American males, they’re a threat!
Republicans in general have used communism and socialism as the bogey man, as well as all the above. Religion, of course, uses Hell, Southern pride folks use the fear of the white race disappearing, and climate change deniers use the fear of astronomical (but mythical) job losses.
There has to be isolation from other perspectives. Thank you, Fox News, and all the right-wing radio talk shows. With the hundreds of television and radio channels and the Internet, people are definitely isolated from other perspectives. Trump took it a step further from the beginning, by slamming the mainstream media as being fake, the most disgusting human beings, etc. He uses every opportunity to delegitimize fact-based journalism, the goal, of course, being that his supporters won’t believe a word the regular media says.
Religious cults often physically isolate their members from the rest of the world, but in America, even lots of mainstream religious leaders tell their followers that atheists have no morals, so stay away from them. Children are not taught in history books about the real reasons for the Civil War, which is also a form of isolation. And the climate change deniers also have the right-wing media confirming their beliefs.
The situation has to seem hopeless. Throughout his campaign, Trump said of everything that it was a disaster. The economy was a disaster, NAFTA was a disaster, the United Nations was a disaster, NATO was a disaster, the inner cities were a disaster, the military was a disaster, the situation in the Middle East was a disaster, Obamacare was a disaster, the Veterans Administration was a disaster. the immigration policy was a disaster, etc. It was all one big, hopelessly hopeless disaster. And only HE could fix it.
Republicans always paint the situation as hopeless if left up to Democrats: people are on welfare all their lives and using up your taxes, your jobs are disappearing oversees because of unions, etc. Only lowering taxes for corporations and taking away welfare will help get you a job, and get you better jobs in the long run. Religion: well Christianity has the Book of Revelations–enough said. If you’re in a cult, you’re an actual prisoner–you can’t get out, or if you do, you’ll lose your friends and family. If Southerners were to admit that the Civil War was fought over the right to own slaves, then the South couldn’t be proud of its Civil War heritage anymore, and their entire identity would be pulled out from under them and the blacks would take over…
In all these cases, the “victim” defends the abuser’s motives and behavior. As Trump himself said–and it seems to be true at this point–he could shoot someone on Fifth Avenue and he wouldn’t lose any votes. The list of things Trump has said and done that Republicans would have had a cow over if anyone else had said or done them is many pages long, yet none of it matters. It’s fascinating to see how Fox and Friends and Sean Hannity defend every new Trump low. Why do people fall for it? Collective Stockholm Syndrome and a collective form of Battered Wife Syndrome would certainly explain a lot.
The Republican Party has always made the Democrats out to be communists and socialists, scaring voters with the specter of European socialism if we were to adopt single-payer health insurance, for instance. They have always held up the narrative that Americans can be rich if they really want it; they just have to pull themselves up by the bootstraps, and the poor, even though they live the very contradiction to that American Dream, defend it, are proud of it. Conservatives have also always made poor whites feel superior to blacks, to prevent a strong combined workers’ force. Religious cult followers take whatever the leaders mete out because they are in direct communication with God. White supremacists, many of whom are poor, will take what comes their way, as long as they can still feel superior to blacks. And climate change deniers defend the oil companies because they are the “job creators”.
Sometimes (though this is no excuse for the abuser) the victim of domestic abuse is attracted to a dominant mate because she feels insecure, afraid and unable to handle life herself, often because she came up through a family with an abusive parent. Someone who will “take care of her” and simplify things with clear rules might look attractive. As for American society as a whole, it is also hopelessly unaware of its own historical, geographical, and cultural place in the world, and schools don’t teach analytical thinking, which makes self-education later in life all but impossible for many, as well.
Trump keeps it nice and simple. He says what his voters think. And he doesn’t use big words to explain intended policies. Everything is a disaster and only he can fix it–his voters can get behind that. They put the same blind trust in him as president that an insecure person might put in a domineering mate. And if that mate turns out to be abusive, well, that’s a disappointment, but not a terribly big surprise; it’s what’s familiar, it’s maybe all she knows.
The abuser feels affection for the victim. Well, Trump certainly loves his voters, on one level. “I love the poorly educated”, he said on the campaign trail. He loved the adoration and he still craves it. This is why he still has election campaign rallies, even though he won. He started a fund for his re-election campaign right after his inauguration, in part so he could continue having election rallies. He despises his voters, he takes them for fools, as evidenced by the fact that he told Peña Nieto in their first president-to-president phone call that of course he knows Mexico isn’t going to pay for the wall, but could he please stop saying that?
Sure, during the election Trump needed their votes, but now he needs to get legislation passed and for that he needs to work with Congress, but still he spends his time–his non-golfing time–at election rallies with his base. It doesn’t make rational sense. But Trump needs his chumps. Without his base, he’s just a pathetic, lost man-baby.
The abuser shows small kindnesses to gain the victim’s affection. Trump made a show of preventing several thousand jobs at Carrier from going to Mexico just by talking to the company when he was president-elect. Most of those jobs left later, anyway, and the town was basically screwed out of tax revenue that was used to talk the company into keeping some of the jobs a little longer. But it looked good to Trump supporters; it gave them hope. The mainstream media pointed out how it was an empty gesture, but by then Trump supporters refused to believe anything the mainstream media said.
This is where cognitive dissonance comes in. The more and the longer someone is invested in a person, a relationship, a religion, any belief system, the more that person will deny facts that contradict that belief system. To do otherwise would be to have the rug pulled out from under their entire existence. They can only survive in their situation through painstakingly constructed rationalizations, and they will cling to them for dear life. Literally.
This would explain why Trump supporters refuse to believe the mainstream media so completely and so aggressively, why religious fundamentalists refuse to accept science, and why American Southerners refuse to accept that the Civil War was fought to keep slavery, even when someone shows them the actual documents that declare why the states wanted to secede. The more dysfunctional the situation is, the more dysfunctional the adaptation is that’s needed to survive within it, to the point where the victim is completely irrational toward the facts and toward people who want to help.
So maybe throwing facts at Trump supporters or at Southerners who want to be proud of their Civil War heritage is completely useless. They’re not rational when it comes to these issues. They will have to come around to reality in their own good time, if they ever do. A lot of them probably won’t.
Just a thought.
- Joseph M. Carver, MD. http://counsellingresource.com/therapy/self-help/stockholm/