By Timothy Kuhner
Trump’s refusal to concede the 2020 election makes this the perfect time to share a few pages from my new book, Tyranny of Greed.
Looking back at all Trump’s outrages against democracy, many of us desperately hoped the election would bring closure. And if you just look at the level of voter turnout (66%) and Biden’s record-setting number of votes (80.1 million and counting), you might be tempted to think we got it. Of course the nation condemned Trump’s racism, sexism, xenophobia, cruelty, authoritarianism, corruption, and reckless mismanagement of the pandemic!
Except that’s not what happened. Trump’s 73.9 million votes (and counting) amount to the greatest support ever achieved by an incumbent President running for re-election. Even more surprisingly, the majority of Republican voters believe the election was rigged and that Trump is the rightful winner. In other words, we still have a lot to process.
And that’s what this excerpt is about: Why is Trump’s presidency so hard to process? Now that he is attempting to overthrow the 2020 election, that question is more vital than ever. The answer I give, below, points to the importance of restoring democracy during Biden’s presidency—not just because it’s the right thing to do politically, but because our psychological health depends on it.
“God showed up.”[i] That’s Christian evangelist Franklin Graham explaining the 2016 election. At Trump’s inauguration, Graham quoted the New Testament on how we must make “petitions, prayers, intercession and thanksgiving…for kings and all those in authority.” “Kings” was the key word in that quotation, a reference to a conservative strategy that began on the campaign trail.
Once Trump’s adultery and misogynistic comments became too obvious to ignore, GOP megadonor Foster Friess had a big idea. He could compare Trump to King David. After all, the second King of ancient Israel also kept concubines and committed adultery. Friess wrote a letter reminding his supporters that “all throughout history, God has harnessed imperfect people to fulfil his perfect will.”[ii] Others—including Jerry Falwell, Sean Hannity and Secretary of Energy Rick Perry—worked to strengthen the narrative. God had chosen Trump to bring about His will.[iii] A film-based revelation of this truth, The Trump Prophecy, dramatized the story for mass consumption. In 2019, Trump indicated that it was all true. Gratefully retweeting Franklin Graham’s latest message, Trump broadcasted the idea that he, the forty-fifth President, is comparable to “the King of Israel” and “the second coming of God.”[iv]
But even if you believe in the possibility of divine intervention in politics, the gravity of Trump’s imperfections renders these claims preposterous. Just consider:
- his peculiar gift for insult, ridicule, and the cultivation of hatred;
- his singularly vile comments about women;
- the sex money and hush money he’s paid;
- his incessant flaunting of conspicuous wealth;
- his policy of separating immigrant children from their parents and keeping them in cages;
- his racism in elevating fringe figures, such as Stephen Miller and Steve Bannon, to positions of power, and in inviting American congresswomen of color to “go back to their countries;”
- his support for violence against protesters at his rallies (offering to pay the perpetrators’ legal expenses);
- his unprecedented use of lies, fake news, and foreign powers to deceive voters, divide the nation, and manipulate elections;
- his dependency on foreign agents and influence peddlers—including Paul Manafort, Michael Flynn, Rudy Giuliani, Lev Parnas, and Igor Fruman;
- his camaraderie with dictators and oligarchs—including Vladimir Putin, Kim Jong-un, Narendra Modi, Recep Erdogan, and Rodrigo Duterte;
- his celebration of torture;
- his decision to pardon war criminals and suspected war criminals over the Defense Secretary and Military Secretary’s objections;
- and his eagerness to double down on fossil fuels and rescind environmental protections in spite of ongoing extinctions and impending climate chaos.
Pooling such facts, who among us can honestly conclude that Trump is God or an instrument thereof? Americans seem to have stumbled upon the Devil incarnate instead.
Just bear with me here.
Who else would revel in lawlessness, defile democracy, fraternize with racist and authoritarian leaders, and—as icing on the cake—fornicate with a porn star and a Playboy model? Who else would bring about a political apocalypse? If not the actual incarnation of Satan, Trump would at least appear to be the Antichrist—the end-of-days figure inhabited by Satan. The Old Testament predicts the coming of a persecutor who would “speak great words against the most High and wear out the saints of the most High, and think to change times and laws.” The New Testament refers to this figure as the “the man of sin” and “son of perdition,” the one who would endanger creation by deceiving people through signs and wonders.[v]
This is where a bit of national psychology comes in. On that fateful day in November of 2016, the newspapers declared “Oh My God,” “They Said It Couldn’t Happen,” “Shock and Awe,” “House of Horrors.” The book about the Trump’s embrace of the Alt Right and Steve Bannon is entitled The Devil’s Bargain. Then came Fear and The Fire and the Fury, credible inside views of Trump’s White House. In terms of violence to the rule of law, human rights, and the free press, readers can consult How Democracies Die and The Soul of America.
It’s not just subtext: American democracy was the Kingdom of Heaven, Trump is Satan, and the latter has conquered the former. I believe that’s the underlying meaning of the “stunning repudiation of the establishment” declared by the New York Times. And I believe that’s how the political opposition is processing Trump’s rise to power, deep down.
Not that many people are publicly comparing Trump to Satan. The Nation of Islam’s Louis Farrakhan did so while commemorating the Islamic Revolution in Iran. Comedian Bill Maher did so in an exchange with Ralph Reed, the head of Trump’s religious advisory board. Also, police raided the home of a protester who brought a “Trump is Satan” sign into Republican headquarters in Michigan.[vi] So, nothing too credible thus far. Nobody who wants to be taken seriously makes such claims, except for Trump himself, who called Hillary “the devil” several times on the campaign trail and received over 80% of the evangelical vote in 2016.[vii] But he’s the exception that proves the rule. Most Americans would surely prefer civility and debate on the merits.
And that just restates the issue. What should you call a person who’s the bane of civility’s existence and one of the most inflammatory figures in American history? What if, on the merits of their words and deeds, that person really does represent the repudiation of everything holy?
The result is a great deal of psychological stress, whether because of cognitive dissonance or grief. The former refers to the uncomfortable nature of holding contradictory beliefs such as these:
(A) I live in an advanced democracy and everything’s going to be OK; and
(B) the Devil was elected president and is committing savage acts against democracy.
To reduce the discomfort produced by holding these beliefs simultaneously, we might convince ourselves that American democracy was never any good to begin with (change A), limit our negative perceptions of Trump (change B), or swear off all media and political conversations (forget about A and B). These strategies amount to depression and denial, early stages of the grieving process. Anger, another stage in the process, is also commonly observed. Until such psychological reactions are processed and completed, they cause political paralysis, reactivity, and other states of disempowerment.
And that’s Trump’s strategy—spread the pandemonium far and wide, and then break out another jar from the cabinet. So much chaos and tragedy are rarely served up successively. It’s unusual, for example, for someone to lose a parent, then a sibling, and finally a friend in a series of accidents or illnesses. But it’s unheard of for such a string of tragedies to continue on and on. Probabilistically speaking, someone suffering that personal doomsday would be caught in a serial killer’s vendetta. And they would have no prospect whatsoever for completing the grieving process and moving forward with their life. Grieving processes would be stacked one upon another. Think: catatonic shock.
That’s what Trump has achieved in the political context. Human beings’ identities and sense of well-being depend on more than just friends and family members. Psychologists have documented that political systems also satisfy a number of vital needs. Democracy, the most important of these systems, consists of a large family of component parts, each of which Trump has targeted for assassination: RIP rule of law; RIP civility and debate on the merits; RIP tolerance, equality, and civil rights; RIP policy expertise; RIP public interest and faith in government; RIP alliances, international standing, and global order.
But if the human needs bound up with democracy cease to be met, does that really shake people to their core? You be the judge.
First comes the epistemic need to know and explain the world around us. Democracy provides Americans with a worldview, a set of beliefs and expectations about such essential matters as how power is acquired, exercised, and held accountable. Americans are entirely dependent upon it. It’s our mother system. At the same time, democracy is also our most beloved and besieged child. We gave birth to it through the Revolutionary War, extended it through the Civil War, defended it abroad in World War II, and guided it through the Cold War to global dominance. Also, thanks to its victory over such historical evils as monarchy, slavery, fascism, and communism, democracy has also acquired the emotional heft of a savior.
Second comes the existential need to “manage threat and to perceive a safe, reassuring environment.”[viii] Without that kind of environment, human beings sink into “helplessness and…despair.”[ix] When personal problems put that stability in doubt, people compensate by “placing faith in external systems of control.”[x] Economic, religious, and political systems provide different types of reassurances and serve as repositories for different types of faith.
Among political systems, liberal democracy has generally been the most successful at managing such perennial threats as majorities oppressing minorities, minorities oppressing majorities, one part of a government oppressing the other parts, and governments oppressing their citizens. The fall of liberal democracy equals the rise of mortal danger.
Third, social systems satisfy the relational need to “achieve shared reality” with everyone from family members and co-workers to strangers on the street.[xi] To the extent we believe in the public good, political legitimacy, and self-authorship in a community of equals, it’s there, in democracy, that we come together. Those shared values and worldviews make social interaction mutually-affirming. Since the 2016 election season, however, many people have experienced relational disruption from political tribalism. Neighbors have begun avoiding each other. Protestors on the Left have been intimidated and even murdered. Liberals and conservatives now perceive each other as enemies, because their realities no longer permit respect or even toleration of the other.
Though they tend to fly under the radar of conscious awareness, these epistemic, existential, and relational needs are required for well-being. How many of us have processed their loss—democracy’s loss—fully enough to come out the other side? They say it takes ten years to process the death of a parent. How long for the death of a nation? Whatever your answer, add a decade or two because our minds are processing the death of the nation at the hands of the political Antichrist, who just so happens to have come to power by popular demand.
 Lindsey Bever, “Franklin Graham: The media didn’t understand the ‘God-factor’ in Trump’s win,” Washington Post, November 10, 2016.
 Ryan Lovelace, “Billionaire GOP donor compares Trump to King David,” Washington Examiner, June 30, 2016.
 Jane Coaston, The “biblical” defense of Trump’s affair with Stormy Daniels, Vox.com, March 26, 2018.
 Donald J. Trump (@real DonaldTrump), August 21, 2019, https://twitter.com/realDonaldTrump/status/1164138795475881986.
 Robert E. Lerner, “Antichrist,” Encyclopedia Britannica, accessed December 10, 2019.
 Samuel Thorpe, “Farrakhan Compares Trump To Satan During Visit To Iran,” Jerusalem Post, November 5, 2018; Joe Concha, “Maher compares Trump to ‘father of lies’ Satan,” The Hill, August 5, 2017; John Agar, “Angry man with “Trump is Satan” sign: Police search home for explosives,” MLive, November 2, 2018.
 “Trump calls Clinton ‘the devil’,” BBC, August 2, 2016.
 John T. Jost et al., “System Justification: How Do We Know It’s Motivated?” in The Psychology of Justice and Legitimacy: The Ontario Symposium Volume 11, eds. D. Ramona Bobocel et al (New York, Psychology Press, 2010), 191.
 Danielle Gaucher, Aaron C. Kay and Kristin Laurin, “The Power of the Status Quo,” in Ramona et al, The Psychology of Justice and Legitimacy, 155.
 Jost et al., “System Justification,” 191.
Excerpted from Tyranny of Greed: Trump, Corruption, and the Revolution to Come by Timothy K. Kuhner, published by Stanford University Press, ©2020 by the Board of Trustees of the Leland Stanford Junior University. All Rights Reserved.
Timothy Kuhner is an Associate Professor of Law at the University of Auckland. He is an expert in constitutional law, corruption, political finance, and law & society.
Disclaimer: The views expressed in this article reflect the opinions of the author and not necessarily the views of The Big Q.