Psychologists have explained quite a lot about Donald Trump’s political invincibility and the unconditional allegiance of his followers. One well-supported explanation is that the president keeps his base loyal by keeping them fearful. Through persistent fear-mongering, with messages like, “Illegal immigrants are murderers and rapists,” and “Islam hates us,” Trump gets to play the role of the great protector.
But there is another important reason why Trump loyalists do not waver no matter how he behaves or what scandals come to light. For most evangelicals, it is not only fear that keeps them in line, but it is also faith. As a cognitive psychology researcher who has been writing about the science underlying Trump’s support since he began his presidential campaign, I have learned—through comments, emails, and discussion forums—that a significant portion of his supporters literally believe the president was an answer to their prayers. He is regarded as something of a messiah, sent by God to protect a Christian nation.
As obvious as this might sound to some, it is something I did not give serious consideration to initially. As someone who is not particularly religious, it did not occur to me that anyone might believe that a politician would be sent by an all-powerful supernatural deity to change the course of human history unless it was in a highly abstract or purely metaphorical sense. It is simply not built into my hardwiring to see someone that way.
That kind of thinking is precisely why dangerous cult leaders are able to rise to prominence. Nothing good can come from putting any single person on a spiritual pedestal. No one is infallible, no one is free from bias, and no one is honest all of the time, no matter how hard they may strive. This goes for Republicans, Democrats, Popes, and Dalai Lamas. Because of this fact of human nature, we must always scrutinize our leaders, and always question their decisions and motivations. What makes a good president is the ability to survive our constant scrutiny and the scrutiny of the free press. Through this process, which is critical, we can get a better sense of whether a politician is trying their best, and whether or not they generally have Americans’ best interests in mind.
I am not saying that Donald Trump does not have the bests interests of some groups of Americans in mind. I’d like to believe that he genuinely wants to make America safer from real threats, like ISIS and violent gangs (whether he has done so remains to be seen). But Trump's desire to win and amass power may be a priority above all else. He may understand that most Muslims and most immigrants are not dangerous and want to see America prosper. But he quickly found out, through trying various strategies, that fear was effective as a political tool. When he learned that, he chose to demonize innocent people and to promote false conspiracy theories like #PizzaGate, which put lives in jeopardy.
Of course, this only served to further strengthen evangelicals’ belief that he was their savior. What is ironic, but not entirely unexpected, is the fact that Trump’s behavior and positions are far more un-Christ-like than those of the average politician on either side of the aisle. The infidelities, the lack of compassion for the less fortunate, the lewd comments, the lying—these acts could be considered ungodly. But because some of his supporters believe he was an answer to their prayers, they are willing to excuse it.
When you believe that someone is truly a godsend, you can excuse anything. It all becomes “for the greater good.” And when that happens, it is a slippery slope to gross abuses of power that continuously increase in magnitude.