Entrenched in a unique belief that democrats stole an election despite vast evidence contrary to the belief, a large mob howled its way into a sacred hall of governance and trashed it on January 6, 2021. The President of the United States stood as a primary instigator of the attempted insurrection. Blood spilled, but an assessment of moral damage still weaves through the country’s psyche.
It was a tragic display of mob behavior but left in its wake is the opportunity to take reckoning and consider ways to counter this national psychosis. This psychological phenomenon is best labeled folie a plusieurs (i.e., folly of many): a shared psychotic process.
A shared psychotic process doesn’t spontaneously combust out of the ether. A dominant person known as the “inducer” stands at the center of the phenomenon. This individual harbors delusions–fixed, false beliefs that have no basis in reality and can be quite bizarre. Consider this example: a group that is convinced a giant spaceship follows a comet to earth to transport their bodies to the “next level” or heaven.
Delusions can also be non-bizarre: situations that could happen in real life, like being followed, poisoned, deceived, conspired against, or loved from a distance. Mistaken perceptions or experiences are often involved in these non-bizarre states. However, they are either not true at all or highly distorted.
As a shared psychotic disorder forms, the delusions initially carried by the “inducer” merge into the lives of others through channels composed of powerful emotional bonds. A rigid construction of alternative reality materializes and remarkably withstands the presentation of contradicting evidence. Hurling the voice of reason and logic against those cast into the folie à plusieurs has little impact. Truth becomes irrelevant.
The Greater Context
It’s tempting to approach an understanding of the Capitol assault solely through this strange and dramatic interactional framework of Trump and his followers. A more meaningful conceptualization requires a greater appreciation of the phenomenon’s texture and pattern and its broader context.
A disgruntled public that harbors a widespread “desire for change” must exist for the emergence of the “inducer” figure. It should pose no surprise that a large, disenchanted swath of the public who believed the government had abandoned them existed well before Trump entered the political arena.
Gilens and Page’s study of historical “policy influence” data illustrated the sense of abandonment that many Americans experience. The researchers concluded that average Americans, even when represented by majoritarian interest groups, have practically zero influence in shaping public policy. However, economic elites and their business-oriented interest groups show tremendous influence in shaping public policy.
As a classic demagogue, using the rhetoric of fear-mongering and scapegoating, Trump aroused the prejudicial beliefs of this disgruntled public and manipulated their seething frustrations to achieve narcissistic gain. For four years, he hammered out lies and distortions—the last count was 30,753—through funnels of fear and loathing. Right-wing and traditional media channels alike echoed his messaging so drawn to a ratings sweep.
Along the course of this consistent hate and blame narrative, many of those who felt that America had abandoned them found purpose and identity. They found a leader who validated their grievances as well as their prejudices. Here was someone who would trash the elite establishment that had forsaken them and looked down upon them. The leap from “perpetual moderate lie world” to “big lie world” was a small jump. Millions took that small step, entering the “big lie” delusion that Trump won the election.
The final spark came on a stage at the Ellipse near the White House as Trump reiterated his inflammatory delusional beliefs of election theft to the fomenting mob. In those moments, the angry multitude followed the “inducer’s” gesture and disrupted the congressional electoral count.
And Trump transformed forever into the embodiment of these words—We’re going to walk down, and I’ll be there with you. … but he did not walk with them. The convenience of bone spurs lasts forever.
Moments before Trump ascended to the podium, the hearts of those gathered had been pumped higher by “Taking Down Names and Kicking Ass” Mo Brooks; “We’re Coming For You” Donald Jr.; and, finally, Rudy “Trial by Combat” Giuliani, all of them decorated veterans of imaginary wars.
Media, Media, Media
Often left out in this broader perspective of inducer and induced is the role of the media. To focus on media influence in the inducement of national shared psychosis requires those who hold the flashlight pointed outward to turn it around and direct it upon themselves.
Journalist Oliver Darcy recently gave a salient observation focusing on the media component within the delusional atmosphere:
“Time and time again I find myself reading stories and watching news reports that leave out crucial info about Trump’s efforts to subvert the election: That he has propaganda networks operating on his behalf. He has a handful of cable channels (Fox, OAN, Newsmax), websites (Gateway Pundit, Daily Wire, Breitbart), and talk radio hosts (Rush Limbaugh, Mark Levin, etc.) who prop up his conspiracy theories and share ’em with millions. Failing to mention that, and suggesting it is only Trump and his Republican allies lying to Americans, does a huge disservice to readers. Frankly, this propaganda machine is more powerful than the Republican lawmakers who are doing his bidding.”
The rioters on January 6th stomped through a landscape of post-truth to the Capitol steps. In such a cultural arena, emotional appeal drives public discourse. Facts take positions of secondary importance. The foundations of democracy weaken under such pressures.
Hannah Arendt, an esteemed critic of authoritarianism, emphasized “the central importance of shared reality in a functioning civil society—of a press that is free not only to publish what it wishes, but to take responsibility for telling the truth, without which democracy becomes impossible.”
In social media and profit-driven media organizations, the imperative of truth can be elusive, if not down-right unobtainable. In such a fact-weakened environment, spaceships follow comets to earth to take us to heaven.
Confronting Shared Psychosis
Primary questions remain unanswered. Can the delusional process that has descended across the American landscape be reasonably confronted and democratic foundations reaffirmed and strengthened? Psychological, sociological, and historical perspectives provide insights worth heeding.
1) It is essential to acknowledge and understand that logic and reasoning have been exiled from the altered world of folie à plusieurs. Facts and credible evidence that show the falseness of the beliefs only send the flames of defensiveness higher. Failing to appreciate the limitations of logic and facts when confronting episodes of shared psychosis will lead to greater helplessness and limit more plausible interventions.
Numerous psychological studies have demonstrated that when people’s beliefs are refuted with highly credible facts, their belief systems fail to change. Dr. Bandy Lee, a forensic psychiatrist and president of the World Mental Health Coalition, stated: “When the mind is hijacked for the benefit of the abuser, it becomes no longer a matter of presenting facts or appealing to logic…confronting the beliefs of Trump’s supporters’ will only rouse resistance.”
2) When the “inducer” is removed from the shared psychotic process, the followers’ symptoms usually lessen in degree and intensity. The deleterious feedback loops between inducer and inductees become short-circuited. A sense of relief may follow those outside the shared psychotic process who have long been battling the delusional escalations. However, in the case of a Trumpian personality, his distortions of truth may continue to echo through media infrastructures, thereby sustaining the delusional thinking.
Also, such a decrease in concern may be fragile. As Timothy Snyder asserted in his New York Times essay, The American Abyss, “The lie outlasts the liar.” He elaborated using an example of the German spectacle following the First World War. “The idea that Germany lost the First World War in 1918 because of a Jewish ‘stab in the back’ was 15 years old when Hitler came to power. How will Trump’s myth of victimhood function in American life 15 years from now? And to whose benefit?” He concluded that “America will not survive the big lie just because a liar is separated from power. It will need a thoughtful repluralization of media and a commitment to facts as a public good.”
3) It is an aberration itself to overlook the media’s role in bringing us this close to the abyss. Again, journalist Oliver Darcy illustrates this point: “Trump was only one person who took advantage of the existing instruments in place to wage information warfare on his political opponents and critics in the media. Yes, he’s now out of office. But those instruments he used to amass power remain out on the battlefield ready for another aspiring candidate to come along, pick up, and use for their own benefit.”
Not surprisingly, online misinformation about a stolen election dropped 73 percent after several social media sites suspended Trump’s and key allies’ accounts in the week following the Capitol insurrection. The data reflect upon the crucial influence tech companies potentially have to dampen the poison of lies in public discourse. However, one can presuppose that rational public discourse will continue to be vulnerable to many talk radio and cable networks’ propagandistic venues. Social media will continue to lead us through algorithms to greater outrage in its clickbait echo chambers.
To ignore the misinformation virus through the massive infrastructure of today’s media channels will be like walking on thin ice across a deep lake. Calls for massive public media literacy programs that increase our skills to differentiate between factual and fictional information should be initiated. Our country must provide a great forum of debate to whether democracy can survive in an unregulated media world in which public discourse has devolved into nonsense.
4) Probably, the most prominent and essential step to confronting the shared psychosis is to try and understand the plight of the followers, their discontent and grievances in which Trump exploited for his own psychopathological needs. Such a task confronts our own souls–our anger and desire for retaliation. To listen is not to accept what we see as wrongdoings, but to explore the possibility of pathways to reconciliation and forgiveness. To listen is not to ignore racial and ethnic prejudices that have risen to the surface or to absolve people of accountability for malicious behavior. But, to listen is to possibly understand that many of Trump’s supporters feel abandoned and forsaken by a government that quit working for the public good.
Robert Reich, shortly after the shock of the 2016 election, stated: “What has happened in America should not be seen as a victory for hatefulness over decency. It is more accurately understood as a repudiation of the American power structure.”
That repudiation must be gleaned for its meanings. In the past four decades, large corporations grew larger, major industries more concentrated while unions declined. Jobs shipped overseas while trade unions weakened. Big money flooded into politics due to Citizen’s United. The unfathomable gap of income inequality gut-punched the working class. The power and influence of the American middle class diminished. Resentments festered. Donald Trump, wielding his authoritarian demagoguery, plied open its discontent, shaped it into a delusional sphere, and pointed it toward the Capitol steps.
History illuminates the common pathways to such insurrection. Gizachew Turneh’s investigation of the causes, patterns and phases of social revolutions, corroborated the presence of a common factor–revolutions are most likely to occur when long-term socioeconomic gains are followed by sharp economic reversals. Eric Hoffer’s description of those whose status and opportunities for betterment have diminished rings well true today: The memory of better things is as fire in their veins.
Couple the economic reversal with government ineffectiveness, and the powder keg bursts at the seams. When government is seen as failing to come up with appropriate and efficient socioeconomic and political policies and reforms that would benefit the majority of the people, the risk for revolt heightens. Political scientists William Howell and Terry Moe stress that “demagogues do not feed simply upon people’s socioeconomic discontent but upon a government ineffective to address the needs of the populace.” Trump’s cries of “I alone can fix it” appealed greatly to those who felt abandoned and whose hearts pumped with the desire for change.
As Ezra Klein described in a recent New York Times article: “The American system of governance is leaving too many Americans to despair and misery, too many problems unsolved, too many people disillusioned. It is captured by corporations and paralyzed by archaic rules. It is failing, and too many Democrats treat its failures as regrettable inevitabilities rather than a true crisis.”
However, he sees glimmers of hope that Democrats have learned their lesson, citing Senator Ron Wyden, who will chair the Senate Finance Committee, “I’m going to do everything I can to bring people together, but I’m not just going to stand around and do nothing while Mitch McConnel ties everything up in knots.”
Biden’s assertion that he will move forward on his economic relief plan without Republican support gives further hope that Democrats have learned a lesson of governance. His recent remarks at the White House reflect this resolve. “Are we going to say to millions of Americans who are out of work — many out of work for six months or longer, who have been scarred by this economic and public health crisis — ‘Don’t worry, hang on, things are going to get better’. That’s the Republican answer right now. I can’t in good conscience do that. Too many people in the nation have already suffered for too long.”
The fragile pathway to reconciliation and forgiveness is to make Americans experience and see that government is doing something for them again. Against the headwind of social-media disinformation and propagandistic media channels, the challenge is apt to be herculean.
Yet, the best way to inoculate against the spread of shared psychosis and the eventual fall of democracy, is to make government work and create opportunities for people to better their lives. To not do so, the American ideal will likely be lost. In this task, we must all be participants.
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