Trump, Terrorism, and Social Media

Photo by Tyler Merbler at Wikimedia Commons

It’s been five days since a mob took the United States Congress hostage in a violent act of insurrection. And Donald Trump is still president.

Elected Republicans have shown their fealty to the mob by refusing to condemn Trump. They would rather tolerate violence against their own selves than suffer a primary challenge, apparently.

How did we get to a place where so many people are so in thrall to one man?

I’ve been reading up on parasocial interactions and relationships to try and understand the hold he has over them. That’s the fancy psychological term for when a person feels like they’re in a relationship with a media figure. 

For example, I’m parasocially convinced that Chrissy Teigen and I are best friends because I love her tweets so much. That’s why I (and many others) felt real grief when she lost her pregnancy last year. We were taking on the emotions of someone who feels like a friend, despite the relationship being entirely one-sided. 

Parasocial relationships are why old ladies stand up in church to ask for prayers for soap opera characters. The consistent exposure to personalities and characters begins to seem like real interactions—the lines between reality and media blur. 

Social media creates even more intimacy because it breaks the fourth wall, so to speak. A tweet or a Facebook post feels like a direct appeal. You think the poster is talking to you specifically. If the person responds to comments, it builds the sense that the whole interaction is a real conversation and you are part of it.

I think Trump has fostered this type of relationship with his base. They have a parasocial attachment to him as a person. They feel that he is their friend, the leader of their social group. And like my sadness when Chrissy Teigen was sad, they feel what he feels. Trump uses the direct appeal of social media to convey his feelings and draw his supporters into them. The more they respond, the more he responds to their response. It’s a feedback loop of co-dependent rage. 

In a way, the Trump base’s anger is not really their anger; it’s HIS anger. They want to protect their friend from the forces he fears and hates. They are trying to avenge wrongs against Donald Trump, the individual, because he directly told them, via social media, to do so. Maybe he didn’t specify tactics, but he gave them the mission in direct and unambiguous terms. 

That is why the swift and total withdrawal of his social media access is important.

By cutting off his direct access to his base, the base loses that false intimacy they feel toward him. They lose the dopamine charge they get when he “talks” to them. Their exposure to him drops dramatically. He can no longer continue the conversation they have been having all these years.

Perversely, this is like quitting a lousy relationship cold turkey. In the break-up of an actual relationship, the first weeks are a detox period where you miss the person and question all your choices. But over time, habits of being with that person weaken and their influences over you weakens at the same time.

In an ideal world, this will be true for the people in parasocial thrall to Trump. After a few weeks of withdrawal, they may find their attachment to him has diminished. If that happens, they might be less likely to do his bidding. Unless a compelling surrogate appears to fill the hole left by Trump, the fervor may start to fade, at least among most of his base.

I expect that there will be significant unrest in the next few months. Most of it will be similar to the kind of events we saw last summer at the height of the BLM tensions. Those are the events that I think will sputter out without Trump’s direct reach to his supporters.

I also believe there will be radical cells intent on insurrection. I think we will see domestic terrorism continue for the remainder of Joe Biden’s presidency, if not longer. When the Trump team said they were releasing the Kraken, they weren’t lying. They just didn’t mention that the Kraken was a group of angry white paramilitary groups willing to kill for their cause.

What can any of us do now? I don’t know. I’m sorry I don’t have answers or even ideas right now.

Stay safe. Wear a mask. Take care of yourself.

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