Trump & The Power of the Dead Man Walking

President Donald Trump addresses his supporters moments before they begin their march towards the Capitol building, where chaos would soon ensue. Photograph by Brendan Smialowski / AFP / Getty.

The recent riot at the Capitol building in D.C. left the country in awe. Tens of thousands of Trump supporters took to the streets of the nation’s capital after witnessing a fiery speech delivered by President Trump.

Mayhem soon ensued, and resulted in roughly 100 or more pro-Trump rioters breaching the Capitol building, leaving five people dead in the wake of the chaos.

The Department of Justice has made over 100 arrests and has over 200 subject case files open.

The incident in and of itself was atrocious for many obvious reasons. It was a direct attack on a key institution of American democracy — an attack fueled by the emotions of thousands of folks who believed their votes, their voices were not heard on Election Day; and those emotions originated from and were instigated by the President of the United States.

Whether or not the President’s rhetoric can be assuredly described as “incitement” is legally disputed, although the House of Representatives impeached the President, charging him with “incitement of insurrection” for “spreading false statements” about the election and challenging the Electoral College results.

How did it come to this?

Let’s take a look back at “The Blitz”, the infamous World War II German bombing of the United Kingdom that killed upwards of 43,000 civilians and injured up to 139,000 more.

Malcolm Gladwell — a staff writer for The New Yorker, author, and speaker — lays out the strategic failure of the German military in his book David & Goliath.

The British military feared for the city of London. It was agreed upon widely by the greatest military minds of Britain, including foremost military theorist Basil Liddell Hart and Winston Churchill, that if the German Air Force launched an air attack against London, then there was nothing British military forces could do to stop it. They avoided proactively setting up bomb shelters underground, fearing too many civilians would take shelter in them and never leave. So instead, they set up a number of psychiatric hospitals outside the city’s limits, reasonably assuming there would be a vast psychological impact on civilians in the event of a major German attack.

In 1940, the British government’s worst fear came true. London would endure eight months of German Air Force offense, killing tens of thousands of people and injuring tens of thousands more. Entire neighborhoods from outside the city’s limits were disintegrated.

However, the psychiatric hospitals remained empty. The people of London weren’t panicking as the British government had thought they would. In fact, as a true testament to Gladwell’s redefining perspective of the biblical story of David and Goliath, the German strategy was a failure and played directly into a psychological phenomenon that would come to strengthen, rather than to devastate, a large number of London’s survivors.

Gladwell draws from Canadian psychiatrist J.T. MacCurdy’s The Structure of Morale to explain this phenomenon. In his book, MacCurdy divides the victims of The Blitz into three categories: the killed, the near misses, and the remote misses.

The killed endured the brunt of the attack, but they’re dead, so they can’t contribute to any morale of panic. The second are near misses, which he says are folks who were direct eye-witnesses of the attack; so close that their fear was reinforced to a point that they became shocked or traumatized. It’s hard to run around and induce panic when you’re traumatized. Third, MacCurdy speaks of the remote misses. This group is where most of Gladwell’s focus lies.

The remote misses were folks who felt the bombings, heard the sirens, and saw chaos ensue. However, their fear was not exacerbated to the point of traumatizing them like in the near misses; in fact, it’s the exact opposite. Remote misses were excited by the attack and thought they were invincible.

MacCurdy writes:

“We are all of us not merely liable to fear. We are also prone to be afraid of being afraid, and the conquering of fear produces exhilaration…. When we have been afraid that we may panic in an air-raid, and, when it has happened, we have exhibited to others nothing but a calm exterior and we are now safe, the contrast between the previous apprehension and the present relief and feeling of security promotes a self-confidence that is the very father and mother of courage…”

In other words, the relief of not being killed in the face of disaster after worrying so much about that disaster induces excitement and a sense of invincibility. There’s evidence of this in multiple civilians’ diary entries as noted by Gladwell. The dead are not around to panic about being dead, and those considered near misses are too traumatized to induce panic.

Unfortunately for the Germans, there were far more remote misses than there were near misses and deaths, leaving the city of London — home of about eight million people — more emboldened than hurt as a result of the attack.

In the eyes of a Trump supporter, democracy is their London, Donald Trump is their innocent civilian, and a Joe Biden victory is their German Air Force.

Trump supporters feared they may panic in the midst of a Joe Biden victory. Later than sooner (as funny as that may sound, it is just as true), a Joe Biden victory ensued. Germany had attacked; their London had been under fire; and there was nobody alive or willing and able to induce panic among the Trump supporters who had overcome their fear…or, so the story would go under usual circumstances. Donald Trump is not the usual person.

Trump had not conceded. In other words, the innocent civilians who endured the brunt of the attack had not succumbed to its magnitude. In the face of the attack, they — the President — survived, and there was plenty to panic about. The President defied psychological precedent in the midst of political warfare. He was a dead man walking, and dead men walking have every reason to panic, meaning so do remote misses, i.e. his supporters.

His supporters were no longer remote misses; they were targets. Trump’s testimony of the pain and danger of the strike invoked panic and fear in his supporters. Had any of the Londoners endured the pain and danger of a direct strike and lived to tell the tale, the remote misses in their vicinity would had realized there was no reason to celebrate overcoming their fear of panic; in fact, now was the perfect time to start panicking.

It was time to Stop the Steal. It was time to take our country back. It was time to “fight like hell.” This was no time to celebrate; it was time to panic.

Trump’s panicking meant leveling baseless claims of a wrongly decided election to the establishment. Why wouldn’t his supporters believe him? He endured the unique experience of surviving the brunt of the attack, and he’s here to tell the story. Why wouldn’t anyone believe him?

Maybe it’s because there never really was an attack.

MacCurdy’s logic basically shows that in order for people to get over their fears, they have to face them, and once they face them and come out unscathed, they celebrate because all they were truly fearing was their reaction to the manifestation of that fear, not the event itself.

Trump understood early on to make his base fear his absence, fear his demise. Come election time, they’d hit the polls. Should he win, they’d enjoy the victory. Should they lose, however, he had another plan.

He wouldn’t back down. Trump understood MacCurdy’s basic logic: If he conceded without a fight, that would mean his base would have to face the fear of his absence. If they faced the fear of his absence, then they would eventually realize it’s not that bad and they would eventually get over it. Therefore, he couldn’t concede.

If he can’t concede, then what can he do? He could extend his supporter’s fear. It’s not that he was beat, it’s that they’re trying to beat him. Trump manufactured a war on democracy — according to all legal avenues taken by the campaign — to induce panic.

This panic broke out on social media:

That’s just the tip of the iceberg.

Trump’s claims meant democracy was at stake. It was bigger than this election. What his supporters did in response to this alleged attack on democracy would decide the integrity of democracy from here on out, according to his claims.

At some point, panic becomes unbearable, especially when you feel as though you can’t stand by. When you have the dead man walking constantly screaming in your ear about what he endured, fear and panic build, and Trump knew that. It’s the same as if a Londoner who survived a direct hit from the German bombing described what it was like to get hit: “It exploded, and then my limbs were ripped from my body, my insides ruptured and went in all directions. I felt every tear, every burn, every limb leave my body…” You get the drift; you’d start panicking.

As a result of pent up panic and fear, some supporters went rogue. They avenged the attack on their leader; the attack on them. Others were angry, but never thought about acting on it in that way.

This is where the legitimacy of Trump’s claims were truly tested. Anyone who truly believed there was a strategic, massive, premeditated attack on the voice of millions of Americans would encourage them to rip the system down. Instead, he folded.

In the face of true warfare, the president conceded. Now, the Capitol building is our London, innocent civilians are actual innocent civilians, and violent Trump supporters are our German airstrike. In other words, the rest of America became remote misses.

But will we, through our excitement of overcoming our suppression of our own panic through a true act of war, be able to band together in the face of a politically charged impeachment, a new controversial presidency, a pandemic that continues to divide Americans, and much, much more?

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Santino D'Agostino

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