The Republican Crazy Train: The Emotional Appeal of Right-Wing Populism and the MAGA Cult

Written by Robert Warden

In trying to understand the rise of right-wing populism in the United States and elsewhere, I have ultimately felt compelled to focus rather exclusively on emotional processes, to explain why “have-nots” vote for right-wing populist “haves.”
To this end, I did a google search of the term “The Emotional Appeal of Right-Wing Populism,” which is exactly the first part of the title of this post. It is unusual to find a search result which virtually matches the search wording, but in this case, it happened, with the exception that the authors used the word “roots” instead of “appeal,” and omitted the word “the.”
(Please see below for link– OEN)
The authors of this article, Mikko Salmela and Cristian von Scheve, are from Finland and Germany, respectively, and the article discusses right-wing populism in Europe only. However, their discussion of this phenomena’s emotional appeal may apply to any place in the world. Salmela and von Scheve identify two emotional factors which lead to right-wing populism.
The first mechanism basically is a matter of fear and insecurity resulting in projection (although the authors call it “repressed shame”) into, “anger, resentment and hatred towards perceived enemies,” who may come in many forms, including the political opposition, demographic subgroups, “elites,” or the media. The second mechanism is seeking self-esteem and meaning from stable aspects of identity such as “nationality, ethnicity, religion, language and traditional gender roles.” Both of these factors can clearly be seen as crucial to whatever appeal Donald Trump has had to the Republican base, almost as if Trump used a playbook to rile up these kinds of emotions in potential supporters. In fact, he probably did have a sort of informal playbook of this sort, developed through many years of learning how to manipulate the emotions of other people (as con-people routinely do). This, he combined with what he learned about how to gain media attention by “speaking his mind,” and “saying outrageous things,” which was made possible by his inherited wealth and corresponding access to the media. (Note: You might only be able to see the article abstract, which is fine. I saw the entire article elsewhere and ended up skimming it and not finding much other pertinent information in it in addition to the abstract. It is a long review article, which is theoretical in nature, but cites many other articles, some of which are research articles, but others cited are also theoretical.)

However, being the self-obsessed, delusional narcissist that he is, I don’t think that Donald Trump has ever had the global awareness level needed to create this scenario as an intentional strategy. Rather, I think it was an incidental product of his personal style of trying to extract what he wants from other people, serendipitously resulting in political popularity for him among the Republican base.

Furthermore, there is a particular aspect to “Trumpism,” typically referred to as MAGA, which is not directly addressed in the cited article. Perhaps it is a unique strain of right-wing populism, native in particular to the United States, although I do think it shares much in common with right-wing populism elsewhere. In particular, I am referring to the egotistical nature of right-wing populism, which in my observation has been occurring since at least the time of Ronald Reagan’s initial, successful candidacy for the presidency in 1980. This is related to the second factor mentioned by Salmela and von Shcve, the bolstering of self-esteem through identity processes, and perhaps they would argue that it is the same thing, but what we see in the United States, specifically relates to the idea of “American exceptionalism” (which this post is addressing, and will be further addressed in a subsequent post). Right-wing populist politicians in the United States, such as Reagan and Trump (both of whom were celebrities and political novices before seeking the political spotlight), use specific language designed to make people not only feel good about themselves for being “a true American,” but actually use dog-whistle (or sometimes more direct language in the case of Trump) to make their base feel superior to other people – morally, culturally, and intellectually, in addition to racially, religiously, or any other convenient categorization which may be used to divide people.

The underlying message of American right-wing populists, is that “We are the true Americans, who are superior and will restore America to its former greatness – which has been ruined by those who are not “real Americans,” such as immigrants of other ethnicities, races and religions, or people such as African-Americans who have traditionally been excluded from full participation in “The American Dream.” Perhaps this is similar to the current backlash in Europe against immigrants, although I have the impression that in Europe, the focus is more on resentment and anger over feeling imposed upon by “outsiders,” rather than having a superiority complex which leads to proclamations of being “the greatest people in the world.” Perhaps the best historical example of that from another nation is that of the Nazis, which is a scary comparison that accentuates the danger of right-wing populism in the United States, especially in the hands of the worlds’ most powerful military. Even the Japanese during World War II did not show that kind of egotism although they aggressively pursued power and resources throughout Asia.

What is the solution to right-wing populism? Largely the same solution that applies to the entire delusional mindset of the cult that the Republican Party has become. Right-wingers need exposure to other ideas and other people who don’t think or believe the same way that they do. The right-wing propaganda devices in our media, such as Fox News, OAN and Newsmax – and Donald Trump himself — need to be muted, and people need to be exposed to exercises in critical thinking skills. Some progress in this regard has been made, particularly relating to Donald Trump, who has been removed from the presidency, although he still claims that the 2020 election was fraudulent, and dreams about being reinstated or reelected as president, and furthermore, he has been banned from popular social media. However, the right-wing media continues unabated, and free speech issues make blocking their voices problematic and difficult.

I do not think this task is impossible, though. These echo chambers may lose their appeal over time as more right-wingers awaken from their delusional reveries. Furthermore, legal problems may mount for them as people legally challenge their use of misinformation and the resulting deleterious effects such as the stochastic terrorism which led to the January 6 insurrection. Finally, let it be noted that the seeds of its own self-destruction are rooted in this American form of right-wing populism. As I have often pointed out, conservatives are fighting an uphill political battle of their own choosing, by boxing themselves in demographically to appeal to a specific, shrinking albeit still large, portion of the population. I do not see them doing anything, or even having any real way to, significantly broaden their base, given their unpopular policies and divisive language. Thus, their main hope politically is to manufacture a situation in which they maintain minority rule of the United States.

As individuals, we shall continue to promote rationality one thought at a time, and fight for democracy.

Coauthor Mikko Salmela

Coauthor Christian von Scheve