- Kenneth Zagacki is a professor of communication at North Carolina State University.
- Richard Cherwitz is a communication professor emeritus at The University of Texas at Austin.
Following the second federal indictment charging former President Donald Trump with conspiring to overturn the 2020 election, Trump supporters claimed he truly believed Democrats stole the election from him. The belief, they asserted, justified his schemes to remain in power. As many legal scholars argue, the defense does not necessarily exculpate Trump in a court of law if he criminally operationalized the false belief. But just as importantly, Trump’s defense fails in the court of public opinion. It doesn’t argue a case as much as it exposes profound character flaws that should disqualify any person from holding high political office.
Trump’s defense depicts him as immediately apprehending truth and therefore justified in ignoring advisers, courts, expert legal and political officials (including his own attorney general), independent journalists, and the majority of the American people. The defense portrays Trump as brazenly going his way since only he (and a few cronies) comprehended what happened during the 2020 election and who won, despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary. The certainty of Trump’s belief simply prohibited questions from his followers that might have undermined it.
Trump’s defense is problematic because it discloses the dangerous character flaws the conservative political scientist Eric Voegelin once associated with the leaders of 20th-century authoritarian movements. Such flaws undermine democratic leadership. In “Science, Politics and Gnosticism,” Voegelin showed how fascists and totalitarian leaders claimed that only they could comprehend the evils arrayed against them and purge societies of their ills. The beliefs of these leaders purportedly provided them with direct, immediate apprehension or visions of truth without the need for critical reflection. Thus, authoritarian leaders claimed absolute mastery of reality and to possess knowledge immune from criticism.
As Voegelin pointed out, authoritarians who believed in their self-sufficiency suffered from delusions of grandeur, hubris, dogmatism, and complete disregard for established law and order and political traditions. Voegelin explained how, by demanding unflinching allegiance from their followers based on their unassailable beliefs, these leaders could justify violence against any dissenters.
As the historian Bradley J. Birzer summarizes these points, Voegelin thought that, when used in political discourse, the beliefs of authoritarians perverted “our understanding not only of time and history but also of the human person.”
Trump’s defense and the belief upon which it rests reveal many of the dysfunctional character traits identified by Voegelin. As such, they also promote a corrupted view of time and history as processes that only Trump believes he can fathom and control. Hence Trump’s claims to “make America great again” and “Save America” by any means necessary, including overturning elections.
Moreover, Trump’s belief and defense embrace degraded views of persons like him, with their paranoid, aggrieved, and insular worldviews (for him, seen as something heroic). And they denounce anyone who challenges him as cowardly, disloyal, and untrustworthy.
Trump’s defense and belief help explain why he traffics in bizarre “deep state” conspiracies rejected by most rational people. The belief in conspiracies reveals, for Trump and his supporters, the actual threats to America that only he can defeat.
When faced with compelling evidence that overturns their beliefs, great democratic leaders admit what they believed to be true was wrong. The flawed character traits motivating Trump’s defense — that he believed the election was stolen — prevent him from ever admitting to being wrong. This is part of a “tough-guy” ethos he thinks makes him appealing. But, as Voegelin warns, Trump’s belief and corresponding defense only demonstrate how unfit he is to hold political office ever again.
Kenneth Zagacki is a professor of communication at North Carolina State University. Richard Cherwitz is a communication professor emeritus at The University of Texas at Austin.