Column: What explains Trump’s unwavering supporters? Call it a death wish

President Trump at a campaign rally in Florida on Monday.
President Trump at a campaign rally in Florida on Monday.
(Evan Vucci / Associated Press )

In the late fall and early winter of 2016, before Donald Trump’s inauguration, the country was a fugue state. Those closest to Trump were in shock that he’d won. Trump himself, ranting that he’d been cheated out of the popular vote, seemed disoriented. The majority of Americans were at a loss: How could this floridly corrupt racist have won at all?

Especially considering his campaign platform.

In the U.K., if a politician mentions tinkering with the National Health Service, which provides free healthcare to everyone, there’s public outcry across the political spectrum. And yet Trump was hot to crush Obamacare, the closest the U.S. had come to squaring the circle of its healthcare conundrum. Modify it or reform it, maybe. But crush it?

Trump had also made relentless reference to violence: Mexican rapists, protesters he wanted bashed, terrorism suspects who deserved torture. He praised bloodthirsty dictators. He laughed off the climate crisis that was leading to deadly disasters in the U.S., and he appeared to be spoiling for a showdown with China, a formidable nuclear power.


On news of his election, the Doomsday Clock ticked up to 2.5 minutes to midnight and apocalypse. Today it stands at 100 seconds to midnight, largely because of “influential leaders’” bellicosity, the rolling back of environmental regulations and lies from on high that goad people into warlike, careless and self-defeating behavior.

Right after the election, I asked Trump supporters on Facebook why they voted for Trump, who seemed so dangerous. One responded, “Better nuclear winter than more letters in LGBTQ.”

Aha. An exaggeration, no doubt — but to me the poster nailed the dominant theme of the campaign. It was something of a suicide mission. The cultural bees in the Trumpites’ bonnet, including LGBTQ rights, had driven them to distraction. They were willing to risk everything to get the buzz out of their heads.

Even after Trump stops hitting his favorite punching bag, California will feel the impact of his immigration restrictions.

Oct. 18, 2020

In 1912, Sabina Spielrein, a Russian-born psychoanalyst, proposed that while humans are driven by a will to survive, they are also driven by the reverse: a death wish. It surfaces in various ways: self-harm, thrill-seeking, a preoccupation with violence and irrational personal compulsions.

Sigmund Freud popularized Spielrein’s idea, which still holds sway in psychoanalytic circles and beyond. In the premiere of “Mad Men,” a psychoanalyst explained to the Madison Avenue types why people like to smoke.

“What Freud called ‘the death wish’ is as powerful a drive as those for sexual reproduction and physical sustenance,” she said.


An ad man scoffs. “That’s ridiculous.”

Maybe so. But “death wish” goes a long way toward explaining President Trump’s persistent support. After all, the assumption that Trumpites support Trump for life-loving reasons — a desire for peace, prosperity or well-being — is wearing thin.

Trump has markedly decreased economic stability. Unemployment jumped from 4.7% in 2016 to nearly 7.9% as of this month. The federal deficit is up from $587 billion in 2016 to $3.1 trillion. And with the pandemic exacting a mounting toll, Trump is still agitating to skip masks and destroy Obamacare.

Yet, he still has the support of around 40% of Americans.

“How is it possible that so many still back him despite everything that has gone wrong?” asked columnist Max Boot in the Washington Post this week.

My answer is that they back him because of everything that has gone wrong. Maybe, for Trumpites, the death drive has usurped the will to survive.

In March, Princeton economists Anne Case and Angus Deaton published the book “Deaths of Despair and the Future of Capitalism,” which analyzed the loss of white males aged 45-54 in the U.S. to suicide, drug overdoses and alcoholism. The phenomenon is especially pronounced in such red states as Arkansas, Kentucky, Mississippi and West Virginia.

Case and Deaton point to loss of community as the chief risk factor. Deepening the tragedy is that the deaths of these men are not ennobled as sacrifices for their country, or a higher good.

Into this narrative void has come a creed promulgated by Fox News and its imitators that itself could justify taking the next pill or drink. It tells us that there are terrible and powerful conspiracies afoot: the “deep state,” women superseding men at work and at home, minorities and immigrants stealing white men’s money and jobs, lying media, libs.

And while our attention rightly goes to those who actually take arms against these “enemies,” for instance, the “militia” men accused of plotting to kidnap Gov. Gretchen Whitmer of Michigan last week, others whose aggression is turned inward go largely unnoticed.

Except by Trump.

Consider his rallies this week. The foolhardy rejection of COVID prevention by Trumpites is nothing if not a sign of a cohort hellbent on self-destruction.

Trump makes no effort to hide his affection for stoking fear and apocalyptic thinking. We have to stop assuming that Trump’s supporters are anything except on the bus with him. We have to stop thinking that they are acting out of a desire for life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.

If the nation is going to survive the Trumpites’ apparent willingness to go down in a kamikaze mission, the next administration is going to have to make it a point to return us to a philosophical baseline: Life is worth living.

It seems baffling that so many would have to be reminded of this. But — if this pandemic is ever to abate — it’s crucial we get the whole population, even Trumpites, to recommit to a simple animal ambition: staying alive.