Sympathy for Idiots


Back in August 2016 when I was watching the inexplicable rise of an ego-bloated, narcissistic, man-baby, an obvious and artless flim-flam and a proto-fascist wannabe demagogue all wrapped in one orange package on a quest for the oval office I was both confused and appalled. From his gilded and gaudy stage performance when he announced his candidacy the year before to the raucous and rowdy racist rallies all over the country this spray-tanned messiah made a mockery of American democracy and basic human decency. He was a walking satire of right-wing politics with a religiously devout following getting dangerously close to the most powerful office in the world.1

Though, at the time, I didn’t believe he could actually win the election, I was beside myself in trying to understand his following. Here was a man whose campaign strategy seemed dedicated to spewing as many lies, insults and hate-filled rants as possible. He could say anything. Do anything. No matter how outrageous his words, deeds or conduct, his following only grew more devoted and dedicated. It was impossible to understand in any reasonable way.

By August I had had enough. I was angry and sad. I no longer wanted to spend my precious time beating my head against the rhetorical wall that was his screed. His followers were immovable, unreachable. There was, to my mind, nothing further that could be added to the conversation. So I offered what I thought would be my last words on this political clown car.

In my attempt to understand his followers’ motivations, but fogged in anger and despair, I created a three part typology. Support for this blatantly incompetent and corrupt candidate, as far as I was concerned, could only be explained in three ways. Followers were either bigots, idiots, or sociopaths.2 I admit that these categories were not rigorously analyzed in any scientific way. That being said, I couldn’t find any examples that didn’t fit in some way into this off the cuff schema.

Bigots are clear. They love their candidate because he hates “those people.” There’s really no argument here. Sociopaths are those who know the kind of guy their candidate is, but vote for him anyway because they feel they will be better off–usually with lower tax rates–everyone else be damned. These categories were not controversial.

When it came to the idiots, however, I did get a little push back. As far as I was concerned, idiots were those who supported their candidate because they really believed he offered the best policies, that he was the best person for the job. They drew this conclusion not because of a careful and empirical analysis of his proposed policies–because those were clearly ridiculous. Rather, they drew their conclusions because he was reflecting back to them what they wanted to hear. This idiocy often manifest in confusing and contradictory positions. For example, many of his supporters depended on Obamacare, the very program their candidate vowed to destroy without offering a reasonable alternative. Hey, he’s a businessman. He’ll figure it out.

Push-back on the “idiots” typology took a couple of forms, and I have to admit that they were not unreasonable. Most opposition was from those who felt it simply wasn’t nice to call his supporters idiots. In other words, they were nice people upset about something that wasn’t nice. I dismissed this criticism, albeit flippantly, by pointing out that these idiots were the very people who were outraged by political correctness. Surely, they would respect a politically incorrect evaluation of themselves…right? …um…right?

Yeah. Perhaps not so much.

The next criticism of the idiot typology was a bit more substantial. That is, it’s really dismissive to write off a large segment of the population as idiots. Certainly, there were some who supported the Orange Don because doing so was a reasonable strategy for pursuing their interests. Take, for instance, pro-life activists, or movement conservatives interested in the disposition of the Supreme Court. It’s perfectly reasonable to support the guy who is likely to get you what you want.

My response to this was, if the person is being reasonable, and is willing to countenance dire human suffering3 because that gets them a step closer to overturning Roe, that’s sociopathy, not idiocy. They still fit into the typology. On the other hand, if one is voting to support these single issues without hashing through the potential consequences, that’s still idiocy. As far as I was concerned, the typology remained sound.

That being said, I have to admit that the “idiot” category never really set well with me. It is a bit out of character for me to be this dismissive. After all, I really do strive to give people the benefit of the doubt as far as I can. I like to make it my policy to assume that in any given circumstance any given individual is simply doing the best they can with what they have. If they fall short, it is often because they didn’t have the physical, emotional, psychological or social resources they needed at the time.

This particular ethic is missing from the idiot typology.4

Also, a category based on the absence of an attribute, in this case empirical reason, is often a weak explainer. If reason and evidence isn’t motivating this movement, then what is? Dismissing this particular end of the “basket of deplorables” as idiots doesn’t offer a satisfactory explanation of the phenomenon. Nor does it offer an opportunity to reach out to this group and maybe change their minds. There must be a better way to describe this phenomenon.

My first reckoning with my own lack of empathy came when I read Arlie Hochschild’s invaluable book, Strangers in their Own Land. Hochschild offered a sympathetic understanding of people who seemed to vote and advocate against their own interests by shedding light on what she referred to as the “deep story” motivating their actions. This deep story involves sincere, hard working people standing in line on the way to achieving the American dream. But everywhere they look they see those who don’t work hard, those who are not deserving, being handed advantages, allowed to cut in line, making it harder for the deserving to achieve their dreams.

This story did spark some sympathy on my part, but only so far. The fact is that this deep story simply isn’t true. It’s an inadequate allegory to explain what is really going on in the United States. Furthermore, it’s premised on racism. Those undeserving people in the eyes of Hochschild’s “strangers” are, invariably, people of color. Hochschild accepts the premise of their deep story without judgement…which has its benefits. However, the context of the story does deserve to be examined and evaluated. It is a story embraced either by bigots or people who are unwilling or unable to see the larger narrative driving the plot, namely the underlying theme of economic and political exploitation. Hochschild’s observations remained in the back of my mind, however. What else is going on?

Recently, I’ve stumbled upon some information that has helped me put what I’ve defined as political idiocy into a more sympathetic frame. I am currently working on a sociology lecture dealing with social isolation and its profound negative impacts to personal identity. In the lecture I point out that abusers, or gang and cult recruiters often target the socially isolated and manipulate their loyalty by giving them a sense of belonging, inclusion and acceptance. Such chains, once sealed, are hard to break as individuals build their sense of self on the foundations of their inclusion and acceptance from others. When these significant others are, an abusive partner, a cult leader, a gang…or a political party or movement the results can be devastating.

My stomach turned as I watched right-wing activists, shoulder to shoulder with Nazis, storming our Capitol on January 6th. Over nothing. But it wasn’t nothing to the participants. To the participants, storming the Capitol was an act of unity. A collective performance of loyalty. Support for the January 6th Riot has become a virtue signal for the right.

At the same time I read some articles on the overlap between loneliness and right-wing ideology. A different picture emerges of those I derided as idiots. It turns out I was wrong in my typology. I recognized that right-wing activism made little sense when it came to empirical evidence, and from that, combined with my anger over what was and is happening to my country, I dismissed everyone as an idiot. After five years I see beyond my anger.

Indeed, members of the right are motivated by something more universal…the need to belong. Traditionally, this need to belong could be satisfied by following some clear values and striving for well defined measures of status. This was especially true for white men. Yet we live in a society in which those traditional values and statuses have less meaning are less secure. Hard work does not necessarily equate to success. Freedom does not equate to liberty. Opportunities are disappearing, but it’s up to you to make something of yourself, to achieve the American Dream.

Everywhere we turn we are atomized, isolated, expected to be self-responsible, independent individuals in competition with other individuals. This is a stark contrast to the deep story Hochschild elaborates. We’re not standing in line earning our spot through clearly delineated rules. A more allegorical deep story is much more brutal than that. We are in a zero sum race in which we are all on our own to get some piece of the detritus of what used to be an American Dream with the hope that maybe, just maybe, if we can get enough scattered fragments our lives might be a little better, we might just be good enough after all.

Again, this is a narrative constructed by the elite for their own purposes. It is a fiction no more valid than the so-called line cutters elaborated above. A consequent discourse, however, is little different from that of domestic abusers, or gang recruiters, or cultists. “Those people” hate you. They lie to you. They want to hurt you. But stick with me, or the gang, or the cult. We love you. We value you. We will take care of you. You can be everything you want to be if you stick with us.

Inclusion and acceptance is the most primal of human instincts. We’ll sacrifice our lives for it. Often it is a source of great strength and versatility to be included and accepted within a healthy, supportive and nurturing group. Such a group helps one evolve and grow as an individual as well as providing for reliable human connection. This human need, however, can be the most deft tool of oppression and victimization when targeted to the lonely, the insecure, the isolated.

Deriding the bulk of the right as idiots only serves to further isolate them. It only serves to push them deeper into the embrace of their abusers. At this point I realize that many on the right (and to be honest, there’s nothing special about the left that precludes the same kind of abuse) are more deserving of sympathy than censure. Perhaps understanding the sense of loneliness and isolation of so many Americans striving for a dream that seems further and further from reach may provide and avenue by which we can make meaningful human connections beneficial to all of us. When it comes down to it, left, right, or center, most of us want pretty much the same thing. We want to feel that our lives are meaningful and that our dreams are possible. Our true deep story is not one of line-cutters, or a zero-sum race to reach scraps of the American Dream. The real story, should we ever get around to telling it, is one in which we all work together to build a dream we can all share.


  1. It has been my policy not to provide this person free advertising, so his name is verboten on this page.
  2. In the original piece I didn’t use the term “sociopath”. The category I used was “asshole”. I later revised the typology because I thought sociopath was more descriptive.
  3. Such as babies being stripped from their mothers and locked in cages, denial of asylum, the creation of disgusting “refugee” camps, destructive environmental policies, hundreds of thousands of deaths resulting from an incompetent response to a pandemic, spreading conspiracies and lies that motivate people to violence not the least of which was an assault on the Capitol Building on January 6th. etc. etc. etc.
  4. Truth be told, I was and remain angry that such a man could actually be elected president and that such a movement could become so powerful in the United States. That a movement embraced and/or allied with Nazis can influence the society my children are coming up in fills me with irrepressible spite and resentment.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s