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‘Need for chaos’ theory focuses on a subset of Trump supporters

Check out the latest column by the great Thomas Edsall of the New York Times, headlined “The Trump Voters Whose ‘Need for Chaos’ Obliterates Everything Else.”

If you are ready to go to a very weird place in your effort to understand the coalition that supports Trumpism, check out the latest column by the great Thomas Edsall of the New York Times, headlined “The Trump Voters Whose ‘Need for Chaos’ Obliterates Everything Else.”

It troubles me, even scares me, to consider deeply abnormal psychology in trying to explain support for a sitting president. But I do struggle to understand the hold that President Donald Trump seems to have over his followers. Edsall often relies heavily on scholars in his efforts to understand the hard to understand, and this column draws on the work of three scholars, two from Denmark and one from The U.S., who use theories of psychology to probe political behavior, and are working on a phenomenon that they call “a need for chaos” that motivates some people to use strange means in pursuit of strange goals as they engage in politics.

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Edsall passes along a research paper by the trio, which just won an award in the “political psychology” division of the American Political Science Association for their work.

Edsall reports that the trio “argues that a segment of the American electorate that was once peripheral is drawn to ‘chaos incitement’ and that this segment has gained decisive influence through the rise of social media. … the authors’ analysis helps explain the intensity of anti-establishment voting that drove Trump’s successful takeover of the Republican Party in the 2016 primaries.”

In their paper, as reported by Esdall: “The three scholars “describe ‘chaos incitement’ as a “strategy of last resort by marginalized status-seekers” willing to adopt disruptive tactics.

“Trump, in turn, has consistently sought to strengthen the perception that America is in chaos, a perception that has enhanced his support while seeming to reinforce his claim that his predecessors, especially President Barack Obama, were failures.”

The scholars are not necessarily describing typical Trump supporters, but a strange group of activists who have a “need for chaos” and “express that need by willingly spreading disinformation” through social media activities “not to advance their own ideology but to undermine political elites” and to “mobilize others against politicians in general.” These disrupters do not “share rumors because they believe them to be true. For the core group, hostile political rumors are simply a tool to create havoc.”

Before the advent of social media, like Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and YouTube, these “chaos-seekers were on outer edges of politics, unable to exercise influence,” Edsall explains, relying on the analysis of the scholars. But those and other contemporary social media platforms have “empowered this constituency, providing a bullhorn to disseminate false news, conspiracy theories and allegations of scandal to a broad audience. Examples include the lunacy of the Comet Pizza story (a.k.a. Pizzagate), the various anti-Obama birther conspiracies and Alex Jones’s claim that the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting that left 20 children dead was a ‘complete fake’ staged by the government to promote gun control.”

The three political scientists — Michael Bang Petersen, Mathias Osmundsen and Kevin Arceneaux — sought to measure this “need for chaos”” by conducting surveys in the United States and Denmark that attempted to identify those who are “drawn to chaos” through their affirmative responses to statements like:

  • ‘I fantasize about a natural disaster wiping out most of humanity such that a small group of people can start all over.’
  • ‘I think society should be burned to the ground;’ and
  • ‘Sometimes I just feel like destroying beautiful things.’

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In a very creepy ending to a very creepy column, Edsall asks:

“How worried should we be about a fundamental threat to democracy from the apparently large numbers of Americans who embrace chaos as a way of expressing their discontent? Might Trump and his loyal supporters seek to bring down the system if he is defeated in 2020? What about later, if the damage he has inflicted on our customs and norms festers, eroding the invisible structures that underpin everything that actually makes America great?”

This is all way above my pay grade. I can’t assess this theory, although I’m a big Edsall fan, and he respects it enough to write a column about it. Here’s another link to the full Edsall column in the Times.