What Do We Do About the Trump Followers?

Photo by David Todd McCarty on Unsplash

Laws establish norms. When laws are not enforced, norms erode. Most people follow the law, not because they fear punishment but because they adhere to the norms that those laws encode.

Representative Clyburn of South Carolina was asked by Judy Woodruff of the News Hour if Democrats should hesitate to impeach Trump because it will further incense his followers. He responded that, “I don’t believe we ought to run the country that way. I think there are certain norms that we have to adhere to. I think there are certain laws that we have to obey. And we just cannot say because it may have some political consequences, let’s not do it. That is not the way to run the country. I think we ought to do what needs to be done to protect the integrity of this democracy.”

Thus far, some of the rioters who broke into the capital have been arrested and charged. The crimes they are charged with seem rather minor. Adam Johnson of Florida who was photographed carrying the lectern of Speaker Pelosi out of the capital has been charged with “one count of knowingly entering or remaining in any restricted building or grounds without lawful authority; one count of theft of government property; and one count of violent entry and disorderly conduct on Capitol grounds, the United States Attorney’s Office said in a news release.” The Department of Justice indicated that these crimes would incur a year in jail.

Our goals in this situation should be to prosecute all of those who broke into the Capitol, while doing everything we can to encourage millions of Trump supporters to slip off the Trump Bandwagon. Clearly, the prosecution of those who broke into the Capitol will be used by extremists to pump up support for the Trump movement. (Will Trump pardon them?) But, as Rep. Clyburn argues, failing to prosecute them will further embolden the most extreme.

But here is the most difficult part. We need to impose consequences on law breakers, but we need to do it with love. Our terribly punitive criminal justice system is built on retribution rather than rehabilitation. This is one reason why we have a far higher recidivism rate than most developed countries. Millions of Americans are rightly angry at what Trump and the rioters did. But outrage and anger makes it easier for extremists to gin up support for the Trump movement. We need to calmly and firmly insist that acts like storming the capital or taking long guns into state capitols are criminal acts that will be penalized.

Moreover, there need to be consequences for political leadership that is complicit in this attempted coup. It is vital that political leaders who have endorsed Trump’s actions experience negative consequences so that we strengthen support for the democratic norms and values. It is unlikely that the 147 Congresspersons who voted to overturn the election results will be prosecuted for that. But the more of them who lose in the next election, the stronger democratic norms will be upheld.

We can stand strong against sedition, while, at the same time promoting compassion and caring. Read Obama’s new book. In virtually every challenge to him as president he describes his opponents with empathy, while continuing to pursue his policy agenda.

Or consider what we have learned from years of research on how to help parents replace harsh discipline with patience and caring. Millions of parents have been helped to consistently provide mild negative consequences for children’s misbehavior instead of harsh treatment. But more important, they have learned to richly reinforce prosocial, cooperative behavior of their children.

Research on how to influence cult members to leave the cult show that trying to argue them out of their beliefs does not work. Offering them a warm and supportive alternative to the life style the cult provides can work.1

So we need to take firm, but warm approach with the millions of people who have been deluded into thinking that Trump won and is being cheated. “No he did not win the election. No you cannot break the law. And, here is a check for $2000.”

The ideas in this piece are the result of conversations Georgia Layton and I have had on our daily walks.

1. Rousselet, M.; Duretete, O.; Hardouin, J. B.; Grall-Bronnec, M., Cult membership: What factors contribute to joining or leaving? Psychiatry Research 2017, 257, 27–33.

Anthony Biglan, PhD, is President of Values to Action and author of Rebooting Capitalism https://www.valuestoaction.com/

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