Domestic terrorism in on the rise, and experts question whether the ascent can be linked to the president. While President Donald Trump has denied responsibility for inciting any violence, a recent nationwide review conducted by ABC News identified 29 criminal cases in which the perpetrator’s motivation was linked to President Trump’s rhetoric.
Most of these crimes were committed by white men, while the victims represented an array of minority groups. The reasons these crimes were committed could be explained in part by a study released Monday in Nature Human Behavior. Researchers from Yale University and the University of Oslo observed that when an individual’s sense of identity is psychologically “fused” to political leaders, they are more likely to take extreme positions or commit violence on behalf of the leader.
While a person could feel this sense of “oneness” with a variety of individuals, this study examined white Republicans. It specifically focused on fusion, a phenomenon that denotes something much more than just support. For example, previous studies show that fusion with siblings is associated with a greater willingness to make personal sacrifices, while fusion with a partner leads to increased relationship commitment and cooperation.
This study looked at identity fusion — the visceral feeling of “oneness” between a group and one’s personal self — in the context of follower-leader relationships. The researchers note that this type of fusion can make a person feel like they are enhancing their sense of self, and it is “therefore possible that fusing with a political leader represents an attractive way of coping with feelings of uncertainty and powerlessness.”
“Leader fusion should be especially pronounced when followers experience deprivation and threats to their socio-economic life conditions,” the researchers write, “that is when they and their group are losing ground so that increasing one’s resources and prospects becomes particularly vital.”
Approximately 205 white Republicans signed up to be paid subjects of research on Amazon Mechanical Turk, and they took part in seven studies that were implemented from after the election in 2016 until 2019. Fifty-seven of these participants were women. To establish a baseline, they responded to a series of questions designed to evaluate their Republican identity, fusion with Republicans, and fusion with Donald Trump. The latter included ranking on a scale how much one identified with blunt statements like “I am one with Donald Trump.”
Overall, surveys revealed that the individuals who felt insecure, alienated, threatened, or powerless before and after the 2016 election were more likely to fuse with President Trump. In turn, this fusion appeared to intensity preexisting xenophobia and lead individuals who are more likely than the average person to consider committing violence against immigrants.
For example, the first two of the seven studies included in this paper established that fusion with Trump predicted the Republican’s willingness to violently persecute Muslims. Study three linked fusion to a willingness to “violently challenge election results,” while four, five, and six determined that if a person fused more with Trump after the election, they had a greater willingness to persecute immigrants. One way that this particular result manifested in the survey was that these individuals were more likely to support a ban on Iranian immigrants. Finally, study seven found that increased fusion was linked to an increased “willingness to personally protect the US border from an immigrant caravan.”
The authors say these results demonstrate that “fusion with Trump predicted Republican partisans’ willingness to violently challenge elections and to persecute — with legal and authoritarian justifications — religious, immigrant, and political outgroups.”
In many cases, it’s possible that this fusion isn’t even a conscious process. The working theory is that this sort of connectivity emerges when people want to benefit from a leader’s current and future resources, so much so that they become psychologically dependent. This dependency could cause people to be more willing to go to extreme means to achieve and defend their leader’s agenda. That can happen even if the leader isn’t President Trump — the authors point to the strong support of Joseph Stalin and Mao Zedong as examples of extreme fusion to leftist political leaders.
“This is not about Democrats or Republicans,” co-author John Dovidio, Ph.D., a Yale psychology professor, explained Monday. “When you fuse with a leader you are prone to abandon the values you had in a past life and engage in extreme actions in support of the leader.”
From the 2016 US presidential election and into 2019, we demonstrate that a visceral feeling of oneness (that is, psychological fusion) with a political leader can fuel partisans’ willingness to actively participate in political violence. In studies 1 and 2, fusion with Donald Trump predicted Republicans’ willingness to violently persecute Muslims (over and above other established predictors). In study 3, relative deprivation increased fusion with Trump and, subsequently, willingness to violently challenge election results. In study 4, fusion with Trump increased after his election and predicted immigrant persecution over time. Further revealing its independent effects, this fusion with Trump predicted a willingness to persecute Iranians (independent of identification with him, study 5); a willingness to persecute immigrants (study 6); and a willingness to personally protect the US border from an immigrant caravan (study 7), even over and above fusion with the group of Trump’s followers. These findings echo past political movements and suggest critical future research.