When Prophesy Fails

McKay Coppins, staff writer for the Atlantic, writes,

In the 1956 book When Prophecy Fails, three social psychologists studied a small religious sect in Chicago called “the seekers,” who believed that the world would soon be destroyed by a flood, and that a flying saucer was coming to save them. The seekers were deeply invested in the prophecy’s fulfillment—many had quit jobs and left spouses to prepare. On the appointed day, they gathered at their leader’s home to wait for deliverance. The psychologists wanted to know how the seekers would react when the world didn’t end. Would they realize they’d been duped? Denounce their former belief system? Turn on their prophet? As it turned out, no. When Armageddon failed to materialize, they simply decided that God had spared Earth from destruction because of their faith; that they had been right all along.

On Tuesday night, about 100 MAGA diehards convened on a Washington, D.C., rooftop to await an Election Night miracle. The mood inside the large, bright tent was giddy, almost fevered. Maskless revelers sipped booze and snapped celebratory selfies. A Virginia talk-radio host known as “the oracle of the deplorables” held court with a gaggle of fans. At the far end of the tent, the party’s host, former chief White House strategist Steve Bannon, sat perched behind a desk, issuing confident proclamations to his YouTube live-stream audience.

“It is not going well for the globalists,” Bannon boomed, his huge, shaggy head filling the TV screens on every wall. “It is not going well for the elites. They’re back on their heels tonight.” Donald Trump, he predicted, was on the cusp of “another amazing come-from-behind victory.”

There was reason to be skeptical. Despite the president’s early win in Florida, the race had already begun to stabilize in the waning hours of Election Day. The math was getting harder for Trump; the swing states were swinging away. For now, Bannon and his bitter-enders were safely ensconced in their rooftop bubble—but what would they do when reality crashed down on them?

For many of the president’s followers, the past four years have been one long, quasi-religious exercise in suspending disbelief. To adhere to the Church of Trumpism was to reject anything that might challenge its orthodoxies. The news was fake. The polls were fake. The investigations and scandals and fact-checks were fake. It only stood to reason that if Trump lost his bid for reelection, the defeat would be fake as well.

And so, at Bannon’s Election Night party, bravado reigned. When I asked Harlan Hill, a Trump-campaign adviser, how he was feeling about the race, he responded emphatically: “Oh, he’s gonna win. One hundred percent.”

“You’re that confident?” I asked.  

“Absolutely.”

“And if it goes the other way …”

“I’ll eat my shoe. We’ll do it in a live-stream.”

Of course, as the race turned against Trump in the days that followed, Hill was not browsing recipes for boiled loafers. He was tweeting furiously about a massive—and entirely fabricated—conspiracy to steal the election from the president. “I’m going to Philly tomorrow with a team,” he announced on Twitter Thursday. “This is war.”

Such theatrics dominated MAGA-world this week (even as many elected Republicans distanced themselves from Trump’s election-fraud claims). Mark Levin, a conservative talk-radio host, posted an unhinged all-caps tweet urging GOP state legislatures to ignore the votes of their constituents and appoint pro-Trump electors. Newt Gingrich mused on Fox News about having poll workers arrested. The Fox Business host Lou Dobbs angrily called for the Justice Department to intervene in the vote count. And Bannon detailed a vivid fantasy that involved beheading Anthony Fauci, the nation’s top infectious-disease expert, and placing his skull on a pike outside the White House. (After Bannon posted a video of those comments to Twitter, the network banned his account.)

Much of this posturing is performative, of course—a cynical way to keep audiences watching, and voters mad. But there’s reason to believe that, for a certain faction of the GOP, Trump’s rigged-election narrative will become an article of faith.

Around 11 p.m., the rooftop MAGA bubble experienced its first breach. “Arizona is a problem,” Bannon said on his live-stream. “They’re not calling any of the Trump states,” a red-capped partygoer grumbled.

I stepped outside to get some fresh air with Rosie Gray, a friend and former colleague who was covering the event for BuzzFeed News. After a few minutes, we started back toward the tent and found Raheem Kassam, one of the party’s co-hosts, standing in front of the entrance. I’d never met Kassam before, but I knew him by reputation. A former Breitbart News editor from London, he’d built a bicontinental career out of conservative trolling—first in British politics, then in U.S. media. He belongs to a certain class of MAGA micro-celebrities whose professional fates seem uncertain in a post-Trump world. I wondered how he thought he’d fare if the president lost.

I didn’t get a chance to ask. As soon as Kassam saw me, he announced that I was not welcome to return to the party. When I asked why, he launched into a strange and bitter tirade about my many alleged misdeeds—that I’d written unfair stories about his “friends,” that I worked for a magazine that was “98 percent fake trash,” that various colleagues of mine were “nutcases.”

The tantrum was bewildering, but when I tried to clarify his grievances, he only grew more heated. “You guys are psychopaths!” he said. “You make shit up!”  

We decided to leave him to his bubble—reality would catch up soon enough without our help—but not before reminding our host that we’d been there as reporters, and were free to write about the experience. Kassam, enraged, reacted by turning his phone’s camera on so he could record us leaving.

As we made our way toward the elevators, he followed behind, blustering indistinctly.

“You were not here as reporters!”

“This is my event—I can do whatever I want!”

The psychologists who studied the seekers attributed their rationalizations to the discomfort of cognitive dissonance: When a true believer is faced with “undeniable evidence” that what he believes is wrong, he “will frequently emerge, not only unshaken, but even more convinced of the truth of his beliefs than ever before. Indeed, he may even show a new fervor about convincing and converting other people to his view.”

The question of whether Trumpism has a long-term future in the GOP will be debated at length in the coming months. What’s certain is that it won’t be vanquished by Trump’s impending defeat alone—if anything, his most devoted supporters may be further radicalized.