Trump supporters' Stockholm syndrome
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A lot has been written, said and discussed during this most unusual race for president of the United States. Among the many strings of inquiry, one question that has defied most reasoned logic is: Why do voters stick with Donald TrumpDonald John TrumpAustralia recognizes West Jerusalem as Israeli capital, won't move embassy Mulvaney will stay on as White House budget chief Trump touts ruling against ObamaCare: ‘Mitch and Nancy’ should pass new health-care law MORE despite his many character flaws and non-presidential behavior? Why are they transfixed by his snake oil pitches, knowing full well that he cannot deliver on his lofty promises?

Certainly, economic dislocation and lost trust in the workings of government have parts to play in the explanation. If we dig deeper, however, and try to understand the interpersonal and relational dynamic between Trump and his most vocal supporters, there seems to be a deeper, darker force afoot.

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When viewed from a clinical psychologist’s perspective, Trump controls his following much like a captor compels his hostages. He holds them with media frenzy and his personality cult while making promises that their release will soon come. In the meantime he demeans, vilifies and puts people down, giving voice to his followers’ anger but also humiliating and taking advantage of them.

The psychological phenomenon of such a relationship, where people idolize and make excuses for their captor, is known as Stockholm syndrome. Over the years the term Stockholm syndrome has been used to understand the dynamics of child abuse, spouse battering and pimp-procured prostitutes. And now it fits the connection between Trump and some of his supporters. These kind of traumatic bonds are characterized by hostages’ distorted thinking.

This term was first used in 1973, to describe the responses of several employees held hostage for six days in a bank vault hostages in Stockholm, Sweden. Rather than expressing outrage or disdain, the hostages expressed positive feelings and vehemently defended their captors.

A widely publicized example since then was Patty Hearst, the granddaughter of an American publishing magnate. Kidnapped in Berkeley, Calif., by a left-wing terrorist group, Hearst, while in captivity, made propaganda-type statements supporting her captors’ cause, and even engaged in some of their illegal activities.  

It’s thought that relationships like these exist to enhance the hostages' ability to cope with captivity and increase the likelihood of their survival. Hostages who interact positively with their captors get something for it — a glass of water or slice of bread, promises of jobs.

For example, last week at a Colorado rally, Trump defended his tax practices, saying, “As a businessman and real estate developer, I have legally used the tax laws to my benefit.” And his supporters agree, calling him a “good businessman” and questioning who hasn’t lied on their taxes.

More recently, when Trump is accused of sexually assaulting married women and bragging about it, his supporters call it locker room banter. But this is way beyond good business acumen or boys being boys. This is predatory exploitation and abuse. This is like professing love for the people who abuse you; they defend the abuser's practices or deny, minimize or rationalize the threatening nature of the abuse. They make excuses and justify his behavior. They get angry when others point out the ways in which Trump is not good to them.

This paradoxical relationship between Trump and some of his supporters infuriates those of us on the outside looking in. We wonder how such behavior can be tolerated. I caution those of us on the other side from seeing Trump supporters as experiencing a form of masochism or some kind of intellectual or personality defects. That’s unfair and unkind. Rather, if we see it through the lens of hostage psychology, maybe we can be more effective in uniting our country after a Clinton victory.

Hillary ClintonHillary Diane Rodham ClintonLanny Davis says Nixon had more respect for the Constitution than Trump Clinton commemorates Sandy Hook anniversary: 'No child should have to fear violence' Sanders, Warren meet ahead of potential 2020 bids MORE has apologized about calling Trumps’ supporters deplorable, but to really lead she'll need to give more than lip service. She'll need to reframe her thinking. In order to move forward on the road to repair, we need to all be in the same basket.

Joan Cook is a psychologist and associate professor at Yale University who researches traumatic stress and clinically treats combat veterans, interpersonal violence survivors and people who escaped the former World Trade Center towers on 9/11.


The views expressed by contributors are their own and not the views of The Hill.