COVID, cognitive dissonance, and cults

Mr. Can’t Be Out of Here Soon Enough,

Last night I noticed a not very big or bold WP headline tucked two-thirds of the way down about how an ICU nurse in South Dakota has been caring for patients dying of COVID who insist they can’t be dying of COVID because there is no such thing as COVID (and if there is, it isn’t dangerous). It was too close to bedtime so I waited until this morning to read it (https://www.washingtonpost.com/health/2020/11/16/south-dakota-nurse-coronavirus-deniers/). Sadly, the headline sums up the whole sordid tale very well.

I came away pondering the following…. One might question the importance of dying people being clear about what is killing them – they’re dying anyway so if it matters at all, it would only be for a short time for them individually. Plus, if someone is suffering and dying but absolutely insistent that what is killing them is not what it is, it’s unlikely to bring them any sort of relief or comfort to accept that they’ve been hoodwinked, gaslighted, manipulated, tricked, bamboozled, and made the fool. Right?

No, much better to go to one’s grave with one’s delusions intact, to die believing that Trump-knows- way-better-than-any-old-elitist-scientist-types. This serves the Trump Gravy Train quite well, doesn’t it? God-forbid that a previous COVID-denier have a deathbed revelation and tell a loved one (via Facetime, damn it) that they now, far too late, see their mistake in having trusted you and passionately attest to the reality and misery of a COVID death in an effort to save their loved ones the same fate. It would be highly inconvenient if several dozen people in key locales were to do that, now wouldn’t it? Much, much better to keep the denial wide and deep until that sort of reckoning is no longer possible.

And where are you in all this? Either you and yours truly don’t care or you’re behind the scenes doing your satisfied smirky thing as people all across the Midwest practically line up for their turn to suffer and die from COVID.

All morning I’ve been thinking about COVID, cognitive dissonance, and cults. I’m not sure they all work together very well, but it feels like there’s something connecting these three C’s. I’ve written to you about cognitive dissonance before but I’ll remind you that it’s a psychological construct meant to describe the situation where one’s beliefs or attitudes conflict with one’s actions. Such situations can lead to enough discomfort or dis-ease that one goes through bunches of contortions to convince oneself that there is no conflict. One way this could work in the context of COVID is that if someone fervently supports you and thinks you hung the moon (gag me, but there are clearly many who feel this way) then when they or someone they love test positive for COVID, it’s easier to maintain their allegiance to you and your COVID-denial than to accept the reality of their condition. To accept that they’ve contracted COVID and that it’s dangerous (and for some, going to kill them) is more of a leap than accepting that you’re a lying sadist (or, more generously, badly mistaken).

This degree of delusional devotion falls squarely within the bounds of being part of a cult, from the denial of reality to the willingness to endanger oneself and one’s family in favor of maintaining the belief system of Trump infallibility. Thus far I’ve only heard QAnon affiliation likened to being in a cult, but it sure looks to me like a substantial subset of your base is treating you like people treat cult leaders, which is beyond scary and sad for all of us, in no small part because it won’t end when you leave office.

May we be safe from powerful people who clearly don’t give a rat’s ass about those who adore them.
May we all be willing to wake the heck up.
May we somehow infuse those who need to see the truth with the strength to do so.
May we accept that far too many of us are vulnerable to our sadist POTUS’s charms.

Sincerely,
Tracy Simpson

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