What drugs can tell us about the delusions of the pro-Trump extremists who stormed the Capitol

Just after the sacking of the U.S. Capitol, a friend of mine sent me a typical post found on the MAGA45 page of the emergent social network MeWe:  

Military arrests and takedowns begin this weekend and continue for the next 13 days…International raids have already begun. Italy has also been found complicit in our election fraud….DO NOT travel to any large cities (especially Philadelphia) for the rest of the month. Military operations will be taking place in many of the major corrupt cities…. He only has 13 days to put this corrupt dog down.

This sounds like the ravings of a delusional fool, and it is. (The person must be deeply unfamiliar with the bumbling Italian government.) But it’s no less frightening for being so. 

The online fantasies of crackpots can easily migrate into real life, shepherded across by reckless political operators and right wing media, as we’ve seen repeatedly in recent years. Recall the President Donald Trump super fan who sent pipe bombs to Democrats and media figures. Or the man who drove 11 hours to kill Latinos at an El Paso Walmart. Or the attempt to kidnap and murder Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer.  

(Photo by Win McNamee/Getty Images)

Which takes us to the recent attack on the U.S. Capitol. 

Some of the Trumpists looked feral, delirious as they smashed through windows, dragged a Capitol police officer down stairs and pushed ahead in search of the “traitorous” Vice President Mike Pence and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi. Once inside, they vandalized and stole and smashed and in one case smeared feces. 

I get the political operators and right wing media and what they have to gain — political power and money. But it’s the crowd that I haven’t been able to fathom. What would possibly motivate someone — what grievance, what sense of injustice — to travel to Washington to betray their own country, leading to their arrest and national shame?

Watching videos and looking at pictures, however, I recognized the look of euphoria in their eyes. They were drunk on the conspiracy disinformation they were fed, celebrating communally with other lost souls. 

I use the word drunk purposefully here. If you’ve had a good drunk — and I don’t mean tipsy on your birthday — you may understand my meaning. 

Consider the similarities between intoxication from drugs and alcohol and from conspiracy-laden propaganda on display Jan. 6: Euphoria. Loss of judgment. And for many of them, alienation from friends and family.  

I asked Mark Thomas, a professor of neuroscience and director of the Medical Discovery Team on Addiction at the University of Minnesota, about this analogy. 

Thomas told me he tries to remain scrupulously in his scientific lane and avoid speculation. “But the more I thought about it, the more I thought there may be something there,” he told me recently. 

The key neurotransmitter to consider is dopamine, which is widely misunderstood. We’ve all read stories about the opioid epidemic, and dopamine as a chemical messenger of pleasure. 

But that’s not quite right, Thomas explained. It’s actually more like the signal in your brain that says, “Do this again — it is important for survival!”  Read more