High Anxiety: Cognitive Dissonance and Trump

Many ordinary citizens, federal elected officials and members of the media alike all badly want to believe that the Trump administration is rational and sane. The alternative is horrifying to Republicans both personally (Was my vote a mistake?) and politically (Are GOP members of congress complicit? Is the Republic at risk?). That’s why people applauded the Tuesday speech addressing both Houses of Congress. Even though the bar was laughably low — read the teleprompter without veering off into rants about fake news or Hillary — they hoped it meant Trump had somehow pivoted into a more Presidential persona. But those hopes have been dashed, yet again.

To preserve the illusion of sanity in the Oval Office, we will now be subjected to yet another distraction based on Trump’s ill-conceived tweets: an investigation into whether Obama personally ordered wiretaps — wiretaps first revealed in October ’16, but never mind — that’s as pointless and stupid as the inquiry geared towards uncovering the 3–5 million fraudulent votes Trump claims existed. Feeding a shared delusion entails desperate pretending and play-acting; it’s time-wasting at best and a form of mass hysteria at worst.

The mass hysteria may intensify, since people tend to harden their positions when they perceive an attack; it’s human nature. More and more, Trump supporters live with the stress and anxiety of terrible cognitive dissonance that pits self regard — I am a good person who voted wisely — against the daily drip-drip-drip water torture that is the ongoing fiasco known as the Trump Administration. Resolving that conflict is treacherous psychological territory. Unfortunately, the easiest way to mitigate the unpleasant discomfort cognitive dissonance brings is to avoid looking squarely at any information or evidence that upends one’s core beliefs about the self.

Artist: K C Green

It’s not hopeless. With each new revelation of Trumpian malfeasance, people are awakening, no longer in thrall. The last straw differs, but eventually the weight of pretending everything is just fine proves too much.

Still, as a society, we need to figure out how to confront the situation in the White House without making Trump’s supporters double down to avoid feeling stupid for being duped or, for some, to continuing enjoying feeling free to espouse white nationalist viewpoints and make life miserable for POCs, Muslims, LGBTQ community members, undocumented immigrants, etc. regardless of facts. Although it’s tempting to write off the “deplorables” and other fervent Trump supporters, they’re the minority, thank goodness, and we are better off without fomenting what some have called a “Cold Civil War.”

We need ways to persuade elected officials, including Speaker Ryan and Senate Majority Leader McConnell to stop putting their political and party interests above country. Clearly they prefer to pass tax breaks, gut regulations and fulfill other legislative fantasies over pursuing investigations, instigating impeachment or examining Article 25’s provisions, but the price of their intransigence is growing and may crest in 2018. Every time the GOP leadership, like Frank Drebin in Naked Gun, advises the public to “Move along; nothing to see here,” I wonder: cognitive dissonance or craven opportunism. The former may resolve but the latter is unforgivable.

But back to Trump’s wiretapping allegations. It’s Trump projecting yet again as part of his delusion-projection-revenge (or revenge fantasy) cycle. He wants to investigate and even jail his political opponents (“Lock her up!) and so assumes the same of others. He’s compromised over Russia and so is grasping at old photos of Senator Chuck Schumer and Representative Nancy Pelosi attending public events and painting President Obama as a Putin tool by intentionally misconstruing a 2012 comment made on a hot mic. It’s the “No puppet! No puppet! You’re the puppet!” moment from the third presidential debate all over again.

The Russia connection informs Trump’s fondness for revisiting and relitigating the election. It reveals Trump’s deep-seated fears about his own legitimacy expressed in an inability to grok the responsibilities and power inherent in his position. Consequently, he’s a buffoon using an insecure phone to wonder aloud about intelligence probes (instead of simply asking the DOJ or any of the IC agencies) and ask his Twitter followers for legal advice.

It’s no accident that Pence and many senior staff are laying low. Even if they remain in denial, it’s clear there’s no upside to peeping out of the bunker. Moreover, Trump’s penchant for casting himself in the victim role, on full display here, requires that he be persecuted, in this case by Obama but also, as revealed by his furor over Attorney General Sessions’ decision to recuse himself, by staff he deems incompetent.

Everyone should be aghast at the Trump Administration on competency grounds alone, including their propensity for own goals. If this is how Trump et al handle self-inflicted wounds, what will happen when there’s a bona fide crisis that requires careful thought and capable execution, let alone secrecy? Will it take a catastrophe to break through the shared delusion paralyzing so many citizens, elected officials, and members of the media? Just maybe.

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