Thoughts And Ideas
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Thoughts And Ideas

TRUMP SUPPORTERS

Inside the Mind of a Trump Loyalist

3 Principles to Explain Die Hard Trump Support

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Events like the extraordinary riot at the Capitol don’t happen without unwavering, cult-like support for a controversial figure. Ever Since that fateful day in 2015 when Trump descended the escalator and announced his presidential run, I’ve been fascinated by his continued support despite many character and judgement failures. Under normal circumstances, one major issue — such as the Access Hollywood tape, an impeachment for withholding $400 million in Ukraine foreign aid in exchange for a Biden investigation, or the mishandling a pandemic that has killed over 350,000 Americans — would deflate a politician’s popularity faster than you can say “fake news.” Trump did all of these and more, yet roughly 35–40% of the electorate not only maintain a fierce loyalty, their fervor seems to increase with each controversial episode. Why?

An Important Question

The answer to this question is consequential because it is a mirror into our American polarization. Is this “cult of personality” support an aberration or the dawn of a new age? The best way to answer this would be to scientifically survey Trump supporters on the nature of their loyalty, but we can’t count on their openness. As Seth Stephens-Davidowitz points out in his book, “Everybody Lies,” people have no incentive to be truthful in surveys. And we saw in both the 2016 and 2020 presidential polling errors a unique form of support grounded in so much institutional mistrust that we can never know their true feelings: the shy Trump voter.

Instead, we have to fall back on social science to understand the mind of a Trump loyalist. I’ve written previously about confirmation bias, which certainly plays a role in Trump’s support. But there is something deeper happening and tribal mentality cannot fully explain it. I have a theory about three principles from social science that explain Trump’s die-hard support. All three share a common thread: they are part of our human condition to use automatic decision-making tools to manage our complex, modern environment.

Here’s what I mean — humans don’t have the time or mental capacity to carefully review and analyze all the information for every choice we have to make, so we develop shortcuts to help us manage our choices. One example: we assume a product is better if it is more expensive, which is generally true. Instead of analyzing each product’s features and cost, we use the shortcut “expensive = better.” These automatic shortcuts usually work for us, like trusting a friend’s advice. But they aren’t fool-proof. Consider a common automatic shortcut in politics: my party’s candidate is better than the other person. Since my party generally aligns with my beliefs, it is easier to go down the ballot and choose my party’s candidate automatically than to perform a detailed analysis of each candidate.

With this in mind, here are the three social science principles at the center of my theory about die-hard Trump support:

1 — The Consistency Principle

If you haven’t read “Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion” by Robert Cialdini, I cannot recommend it enough. He describes six “weapons of influence” that can be used to trigger these automatic decision-making shortcuts we make as humans. Although the book is for marketers, I believe two of the weapons are deeply ingrained in Trump loyalists. The first is called the consistency principle.

Cialdini defines the consistency principle this way:

“It is, quite simply, our nearly obsessive desire to be (and to appear) consistent with what we have already done.”

Once we make a choice, we feel internal and external pressures to behave consistently with that choice. The consistency principle represents our oftentimes stubborn efforts to respond in ways that continually justify our decision.

Why do we feel the need to be consistent? Cialdini provides two answers. First, it acts as an automatic response shortcut in our decision-making process — once we have decided on an issue, we don’t have to think hard about it anymore. Second, and more dangerous, the shortcut of consistency allows us to sidestep the cold reality that we might have been wrong in our decision. Cialdini says consistency gives us a way to hide from troubling realizations we might make. In his words, “sealed within the fortress walls of rigid consistency, we can be impervious to the sieges of reason.”

The parallels are obvious between the consistency principle and supporters’ loyalty to Trump. Once their support was granted, each subsequent controversy, moral shortcoming or poor judgement required little consideration. Deciding Trump no longer deserves their support means acknowledging they were wrong about him, and this is a hard for anyone to admit, let alone one’s choice for president.

2 — The Commitment Principle

The consistency principle is made possible by our commitments — once we put a commitment in place, we are unusually stubborn in our adherence to that commitment. Cialdini calls this the commitment principle and it works hand-in-hand with the consistency principle.

More interestingly, Cialdini found that a commitment made publicly tends to be more hardening and lasting. A great experiment by psychologists Morton Deutsch and Harold Gerard proved this out. They asked three groups of college students to estimate the length of lines they were shown and wanted to test how likely each group would stick to their estimates after receiving information that their judgements were incorrect. The first group was asked to write down their estimate and make it public; the second group was ask to write down their answer privately, and the third group was allowed to keep their estimate anonymous.

Once each group received information suggesting their initial estimate was wrong, they were given a chance to change their answer. By far, those who made public declarations were least willing to change their minds. The public aspect of their commitment had hardened their position, even in the face of evidence indicating they were wrong.

Once again, the applicability to a Trump loyalist is obvious. They are extremely vocal about their support and do so publicly with MAGA hats, signs and rallies. They harden those positions on social media with the click of a mouse or a tap on their phone. Because their commitment is so public, it becomes harder to back away even when Trump does something they might vehemently disagree with. It is easier to justify their commitment than question something they have made so public.

3 — The Power of Doubt

Trump’s die-hard loyalists bathe in conspiracy theories that often defy logic and reason, from QAnon to the current election fraud claims. There’s even a theory circulating that Antifa was responsible for the insurrection at our nation’s Capital. Why would otherwise reasonable people support such nonsense?

In his amazing podcast “Cautionary Tales,” Tim Harford describes a phenomenon he calls the power of doubt. He says it is easier to argue against positions you don’t like than argue for positions you support. Because of this, doubt is easy to manufacture. In Harford’s words, “disbelief flows more fluidly than belief.”

People and organizations on the wrong side of the facts defend their positions by sowing doubt. The simplest argument, according to Harford, is to get people to believe in nothing. For example, in 1965 a US Senate committee was debating whether to put a health warning on a pack of cigarette given the statistical evidence linking smoking to cancer. The tobacco lobby hired Darrell Huff, who argued the correlation between smoking and cancer didn’t prove anything by showing statistics that Dutch homes with more children had a correlation with a greater number of stork nests on their roofs. Huff argued smoking cannot cause cancer any more than storks deliver babies.

Of course, this was a false equivalency. There are more stork nests on Dutch homes with more children because these homes tend to be bigger and have more surface area for nests, while the studies linking smoking and cancer controlled for external factors to prove both correlation and causation. But the tobacco lobby’s goal wasn’t to disprove the science — it was to manufacture doubt, pause the action on warning labels, and call for more research. Delay was the endgame, and the proliferation of doubt continued for many years.

In Trump’s case, the facts are often not on his side, especially in his efforts to overturn the election. So he creates doubt by using his social media megaphone and compliant media. He claims the election was stolen, and supportive media outlets echo back. Trump points out the media reports as proof, and this cycle gets endlessly consumed by his loyal supporters on Parler and other echo chambers. The vibrations of doubt amplify until they become a megaphone, providing an excuse for anyone looking for a reason to deny the facts.

Conclusion

When we weave together all three principles, it becomes easier to understand why die-hard supporters remain so committed in the face of Trump’s behavior. They use doubt, the commitment and consistency principles as an automatic response to explain facts they aren’t willing to accept. Sadly, it is more convenient to fall back on these automatic shortcuts than challenge our decisions, whether it is support for our politicians or any other choice of consequence.

We’re all human, which means we’re all guilty of this to one degree or another. The loyalty of Trump’s support says more about us than it does about him. Until we look into that mirror of polarization and challenge our beliefs, Trump will be more than an aberration.

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Chad Hahn

Chad Hahn

Husband, father of 3 boys, 2 time entrepreneur, tech enthusiast (esp blockchain), yellow Whole Brain thinker and supporter of under-served communities