By Peter Chow
No matter how bad things get under Trump, his voters will stand by him rather than admit they were wrong to vote for him in the first place.
Psychologists know that admitting you are wrong is tough for anyone, because it’s such a blow to the ego. As Mark Twain observed, it’s a lot easier to fool people than to convince them that they’ve been fooled.
But what the past four years have shown us is that the already difficult task of admitting you are wrong is even harder for conservatives, because it will also require recognizing the unthinkable possibility – that liberals, those hated snowflake libtards, were right.
Just as Trump was warned for months about the coronavirus, conservatives were warned that blind loyalty to Trump — a dimwitted, vulgar reality TV star who is all ego and no brains — would result in disaster.
To face reality now would mean giving into the twin humiliations of admitting they were wrong and the liberals were right, a double humiliation that is clearly too painful to bear.
Trump, being a terminal malignant narcissist, understands the importance of ego preservation implicitly, which is why he often reframes criticism of his own failures as attacks on the people who voted for him.
During impeachment, this worked beautifully. Republican voters could see as well as anyone that Trump was guilty as hell, and that his blackmail scheme against the Ukrainian president was just the latest in a pattern of lifelong disregard for the law. But that 35-40%, his hard-core base, would rather deny the facts in front of their nose than admit that they were wrong and the liberals were right.
Back then, it seemed the stakes couldn’t get higher. But now they’ve been raised about as high as they can get, with the Covid body count piling up, the economy in meltdown, Trump trying to find a different, new way to kiss Putin’s ass every day, MAGA-moron mobs invading the capitol and statehouses and a deranged leader with a finger on the nuclear button.
In the face of all that, however, conservatives apparently continue to believe that saving face matters more than anything — more than saving American lives and more than rescuing the economy. The ugly truth is that Trump voters are playing along with his lies and incompetence because they cannot accept the alternative, which is to admit it was dumb and bad to vote for Trump in the first place.
You’ve heard the expression about a person who refuses to admit he’s wrong: “This is the hill he’ll die on.” For the 35% or so who can’t quit Donald Trump no matter what, that hill is starting to look less metaphorical and more literal every day.
The only thing that might be more perplexing than the psychology of Donald Trump is the psychology of his supporters. In their eyes, The Donald can do no wrong.
Even Trump himself seemed to be astonished by this phenomenon. “I could stand in the middle of Fifth Avenue and shoot somebody, and I wouldn’t lose any voters, OK? It’s, like, incredible.”
So how exactly are Trump loyalists psychologically or neurologically different from everyone else? What is going on in their brains that makes them so blindly devoted?
1. The Dunning-Kruger Effect
“When you are dead, you aren’t aware you are dead – the pain is felt only by those around you. The same thing applies when you are stupid.”
Many of those who support Donald Trump do so because of ignorance — basically they are under-informed or misinformed about the issues at hand. When Trump tells them that crime is skyrocketing in the United States, or that the economy is the worst it’s ever been, or that he actually won the election in a landslide and it was stolen from them, they take his word for it.
The seemingly obvious solution would be to try to reach those people through political ads, expert opinions, and logical arguments that educate with facts. Except none of those things will work to sway any Trump supporters from his side, despite great efforts to deliver this information to them directly.
The Dunning-Kruger effect explains that the problem isn’t just that they are misinformed; it’s that they are completely unaware that they are misinformed.
They don’t know that they don’t know. This creates a double burden.
Studies have shown that people who lack expertise in some area of knowledge often have a cognitive bias that prevents them from realizing that they lack expertise.
As psychologist David Dunning wrote in an op-ed for Politico, “The knowledge and intelligence that are required to be good at a task are often the same qualities needed to recognize that one is not good at that task — and if one lacks such knowledge and intelligence, one remains ignorant that one is not good at the task. This includes political judgment.”
Essentially, they’re not smart enough to realize they’re dumb.
And if one is under the illusion that they have sufficient or even superior knowledge, then they have no reason to defer to anyone else’s judgment.
How many times have we seen Trump declare, “I know more about …. than the experts!!.”
This helps explain why even nonpartisan experts — like military generals and highly respected physicians and scientists and public health experts – don’t seem to be able to say anything that can change the minds of loyal Trump followers.
2. Hypersensitivity to Threat
Science has shown that the conservative brain has an exaggerated fear response when faced with stimuli that may be perceived as threatening. A 2008 study in the journal Science found that conservatives have a stronger physiological reaction to startling noises and graphic images compared to liberals.
A brain-imaging study published in Current Biology revealed that those who lean right politically tend to have a larger amygdala — a brain structure that is electrically active during states of fear and anxiety.
And a 2014 fMRI study found that it is possible to predict whether someone is a liberal or conservative simply by looking at their brain activity while they view threatening or disgusting images, such as mutilated bodies. Specifically, the brains of self-identified conservatives generated more activity overall in response to the disturbing images.
So how does this help explain the unbridled loyalty of Trump supporters? These brain responses are automatic, and not influenced by logic or reason. As long as Trump continues his fear mongering by constantly portraying Muslims, Mexican immigrants and BLM and Antifa protesters as imminent dangers, many conservative brains will involuntarily light up like light bulbs being controlled by a switch.
Fear keeps his followers energized and focused on safety. And when you think you’ve found your protector, you become less concerned with remarks that would normally be seen as highly offensive.
3. Terror Management Theory
A well-supported theory from social psychology, called Terror Management Theory, explains why Trump’s fear mongering is doubly effective.
The theory is based on the fact that humans have a unique awareness of their own mortality. The inevitably of one’s death creates existential terror and anxiety that is always residing below the surface. In order to manage this terror, humans adopt cultural world views — like religions, political ideologies, and national, racial, ethnic and cultural identities — that act as a buffer by instilling life with meaning and value.
Terror Management Theory predicts that when people are reminded of their own vulnerability, which happens with fear mongering, they will more strongly defend those who share their world views and national or ethnic identity, and act out more aggressively towards those who do not. Hundreds of studies have confirmed this hypothesis, and some have specifically shown that triggering thoughts of vulnerability and doom tends to shift people towards the right.
Simply go back to Trump’s inaugural speech in 2017, of which former president George W. Bush commented,”That’s some weird shit.” It was a dark speech portraying the threat of an impending apocalyptic future and carnage from which he, alone, Trump, could and would save America.
By constantly emphasizing existential threat, Trump would create a psychological condition that makes the brain respond positively rather than negatively to bigoted statements and divisive rhetoric. Observers who have been puzzled over why Trump hasn’t lost supporters after highly offensive comments, one after another, need look no further than Terror Management Theory.
4. High Attentional Engagement
According to a recent study that monitored brain activity while participants watched 40 minutes of political ads and debate clips from the presidential candidates, Donald Trump is unique in his ability to keep the brain engaged.
While Hillary Clinton could only hold attention for so long, Trump kept both attention and emotional arousal high throughout the viewing session. This pattern of activity was seen even when Trump made remarks that individuals didn’t agree with. His showmanship and simple messages clearly resonate at a visceral level.
Donald Trump has been compared to the legendary showman P.T. Barnum. Trump himself has publicly embraced being likened to a man described by historians as “vulgar, childish, surely just a little crooked.” His willingness to invoke that set of values may be what his supporters are praising when they say he “tells it like it is.”
His base seems to view his readiness to dispense with ideals and ethics as a sign of fitness, actual strength, to deal with the world as he sees it: a cesspool of corruption and “carnage” in which only suckers still believe that honesty is the best policy.
Essentially, the loyalty of Trump supporters may in part be explained by America’s addiction with entertainment and reality TV. To some, it doesn’t matter what Trump actually says because he’s so amusing to watch. With the Donald, you are always left wondering what outrageous thing he is going to say or do next. He keeps us on the edge of our seat, and for that reason, some Trump supporters will forgive anything he says. They are happy as long as they are kept entertained.
Of course these explanations do not apply to all Trump supporters. Unique among Western countries, Americans have always held a hatred and distrust of their own government.
Some may support Trump to be rebellious or to introduce chaos into the system. They may have such distaste for the establishment that their vote for Trump, and rampage through the capitol building, was a symbolic middle finger directed at Washington and the “liberal elite.”.
The overwhelming majority of these people may be beyond reach, at least in the short term. The best we can do is to motivate everyone else to get out in the future to the voting booths.