Whatever we finally see from the Mueller report, it’s clear there will be no coup de grace so politically devastating that Donald Trump would leave office mid-term. But does that mean Trump’s supporters won’t ever turn on him? I think I know the answer. It’s partly because I’ve been in their place.
During Watergate I was a die-hard Nixon dead-ender. I stuck with him after the Saturday Night Massacre in the fall of 1973 and the indictments of Nixon aides H.R. Haldeman and John Ehrlichman in 1974. Not until two months before Nixon resigned did I finally decide enough’s enough.
What was wrong with me? I’ve been haunted by that question for decades.
I can clear up one thing immediately. I didn’t support Nixon out of ignorance. I was a history major at Vassar during Watergate and eagerly followed the news. I knew exactly what he’d been accused of.
The fact is the facts alone didn’t matter because I’d already made up my mind about him. My fellow Vassar students—all liberals, of course—pressed me to recant. But the more they did, the more feverish I became in my defense. I didn’t want to admit I was wrong (who does?) so I dreamed up reasons to show I wasn’t—a classic example of cognitive dissonance in action.
A pioneering study by social psychologist Elliot Aronson conducted in the 1950s helps explain my mental gymnastics. Young college women invited to attend a risqué discussion of sexuality were divided into two groups. One group was put through a preliminary ritual in which they had to read aloud a list of words like “prostitute,” “virgin,” and “petting.” The other group had to say out loud a dozen obscenities including the word “fuck.” Afterwards, the members of both groups were required to attend a discussion on sex, which is what had been the draw. But it turned out they had all been duped. The discussion wasn’t risqué. The subject turned out to be lower-order animal sexuality. Worse, the people leading the discussion spoke in a monotone voice so low it was hard to follow what they were saying.
Following the exercise the students were asked to comment on what they had been through. You might expect the students who went through the embarrassing rite of speaking obscenities to complain the loudest about the ordeal. But that isn’t what happened. Rather, they were more likely to speak positively about the experience.
The theory of cognitive dissonance explains why. While all of the subjects in the experiment felt unease at being duped, those for whom the experience was truly onerous felt a more compelling need to explain away their decision to take part. The solution was to reimagine what had happened. By rewriting history they could tell themselves that what had appeared to be a bad experience was actually a good one. Dissonance begone.
This is what I did each time one of my Vassar friends pointed to facts that showed Nixon was lying.
Neuroscience experiments in the 21st century by Drew Westen show what happens in our brain when we confront information at odds with our commitments. In one study, supporters of President George W. Bush were given information that suggested he had been guilty of hypocrisy. Instead of grappling with the contradiction they ignored it. Most disturbing of all, this happened out of conscious awareness. MRI pictures showed that when they learned of Bush’s hypocrisy, their brains automatically shut off the “spigot of unpleasant emotion.” (It’s not a uniquely Republican trait; the same thing happened with supporters of John Kerry.)
In short, human beings want to be right and we want our team to win. But we knew all that, right? Anybody who’s taken a Psych 101 class knows about confirmation bias: that humans seek out information that substantiates what they already believe; and bounded rationality: that human reason is limited to the information sources to which we are exposed; and motivated reasoning: that humans have a hard time being objective.
But knowing all this isn’t enough to understand why Trump voters are sticking with Trump.
What’s required instead is a comprehensive way to think about the stubbornness of public opinion and when it changes. Until a few decades ago no one had much of a clue what a comprehensive approach might look like. All people had to go on was speculation. Then scientists operating in three different realms — social psychology, neuroscience, and political science — began to delve into the working of the human brain. What they wanted to know was how we learn. The answer, most agreed, was that the brain works on a dual-process system, a finding popularized by Daniel Kahneman, the Nobel prize-winning Princeton psychologist, in the book, Thinking Fast and Slow.
One track, which came to be known as System 1, is super-fast and happens out of conscious awareness, the thinking you do without thinking.
There are two components to System 1 thinking. One involves what popularly is thought of as our animal instincts, or what social scientists refer to, with more precision, as evolved psychological mechanisms. Example: the universal human fear of snakes. The other involves ways of thinking shaped by habit. The more you perform a certain task, the more familiar it becomes and the better you get at it without having to think about it.
Donald Trump likes to say that he goes with his gut. What he’s saying, likely without knowing it, is that he has confidence in his System 1. This is not exceptional. Most of us trust our instincts most of the time. What distinguishes Trump is that he seems to privilege instinct over reason nearly all of the time.
The second track, System 2, is slower and allows for reflection. This mode, which involves higher-order cognitive thinking, kicks in automatically when our brain’s surveillance system detects a novel situation for which we aren’t prepared by experience. At that moment we shift from unconscious reaction to conscious thinking. It is System 2 that we rely on when mulling over a difficult question involving multiple variables. Because our brain is in a sense lazy, as Kahneman notes, and System 2 thinking is hard, our default is System 1 thinking.
One thing that’s worth noting about System 1 thinking is that our brains are essentially conservative. While humans are naturally curious about the world and we are constantly growing our knowledge by, in effect, adding books to the shelves that exist in our mind’s library, only reluctantly do we decide to expand the library by adding a new shelf. And only very rarely do we think to change the system by which we organize the books on those shelves. Once we settle on the equivalent of the Dewey Decimal System in our mind, it’s very hard to switch to another system. This is one of the main reasons why people are almost always reluctant to embrace change. It’s why inertia wins out time and time again.
But change we do, thanks to System 2. But what exactly triggers System 2 when it’s our politics that are on the line? Social scientists finally came up with a convincing explanation when they began studying the effect of emotion on political decision-making in the 1980s.
One of the pioneers in this research is George Marcus. When Marcus was starting out as a political scientist at Williams College he began to argue that the profession should be focusing more on emotion, something they’d never done, mainly because emotion is hard to quantify and count and political scientists like to count things. When Marcus began writing papers about emotion he found he couldn’t find editors who would publish them.
But it turned out his timing was perfect. Just as he was beginning to focus on emotion so were neuroscientists like Antonio Damasio. What the neuroscientists were learning was that the ancient belief that emotion is the enemy of reason is all wrong. Rather, emotion is the handmaiden of reason. What Damasio discovered was that patients with a damaged amygdala, the seat of many emotions, could not make decisions. He concluded: The “absence of emotion appears to be at least as pernicious for rationality as excessive emotion.”
If emotion is critical to reason, the obvious question became: which emotion triggers fresh thinking? Eventually Marcus and a handful of other political scientists who shared his assumption that emotion is important to decision making became convinced that the one that triggers reappraisals is anxiety. Why anxiety? Because it turned out that when people realize that the picture of the world in their brain doesn’t match the world as it actually exists, their amygdala registers a strong reaction. This is felt in the body as anxiety.
Eventually, Marcus and his colleagues came up with a theory that helps us understand when people change their minds. It became known as the Theory of Affective Intelligence (later: the Theory of Affective Agency). The theory is straightforward: The more anxiety we feel the more likely we are to reconsider our beliefs. We actually change our beliefs when, as Marcus phrases it, the burden of hanging onto an opinion becomes greater than the cost of changing it. Experiments show that when people grow anxious they suddenly become open to new information. They follow hyperlinks promising fresh takes and they think about the new facts they encounter.
How does this help us understand Trump supporters? It doesn’t, if you accept the endless assertions that Trump voters are gripped by fear and economic anxiety. In that case, they should be particularly open to change. And yet they’re as stuck on Trump as I was on Nixon.
The problem isn’t with the theory. It’s with the fear and anxiety diagnosis.
Humans can multiple feelings at odds with one another simultaneously, but research shows that only one emotion is likely to affect their politics. The dominant emotion characterizing so-called populist voters like those attracted to Trump is anger, not fear. This has been found in studies of populists in France, Spain, Germany and Britain as well as the United States.
If the researchers are right that populists are mostly angry, not anxious, their remarkable stubbornness immediately becomes explicable. One of the findings of social scientists who study anger is that it makes people close-minded. After reading an article that expresses a view contrary to their own, people decline to follow links to find out more information. The angrier you become, the less likely are to welcome alternative points of view.
That’s a powerful motive for ignoring Trump’s thousands of naked lies.
Why did I finally abandon Nixon? For months and months I had been angry over Watergate. Not angry at Nixon, as you might imagine, but angry at the liberals for beating up on him. Nixon fed this anger with repeated attacks on the people he perceived as his enemies. As long as I shared his anger I wasn’t prepared to reconsider my commitment to his cause.
But eventually there came a point when I stopped being angry and became anxious.
I would guess that what happened is that over time Nixon’s attacks came to seem shopworn and thin. Defending him became more of a burden than the cost of abandoning him.
If I am right about the circuitous path I took from Nixon supporter to Nixon-basher, there’s hope that Trump supporters will have their own Road to Damascus epiphany. Like me, they may finally tire of anger, though who knows. Right-wing talk radio and Fox News have been peddling anger for years and the audience still loves it.
It took me 711 days from the time of the Watergate burglary to my break with Nixon, when I resigned from a committee defending him, to come to my senses. As this is published, it has been 812 days since Trump became president. And there’s little indication that Trump voters have reached an inflection point.
Any of a number of disclosures could disillusion a substantial number of them. We have yet to read the full Mueller report. Nor have we yet seen Trump’s tax returns, which might prove politically fatal if they show he isn’t really a billionaire or if they prove his companies depended on Russian money. (As Mitt Romney suggested, the returns likely contain a bombshell.)
If Trump’s disclosures suggest to his supporters that they were chumps to believe in him his popularity no doubt would begin eroding. And already there’s evidence his support has weakened. In January 51 percent of GOP or GOP-leaning voters said they considered themselves more a supporter of Donald Trump than the Republican Party. Two months later the number had declined to 43 percent. If this slippage is because more supporters feel they are embarrassed to come out as full-blown Trumpies he may be in trouble come election day.
In the end, politics is always about the voters. Until now, Trump has made his voters by and large feel good about themselves by validating their anger. But there remains the possibility that in the coming months disclosures may make them feel that they have been conned, severely testing their loyalty. If the anger they feel either wears off or is redirected at Trump himself their amygdala should send them a signal indicating discomfort with the mismatch between the known facts and their own commitments.
This presupposes that they can get outside the Fox News and conservative talk bubble so many have been living inside. Who knows if they will. It is worth remembering that even in Nixon’s day, millions remained wedded to his lost cause even after the release of the smoking-gun tape. On the day he resigned, August 9, 1974, 50 percent of Republicans still supported him even as his general approval dropped to 24 percent.
To sum up: Facts finally count if enough loyalists can get past their anger to see the facts for what they are. But people have to be exposed to the facts for this to occur. And we can’t be sure that this time they will be.