Donald Trump opponents should spend less time psychoanalysing Trump supporters and more time reflecting on the reasons for their own deep unpopularity
Sometimes, one wonders whether the American left actually want to defeat Donald Trump at all, or if they are more interested in parading their superior moral virtue for others to see. Certainly, the way that they are behaving in the media at present suggests that defeating Trump has become less important than using him as a mirror to reflect their own supposed holiness.
What else could excuse the rash of execrable articles openly mocking Trump supporters and suggesting that they are morally and intellectually defective?
First, a sanctimonious piece in the Washington Post explaining to it’s oh-so-enlightened readers why “facts don’t matter to Trump’s Supporters“:
How did Donald Trump win the Republican nomination, despite clear evidence that he had misrepresented or falsified key issues throughout the campaign? Social scientists have some intriguing explanations for why people persist in misjudgments despite strong contrary evidence.
Trump is a vivid and, to his critics, a frightening present-day illustration of this perception problem. But it has been studied carefully by researchers for more than 30 years. Basically, the studies show that attempts to refute false information often backfire and lead people to hold on to their misperceptions even more strongly.
This literature about misperception was lucidly summarized by Christopher Graves, the global chairman of Ogilvy Public Relations, in a February 2015 article in the Harvard Business Review, months before Trump surfaced as a candidate. Graves is now writing a book about his research at the Rockefeller Foundation’s Bellagio Center in Italy.
Graves’s article examined the puzzle of why nearly one-third of U.S. parents believe that childhood vaccines cause autism, despite overwhelming medical evidence that there’s no such link. In such cases, he noted, “arguing the facts doesn’t help — in fact, it makes the situation worse.” The reason is that people tend to accept arguments that confirm their views and discount facts that challenge what they believe.
This “confirmation bias” was outlined in a 1979 article by psychologist Charles Lord, cited by Graves. Lord found that his test subjects, when asked questions about capital punishment, responded with answers shaped by their prior beliefs. “Instead of changing their minds, most will dig in their heels and cling even more firmly to their originally held views,” Graves explained in summarizing the study.
Entirely missing from this “analysis” is any acknowledgement that the phenomenon works both ways, and that Trump supporters are not the only ones prone to confirmation bias, that entirely human instinct to search out more corroborating evidence when attacked rather than accepting the potential validity of the criticism.
The same charge could just as easily be levelled at Hillary Clinton supporters who aggressively dismiss questions around the ethics and competence of the Democratic Party nominee. And while this blog believes that many of these concerns have more to do with a good old fashioned witch hunt than principled criticism (note how Hillary Clinton was previously dismissed by many as a far-left ideologue and is now criticised by the same people, correctly, as a triangulating centrist) the reaction of hardcore Hillary Clinton defenders to criticism of their candidate is no different than the way that Donald Trump’s supporters defend their man.
Unfortunately, this Washington Post article (especially its headline, which in fairness to author David Ignatius was probably not of his creation) makes it seem as though it is only Donald Trump supporters who are susceptible to the trait of confirmation bias, when this is absolutely not the case. It is, in effect, another part of the grubby effort to dismiss the concerns of Trump-supporting Americans, suggesting that their views and political preferences are the result of defective thinking rather than legitimate grievances and concerns.
Even worse than the Washington Post piece, though, is this article from Raw Story, in which neuroscientist Bobby Azarian attempts to remotely diagnose supposed abnormalities found in the brains of Donald Trump supporters.
The piece (the cover picture of which shows a Trump supporter’s face frozen mid-gesture, all the more to make her look stupid) alleges:
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 seems 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?
Again, here we see the same arrogance which wrongly presumes that other partisans would behave differently when confronted with evidence that “their” candidate is in some way unacceptable. Yet anybody with eyes and a functioning brain knows that “Hillary Bots” and “Bernie Bros” were likewise called out for blindly supporting their chosen candidate regardless of new information presented.
The article then goes on to list various potential theories which may explain the supposedly uniquely abnormal thinking of Trump supporters:
Some believe that 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, they simply take his word for it.
[..] 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. 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 puts it 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. This helps explain why even nonpartisan experts — like military generals and Independent former Mayor of New York/billionaire CEO Michael Bloomberg — as well as some respected Republican politicians, don’t seem to be able to say anything that can change the minds of loyal Trump followers.
There is a kernel of truth here, inasmuch as that the Dunning-Kruger effect is certainly real, and does in some way explain the behaviour of Trump supporters (others have used it to similarly belittle Fox News viewers). But Azarian seems to be suggesting that Donald Trump supporters are particularly liable to this erroneous thinking, while providing absolutely no evidence to back this up.
Azarian would have us believe that Hillary Clinton supporters are wise oracles, high-minded arbiters of truth and wisdom, who dispassionately compare various politicians against their entirely rational criteria before coming to support their candidate. One can be quickly and easily disabused of this notion by actually speaking to a particularly committed Clinton supporter.
We also see creeping into Azarian’s analysis the same bias in favour of a “tyranny of the experts” which we saw in Britain’s EU referendum, where a whole parade of economists and members of the economic and political elite lined up to bully Britons into voting to remain in the European Union. When Britain rejected the threats of the Remain campaign and voted for Brexit, many commentators have had a complete meltdown, unable to understand how their compatriots could be so “stupid” as to reject the advice of so many self-described experts.
But what they failed to realise is that Brexiteers were not judging the question of Britain’s membership of the EU in the same terms as the experts. The experts, nearly all sinecured members of the establishment, had a post-patriotic mindset in which democracy and self-determination were irrelevant while economic stability and minimising disruption for current economic winners was all that mattered. Brexiteers, by contrast, actually cared about democracy and freedom, and having control over the decisions which affect their lives (as backed up by opinion polling in the immediate aftermath of the referendum). Seeing yet another EU-funded university professor wail that Brexiteers were “racist” and that leaving the EU might cause short term economic uncertainty left us entirely unmoved – to Brexiteers, such uncertainty is a price well worth paying to be free of an organisation as offensively antidemocratic as the European Union.
We see this same arrogance at work in Azarian’s lament that Trump supporters continually disregard the advice of military experts and their economic betters. One does not need to be a Trump supporter – this blog certainly is not – to understand that in the eyes of many Americans, the experts feted by the anti-Trump crowd are the very same people who presided over two very questionable wars and the greatest recession since the Great Depression. In other words, their advice simply doesn’t count for much in the eyes of Trump supporters – and often, the “experts” have only themselves to blame.
So what can we do to potentially change the minds of Trump loyalists before voting day in November? As a cognitive neuroscientist, it grieves me to say that there may be nothing we can do. 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 to the booths and check the box that doesn’t belong to a narcissistic nationalist who has the potential to damage the nation beyond repair.
Well, congratulations – this article has contributed to a toxic atmosphere of derision against Trump supporters which will have only hardened his support (as even Azarian recognises at one point during the piece). By penning yet another unbearably sanctimonious piece absolving the political establishment of any responsibility for the rise of Donald Trump and suggesting that his supporters are uniquely prone to confirmation bias and other cognitive flaws, the anti-Trump forces are given more license to think of themselves as uniquely rational and virtuous, and to look down on the significant minority of their fellow Americans who prefer Trump to the rotten establishment.
If Donald Trump is to be halted (or the poison taken out of a narrow Trump defeat), the only words this blog wants to see running through the minds of moderate Republicans and Democrats are “how have I enabled the rise of Donald Trump?” and “what can I do differently to stop enraging so many ordinary decent voters, and pushing them into the arms of a demagogue with such questionable policies, morals and temperament?”.
The easy option for the #NeverTrump crowd is to sit back, bask in their own moral virtue and clutch their pearls while looking at horror at the ill-educated, uncouth white trash who give Trump the time of day. That way risks the world waking up to President-Elect Trump on 9 November.
The harder, more virtuous task is to engage in some real introspection, and think hard and uncompromisingly about how years of Democratic and Republican government and opposition have generated such disillusionment and outright hatred of the political class that ordinary, decent people are willing to vest their hopes in Donald Trump.
If the political class are to succeed in preventing a Donald Trump victory, they must demonstrate a willingness to change. Cheerleading for the status quo while angrily demonising those people who refuse to accept it is simply not good enough. Not this time.
Now is the time for the American political class to show that they are capable of humility and change, not simply to engage in anti-Trump moral grandstanding. Donald Trump did not become the Republican Party’s presidential nominee in a vacuum. The flame of Trumpism only burns bright because it is sustained by the hot air of establishment Democrats and Republicans who fight their furious pitched battles in Washington D.C. while too many Americans have seen zero change in their own personal circumstances.
So by all means, America’s smug armchair psychiatrists among the #NeverTrump political establishment should go on diagnosing Donald Trump all they want. This blog certainly believes that anyone who gets into Twitter spats with Gold Star parents and D-list celebrities while running for president is dangerously emotionally unstable at best.
But there is nothing to be gained from going to war with Donald Trump’s supporters, many of whom have been repeatedly let down by the moderate, establishment politicians we tend to respect, and whose anger deserves to be acknowledged.
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