“Mademoiselle, I beseech you, do not do what you are doing.” “Leave dear Linnet alone, you mean!” “It is deeper than that. Do not open your heart to evil.” Her lips fell apart; a look of bewilderment came into her eyes. Poirot went on gravely: “Because — if you do — evil will come … Yes, very surely evil will come … It will enter in and make its home within you, and after a little while it will no longer be possible to drive it out.”
—Agatha Christie, Death on the Nile
There’s a good article up on Slate (with some good illustrations) comparing Donald Trump to the snake oil salesmen of yore and present. It focuses on why we shouldn’t expect his supporters to turn on him any time soon.
There are many who hope Trump’s supporters will hold him accountable. That they will insist he fulfill his promises about jobs or universal health coverage—and when those promises are broken, that their fervent support will turn into rage at having been duped, causing Trump anguish and eventually costing him re-election.
This is wishful thinking. Trump’s rise to power has followed a similar trajectory to that of quacks who peddle panaceas to the desperate—a bizarre and heartbreaking world I’ve long studied. Just like them, Trump will fail to deliver. But his supporters will find a way to exonerate him. Consider the ability of one “Archbishop” Jim Humble—a former gold prospector who claims extraterrestrial lineage—to persuade parents to pump their autistic children full of Master Mineral Solution, even though MMS, when activated by citric acid, becomes a dangerous form of industrial bleach. Or “Gerson” therapy evangelists, who talk cancer patients into paying thousands to detoxify with organic juice at a Tijuana, Mexico, clinic, despite studies showing the therapy is ineffective (unsurprising given that it was developed not by oncologists, but an early 20th-century Viennese doctor named Max Gerson as an unsuccessful tuberculosis treatment).
When people make big bets on miracle cures that fail to work, they rarely turn against the treatments or their merchants. Instead, they rationalize their misplaced faith, in order to save face, remain hopeful, and preserve an identity that’s defined by their courageous ability to reject the status quo.
The process of embracing a charlatan’s empowering vision is not rational, which means that rational arguments are unlikely, in isolation, to dispell it. Studies have repeatedly demonstrated that people cling tenaciously to their worldviews, and conflicting data may actually strengthen their beliefs. (Just look at this family who thinks Trump is “a man of faith who will bring Godliness back.”) To renounce Trump would mean admitting that one’s worldview—of a country wracked by carnage, as the president put it in his inaugural address, and a truth-telling hero who can heal it—is fundamentally mistaken. And that can also mean confronting existential panic without a panacea. It is much easier to forgive Trump for not locking her up than to wrestle with such truths.
Surprisingly, though the article discusses concepts like “epistemic uncertainty” and “sunk cost,” it never calls this fallacy by its name: cognitive dissonance. I think that people generally act first then justify later. When your actions conflict with your beliefs, changing your beliefs is always easier than changing your future actions, which is inconvenient, or changing your past actions, which is impossible. If Trump voters are asked to reconcile the action of voting for a racist with the belief that racism is bad, chances are they’ll decide that racism is good. But that depends on how his presidency goes.
To paraphrase, participants in the foundational experiment on cognitive dissonance were more likely to say a boring task was fun if they were paid $1 for it than if they were paid $20. Many people would have expected the opposite. But you don’t need to tell yourself that you enjoyed something boring if you were richly rewarded for it. That’s what the money is for. On the other hand, if you just got one measly buck, the pressure on you to justify your participation is strong. Nobody wants to feel like a fool.
If Trump actually makes the country better, his voters will be less likely to internalize his racism/sexism/ableism/basic lack of decency and may think of it as an unpleasant cost of doing business. But if he crashes it into a ditch like all signs suggest he will, his supporters will want to hang on to something that shows they were justified in voting for him. And I fear that the “I’m not racist” crowd will come to openly embrace the bigotry that Trump espouses.
Of course, cognitive dissonance goes both ways. Suppose you have a moderately liberal man who votes Democratic but doesn’t know why those protesters have to be so darn rude? Suppose that he did not expect Trump to win and did not participate in the 2016 election beyond voting. Suppose this man, shaken by the results, attended one of the Women’s Marches on Saturday. Suppose he found himself marching next to women, black women, LGBTQ women, disabled women, women of all stripes and backgrounds. Suppose he got caught up in the moment and joined in the chants of, “Black lives matter!” or “Her body, her choice!”
When this man replays the events of the day in his head, will he disavow what he said earlier? Or will he internalize his actions and emerge stronger for it? History suggests it will be the latter. The anti-Trump protests, beyond rebuking the idiot in the White House, could make better human beings out of their participants. That’s what I’m hoping for, at least.