A psychological effect called cognitive dissonance is the reason why Donald Trump’s insane statements trick some people into considering him a genius. The ideas in which they believe leave them no other choice.
One of Donald Trump’s central campaign promises was to build a wall along the U.S. border with Mexico and have Mexico pay for it. While Mexico immediately rejected the idea, construction experts agreed the project is functionally impossible, and legal experts predicted the wall would not significantly reduce illegal immigration, Trump supporters were unconcerned by these statements. They argued that Trump was using the term “wall” metaphorically and never intended to build a real wall or that the supposed problems would be insignificant.
The border wall is an interesting topic. We have an impossible proposal that is too expensive to build, that nobody wants to pay for, and that is incapable of accomplishing its intended goal. Many people understand this but still support the candidate who made the promise. What is going on here?
Why do people support a border wall?
Interviews and surveys strongly indicate that most Trump supporters understand that building a wall along the entire Mexican border is neither feasible nor likely to create any positive change. The reason why they support the idea anyway is a psychological phenomenon called cognitive dissonance.
Cognitive dissonance describes the uncomfortable feeling that we get when we simultaneously hold two or more contradictory beliefs. To release ourselves from the discomfort, we must find a way to align both beliefs.
For example, we experience cognitive dissonance when we think of ourselves as good people but do something bad. We want to hold both beliefs – we want to admit that we were wrong but remain good – but since both beliefs contradict each other, we are distressed.
To resolve our cognitive dissonance, we can learn to admit that even good people sometimes do bad things and that we are not as perfect as we would like to be. This would be a good way of dealing with the issue, but it is also complicated and requires a lot of self-discipline. No one chooses this option all the time.
It is easier to subconsciously reinterpret the situation. We could argue that what we did was not that bad, that we were provoked, or that the person we hurt had it coming. This is an imperfect but simple solution, which is why our subconscious prefers it to leaving the issue unresolved and choosing a better but more complex solution.
We find the same process in many situations of our daily lives:
- Most of us consider ourselves above average workers. When we cause a problem, we have to align both beliefs. Sometimes, we blame co-workers, sometimes our bosses, and sometimes other things – but we have to find a reason why the problem is not our fault.
- Most of us consider ourselves above average drivers. When we have an accident, we are often unable to accept blame and find all sorts of reasons why it was someone else’s fault – the other driver, the car manufacturer, or the people who put up the street signs.
- When we lose in a team sport, we overemphasize the bad play of our team mates or the mistakes of the referee. Since we all want to think of ourselves as good players that do not cause defeats, this reasoning helps us resolve our cognitive dissonance.
As human beings, we strive for internal mental consistency. When we believe in something but encounter conflicting evidence, we often reinterpret the evidence in a way that supports our initial belief.
This is what happened to Trump supporters. They believed that Donald Trump would make an ideal president, and when he proposed a highly questionable project such as building a wall, they experienced cognitive dissonance. They had four ways of relieving this dissonance:
- Change their initial belief. (“Maybe he wouldn’t be a good president after all.”)
- Justify the original belief by changing the conflicting belief. (“It is possible and reasonable to build a 4,000-mile long border wall.”)
- Justify the original belief by adding new beliefs. (“Trump is the world’s best negotiator. That’s why only he can pull off such an impossible project.”)
- Ignore or deny the conflicting belief. (“He is not really trying to build a wall.”)
Trump supporters reacted in all four of these ways. Some abandoned their belief – but some also chose one of the other three options.
The problem with the last three options is that they all imply some form of genius. To keep their original belief alive, Trump’s supporters had to invent reasons why he could do the impossible, which necessarily bestowed him with superhuman qualities.
This is why even Trump’s questionable statements intensify the belief of his core supporters that he is the ideal president. They have to attribute him with genius qualities to resolve their cognitive dissonance.
This is also why Trump supporters support the border wall. They have created a world view in which Trump can do no wrong – and if he wants to build a border wall, it must be the right thing to do.
Why do Trump supporters experience cognitive dissonance?
It seems interesting that Trump supporters act on cognitive dissonance at all.
We can easily see why a person experiences cognitive dissonance when they feel their self-image of being a good person is threatened. There is a lot on the line. But why do they act on cognitive dissonance when someone questions Donald Trump’s ability to be a good president?
While we almost always experience cognitive dissonance when we are wrong, this instinct is often weak. There are many more feelings that motivate our behavior and they often easily overwrite the action tendencies of cognitive dissonance.
When someone corrects us, our good manners often tell us that it is a bad idea to start an argument. We accept that we were wrong. This decision is counter-intuitive. We feel the desire to invent an excuse, but we can learn to make a better decision and avoid being controlled by destructive instincts.
Some Trump supporters failed to do the same thing. Why?
The reason is that their belief in Trump is based on ideas with a high moral quantity. These ideas shape their world view and distort reality to fit their preconceptions. We talked about the ideas that persuaded people to support Trump in other articles, we will not repeat them at this point and stick with the big picture.
The main characteristic of destructive ideas are:
- They divide the world into irreconcilable groups,
- They force a binary argument, and
- They appeal to higher wisdom.
As a result of these three characteristics, destructive ideas create an infinitely evil threat and a white knight that protects us from this threat.
Almost all of Trump’s ideas fulfill these criteria. With his focus on winning, divisive rhetoric, and appeals to a higher American wisdom, Trump is the prototype of a modern-day politician with a high moral quantity.
All ideas that show these characteristics trick people who believe in them into creating the role of a great savior or demigod. This is why we find cults of personality in most communist and fascist regimes. When we find them in a democracy, we should pause and reflect.
Constructive governments are driven by constructive systems, not by special people. Good systems work with flawed people, but nobody can save a flawed system.
- When Trump proposes nonsense, the cognitive dissonance of his supporters counters this conflicting information with an increased belief in Trump’s greatness.
- Trump supporters experience cognitive dissonance because they believe in high-moral-quantity ideas, and these ideas necessarily create the role of a savior. Trump fills this role.
- Whenever we believe in the greatness of a leader, we should reconsider our motivations. Likely, an idea with a high moral quantity tricked us. Always believe in the system first.
If you liked this article, you will probably enjoy my book The Theory of Moral Duality: How to Avoid Destructive Political Ideas, Heal Divided Societies, and Deal More Kindly With One Another. Get it on Amazon now!