A conclusion as to why some smart people support Trump is that it’s about tribes and fear. That fear, while tangentially factually-based, is grossly distorted from reality. Such fear appears to range from concern for personal safety, which is almost never in doubt, to a more generic anxiety about changes in our form of governance. They extrapolate progressive proposals to meaning the country is falling into Soviet-style communism. Lest you think I’m being too extreme, near daily a Ph.D.-level physicist sends out missives that the “Chi-Coms” control Biden and many of the Democratic Party senior officials. He is far from alone in transmitting communist symbology and associating it to the party. One of those is a retired CIA official. They are, after all, echoing Trump suggesting Biden is controlled by “people in the dark shadows.” That behavior might be expected from Russian trolls, but these comments emanate from well-educated Americans.
One of my most perplexing issues is attempting to understand why some very intelligent people remain ardent Trump supporters. It appears as if they are oblivious to facts that appear to be self-evident. Some of them, despite having advanced degrees and being very accomplished in their fields, ignore ground truth in favor of substitute theories that are the basis for alternate realities. After exploring a variety of options for intelligent people supporting Trump, the most parsimonious reason is that they identify with a primigenial tribe often from an amorphous impending sense of fear. Unfortunately, the tribe they think they belong to, the GOP, no longer exists in the form it was when they joined.
As Marianna Pogosyan, Ph.D. noted in Psychology Today, “perception is biased, selective, and malleable,” which explains part of what we are experiencing in today’s political environment. Called motivated reasoning, or motivated perception, these concepts do indicate frequently, we only see what we want to see. What seems certain is that in these current exchanges, fear is the motivating fact. It is also important to know that there are physiological differences that have been observed in the brains of conservatives and progressives. Specifically, fMRI studies found that under threat, increased activation of the amygdala is seen in conservatives. That means “when conservatives take risks, they are experiencing a higher level of arousal and a greater sensitivity to threatening stimuli.”
It is known that a substantial number of Trump’s voter base are less-educated white males. However, intelligence and educational level are not great predictors of who is more easily conned or mislead. In fact, magicians and con artists have known that for a very long time. But the issue addressed here concerns support in face of substantial evidence of the egregious behavior exhibited by Trump.
There are small groups for whom voting for Trump is reasonable. The first individuals are those with financial motives and that benefit in their personal circumstances from his actions. They might be among the very rich who have gained from tax breaks or are concerned about the oversight and regulations that could be enacted under a more liberal governance. Their support could be based on logical analysis of how their respective businesses might fare. For those in the financial sector, greater restrictions could lead to reduced income. Higher taxes that might be imposed on the rich also offers a rationale for avoidance of a Democratic Party controlled government. Some of them believe the events leading up to the economic crash of 2008 is something they could avoid if only allowed to police their own activities. History does not support such claims of self-responsibility. Numerically, however, those people meeting such financial criteria are relatively few in number.
Then there is the group of ultra-conservatives who are willing to make a Faustian bargain to reshape jurisprudence in America. That process is well underway. In addition to the two Supreme Court justices, that Trump has appointed, Gorsuch and Kavanaugh, under McConnell’s connivance, the Senate has confirmed 142 judges to U.S. District Courts, 32 to U.S. Court of Appeals, and a whopping 197 Federal Article III judges. While many of the nominees have been rated well-qualified, there are several who, though rated unqualified, have still been confirmed by the Senate. The damage that will be done to the country shall last for decades as their “conservative” opinions attempt to return the country to a time that never was. Already, we have seen findings that support gerrymandering and other voter suppression techniques.
Of most concern are the people who do not fit any rational prerequisite for support, yet continue to do so even when confronted with massive data about the damage being done to the country. Amazingly they have demonstrated the ability to justify any edict from Trump, no matter how illogical or counterfactual. Trump’s pronouncements on the COVID-19 pandemic are rife with examples. They range from “15 cases going to zero,” the repeatedly claimed, “we have it under control,” to his denial of personal responsibility. Even when Trump touts the absurd, like drinking disinfectant as a cure, these supporters create rationale to patronize whatever he espouses.
As indicated, the majority of Trump’s base are not well-educated. Many of them can be explained by considering the Dunning-Kruger Effect. Explored in other articles, the Dunning-Kruger Effect basically means that the person believes themselves to be far more knowledgeable than they really are. However, that only holds in the lesser educated group as some of these highly educated supporters are well versed on the facts, but tend to ignore issues that are not in accordance with their predisposition.
Education is an interesting criterion, but not the determining factor for those Trump supporters. One key proponent of whom I speak, actually went to the same schools with me from K-12. For the most part (K-9), we were in a very small class together, thus exposed to the same material and ethics. When counterintuitive facts are presented in political dialogue, his general reaction is to not respond. The alternative is “but what about,” and digression to an unrelated topic.
A very important factor appears to be where those supporters get their information. For most of those I have asked, it is from Fox News. A couple of those educated supporters have suggested watching OANN and claim their programming is more accurate than the dreaded mainstream media (MSM). They are correct in saying one will see news on OANN that won’t be seen on MSM, and for a reason. It is unbelievably biased and often spreads known conspiracy theories such as COVID-19 was created in a laboratory. The OANN actually makes Fox News look moderate, but it should be remembered that Fox News also was a proponent of the Seth Rich murder conspiracy.
Of course, it is no accident that the Trump supporters choose media outlets that reinforce their beliefs. Most people, consciously or unconsciously, do the same seeking confirmation bias for their political positions. There are very few outliers who are broadly read, yet still conclude Trump is worthy of their support. They are well aware of his personality and behavioral shortcoming, yet appear to accept them and capitulate to fear
Tribalism tends to trump rationalism. For many supporters, they identify with party affiliation with little or no understanding of what their group currently embraces. Most political observers recognize that Trump has taken over the GOP yet does not hold many of the traditional values that once were hallmarks. The main observation would be that he is not a conservative. Notably, this election cycle the GOP did not publish a new platform. Rather than a thoughtful deliberation of complex issues, the 2020 fallback position appears to be “Whatever Trump wants.” Certainly, the politically astute are keenly aware that the party has been hijacked. That led to the formation of the Lincoln Project that is dedicated to Trump’s removal, recognizing that they relinquish control for at least one election cycle and hope they can restore sanity in the future.
Another example is a well-educated consultant with a military background and with whom I corresponded on the topic. When addressing values, I noted that our normal common ones, including truth and integrity, were at stake with Trump. The response was astounding. He indicated that based on Biden’s acceptance speech, it was he who was not truthful. His comment was, “He (Biden) totally misquoted Trump about the riots where the Alt-Right showed their sorry asses. He (Trump) actually condemned them.” The only quote Biden made in that presentation regarding Trump was the infamous, “There were very fine people – on both sides.” The quote is accurate. As Marc Thiessen noted in a Washington Post op-ed, “A year after Charlottesville, Trump has still not explicitly condemned them.”
There is another person who simply relies on hatred of all Democratic politicians. He has no rational explanation for his position and is impervious to facts. His stated solution was “to take out 30 top Democrats and line them up against the wall and shoot them.” The zealot saying this to me went on to indicate that executions should continue each day until no one would identify as a Democrat. This is not isolated and signifies how deeply these anti-American concepts have permeated in some areas. Comparisons with 1933 Germany are not far off the mark.
Trump’s amorality is common knowledge yet obediently excused by his supporters. Their tolerance for hypocrisy is boundless and they appear to have no comprehension of the incongruence between their professed beliefs and Trump’s actions. Equally observed is Trump’s falsely taking credit for the positive work of others such as the economic trends inherited from Obama. This week he shamelessly claimed credit for sending the National Guard into Kenosha when it was the governor of Wisconsin that gave the order. Conversely, he refuses to accept responsibility for his negative actions/inactions such as the thousands of unnecessary COVID deaths in the country.
In 2016, Trump constructed a similar narrative indicating that the country was in disarray, and that he “alone could fix it.” Obviously, he failed. Recycled fear is exactly what Trump is sowing with a dystopian worldview that engulfs his followers. For his base, facts matter not. Portland has not “been burning for decades, nor would Kenosha have been “in ashes.”
When fear permeates, logic, values, and morals become sacrificial. The result, even with some intelligent and well-educated individuals, the tendency is to regress towards a more primal and tribal mentality, one that can obscure rationality and consensus reality. As shown, we even have scientists rejecting science and some military supporters willing to overlook Trump’s abandonment of allies in combat. Meanwhile, they allow QAnon fear-based conspiracy theories that Satanist pedophiles are in positions of power to percolate into mainstream thought.
The question becomes how can such easily identifiable errors be entertained by well-informed supporters? More disturbing is the sense that not only are alternative facts acceptable, but that our value systems are also biased, selective, and malleable. That is a very dangerous proposition.
In ending, I note former British Prime Minister, Tony Blair’s quote on his 30 August interview with Fareed Zakaria on his Sunday GPS (Global Public Square) on CNN. Addressing the future of Western Democracy, he stated, “I am mildly pessimistic.” Given what we are observing, that is an understatement. As Barack Obama, and other astute political observers have indicated, in this election, our democracy is at stake.
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