Many Americans are at a loss to explain the logic of the 44 Republican Senators who, in spite of strong and damning evidence, voted to acquit former Pres. Donald Trump during the recent Senate impeachment trial. They are further bewildered by a recent poll reporting that 79 percent of Republican voters approve of the former president.
Of course, there are many reasons for Republican members of Congress’ loyalty to Trump: Fear of his voting base, tribal loyalty, concerns about harsh feedback from other Republicans, and even worries of physical harm should they speak out against Trump. With these motivations in the background, add a mixture of denial and cognitive dissonance to the understanding of Trump’s supporters.
Denial is a straightforward and primitive psychological mechanism. It is a refusal to acknowledge uncomfortable evidence that contradicts one’s beliefs and attitudes, especially those aligned with personal identity or ambition. “The election was stolen. Trump overwhelmingly won.” “Trump isn’t responsible for the behavior of his followers” These arguments avoid consideration of all contradictory evidence. They also suppress the psychological discomfort of facing the possibility of being duped.
Cognitive dissonance, on the other hand, doesn’t totally deny disconfirming evidence. It merely bends the evidence to feel more psychologically palatable. “I was never totally convinced the election was stolen, but I have no doubt that there was fraud.” “Trump was just using political language in telling his supporters to fight.” Such interpretations don’t deny that the election was lost or that the rioter’s behavior was unlawful, but they shield Trump loyalists from acknowledging that their beliefs could be wrong.
Cognitive dissonance was first identified when researcher Leon Festinger studied a group that believed the Earth would be destroyed by a flood on December 21, 1954. The believers would be rescued by an alien spaceship.
On the designated date, the group excitedly waited for the midnight arrival of the craft and their departure. When it did not arrive, they were led to believe that there had been an error in communication and another date was announced. Ultimately, after predictions of the world’s flood did not materialize on repeated dates, the most committed concluded that the earth was not flooded because of the faithfulness of the group – denial. The less totally committed adjusted their thinking, concluding that there was a miscommunication from the leader – cognitive dissonance.
In doing so, the believers either denied or bent reality while maintaining their own dignity. They also avoided the mental possibility that they were bamboozled.
These same mental gymnastics appear in Trump supporters as they confront a lost election and the rampage of January 6. For those who reached a cult-like commitment, denial avoids the great pain in accepting that their belief and involvement were based on falsehoods.
For those somewhat less committed Trump supporters, who allow some contradictory information to enter their thinking, cognitive dissonance is more likely to come into play, providing coverage for their original beliefs. They, too, avoid the hard discomfort that their commitment was based on lies or distortions.
While Festinger’s study helps in understanding cognitive dissonance, it has limitations in understanding Trump supporters. The group that believed the world would be flooded could not easily attract followers via the communication technology of their time.
America has changed. Right-wing and social media now provide ample confirmation of conspiracy and grievance theories. Consequently, the number who can believe the message can grow enormously and thereby expand credibility. Through either denial or rationalization, they can remain impervious to the truth.
Denial and cognitive dissonance will both play an important role in moving forward. With the passage of time, reality, or some version of it, will seep into the minds of the less committed Trump supporters. They will find mental adjustments that save face and otherwise soften their interpretation of reality.
Those using denial are likely to maintain their beliefs for the remainder of their lives, leaving Trump with, perhaps, his most lasting legacy.