"He didn't really mean to hurt me. He just gets upset sometimes."
"Maybe it was my fault. If I hadn't made him angry, he wouldn't have hit me."
"He really does love me. He's just been having a lot of problems lately."
The stereotype of the abused spouse or partner, who has a seemingly unlimited capacity for excusing, minimizing, or rationalizing the atrocities of the abuser, seems to me roughly analogous to the politically "faithful" voter.
For their individual reasons, both kinds of people seem to get attached emotionally to their experience of a power figure whose behavior they perceive as important to their sense of self, and cannot seem to evaluate their attachment in a rational way.
For the person in a physically abusive situation, the experience is more immediate, more stressful, and usually involves fear for her physical safety. For the faithful follower, the attachment may be rather less immediate, but may still be anxiety-producing when the prospect of disrupting it becomes imminent.
We have to wonder: what drives one person to tolerate and even excuse the most inhumane behavior by the abuser, another to overlook the moral failings of the cult figure, and another to rationalize the behavior of a political figure that is clearly inimical to his or her own self-interest?
How do we explain the apparent "loyalty" suggested by the atmospheric public approval ratings of some of the most vicious and oppressive dictators on the planet - think Russia, North Korea, and several African rulers, and – at various times – Latin American countries? Is it rational thinking, simple ignorance, or perhaps utilitarian self-interest?
Closer to home for Americans, how do we explain the continuing high approval ratings given to U.S. President Donald Trump by people who identify as Republican voters, in the face of an almost daily flow of actions, decrees, and policy announcements that recognized experts evaluate as likely to diminish, rather than increase, the privileges they say they value?
Perhaps the "battered spouse" syndrome has its counterpart in a "battered voter" syndrome. Having pulled the lever and made a personal commitment to one of the prospective hero figures offered as the next possible national leader, does a person take on a personal, emotional commitment to an "ideological package," so to speak – a story line and its story teller? Once made, does this personal commitment tend to crowd out other competing ideologies and ideologues, building a kind of ideological bubble around the one who has made the commitment?
In this, we hear the echoing voice of Leon Festinger, the Stanford researcher who posited the concept of cognitive dissonance, which he defined as an internal sense of psychological unrest, caused by trying to deal with two contradictory beliefs or commitments, one of which tends to be relatively conscious and clearly stated, and another that is typically anchored in less accessible feelings and impulses beneath the surface.
Festinger studied several doomsday cults, whose leaders had persuaded their followers to give up all their possessions and prepare for the end. In all cases, he observed that the cult's leaders and followers went into a state of denial and rationalization, rather than admit that their prophecy had failed. It took as many as two or three disconfirmations of their updated doom-dates before the cults collapsed.
For the super-faithful voter, we might posit one of the conflicting premises as the belief – or need to believe – that one is rational, logical, and well-informed. The subterranean premise could be a sense of anxiety connected with a fear of feeling incompetent, not sure of one's self, and being pushed around by others who express their opinions more strongly and skillfully. Possibly, adopting a packaged ideology, whether offered by a heroic figure or standing on its own, might make such a person feel more competent and confident.
Social critic Eric Hoffer offered guidance to demagogue-watchers in his landmark essay The True Believer. He identified the enabling social and political conditions, and the predispositions of those who were likely to join big causes or movements. Skillful demagogues have been using those methods for centuries, and will likely continue to do so.
In the current sociopolitical climate, we find a U.S. President in Donald Trump who, with the help of skilled political enablers and a revenue-hungry media industry, has created a cult of personality nearly unrivaled in modern history – especially in a democratic republic. If Festinger and Mailer offer us any historical guidance, it's probably that the Trump cult is in danger of fading as its faithful followers increasingly discover that the new order of things is not actually about them. When their emotional attachment to the Trump narrative – and the narrator – declines past a statistical tipping point, it's likely that the portion of popular support it represents will collapse. At such a point, his removal from the presidency might be very likely.
Dr. Karl Albrecht is an executive management consultant, coach, futurist, lecturer, and author of more than 20 books on professional achievement, organizational performance, and business strategy. He is listed as one of the Top 100 Thought Leaders in business on the topic of leadership.
He is a recognized expert on cognitive styles and the development of advanced thinking skills. His books Social Intelligence: The New Science of Success, Practical Intelligence: The Art and Science of Common Sense, and his Mindex Thinking Style Profile are used in business and education.
The Mensa society presented him with its lifetime achievement award, for significant contributions by a member to the understanding of intelligence.
Originally a physicist, and having served as a military intelligence officer and business executive, he now consults, lectures, and writes about whatever he thinks would be fun.
Festinger, Leon; Riecken, Henry W.; and Schachter, Stanley. When Prophecy Fails. Published 1957. Online: CreateSpace.
Hoffer, Eric. The True Believer: Thoughts On The Nature Of Mass Movements. New York: Harper, 1951.