Social Psychology Sheds Light on the Troubles of Trump Supporters

Followers of President Trump are in a psychologically difficult situation.

Posted Jul 21, 2020

Kermit the Frog used to lament, “It’s not easy being green.” Well, it’s not easy being a fan of President Trump these days, and I’m not referring to his sinking poll numbers. There are deeper problems, issues that are elucidated and illuminated by some now-classic insights of social psychology. To whit:

1. Cognitive Dissonance. First explored and named by Leon Festinger in the 1950s, it’s a simple yet powerful concept. Basically, people find it mentally painful (dissonant) to hold two contrary notions at the same time, especially if they refer to one’s self-perception. Most of us think of ourselves as, if not brilliant, at least acceptably smart. What to do if we find ourselves doing something stupid? One possibility is to deny that we did it. Another (easier to pull off) is to deny that it is stupid; otherwise, we’re stuck with some unpleasant dissonance. And so, many people go to great lengths to justify an action, tying themselves into some extraordinary knots to keep up appearances—even if just to themselves.

In their book, Mistakes Were Made, But Not by Me, psychologists Elliot Aronson and Carol Tavris tell some revealing stories. For example, members of the doomsday cult Heaven’s Gate believed that the Hale Bopp comet would be followed by an alien spaceship that would rescue true believers such as themselves from imminent catastrophe. They pooled their money and bought a fancy telescope with which to observe the great event but shortly thereafter attempted to return the telescope, claiming it was defective because they couldn’t see the spaceship. And after that, they died by suicide, but not because they were denied getting their money back.

Trump believers may be similarly stuck. They have hitched their conceptual wagon to their leader’s claim that COVID isn’t serious, that the US is doing a “great job” defeating it, and that basic public health responses such as social distancing and masks aren’t very important. All these claims are no more real than the nonexistent rocket ship Heaven’s Gaters. Admittedly, they haven’t directly committed suicide, but their actions are clearly dangerous to self and others, and in some cases, tantamount to suicide. Anything to avoid cognitive dissonance.

2. The Marshmallow Test.  Here is another well-established social psych concept, although one that has been critiqued in certain respects. But for our purposes, let’s take it at face value. The basic idea, developed by Walter Mischel, is that a young child is offered one marshmallow and told that if they refrain from eating it for, say, 10 minutes, they will then get two. The experimenter then leaves the room and, upon returning, notes whether the child has eaten the treat, or showed restraint. Each subject having been thus scored, they are examined years—ideally, decades—later, with the basic finding that those who delayed gratification did better on a variety of socio-economic measures: higher educational attainment, more social and economic success, and so forth.

The bottom line for our times is that much of the U.S., notably the Trump devotees, have resoundingly failed the Marshmallow Test. Encouraged by their leader, and giving full reign to their marshmallow craving, they just couldn’t bear the delay urged by responsible public health authorities. They eagerly “opened up,” and now they, and their potentially more responsible fellow Americans, are paying the price, as COVID cases spike in those states and communities that lacked suitable restraint.

3. Obedience to Authority. Another renowned social psych insight comes from the famous study conducted by Stanley Milgram in which a large proportion of otherwise normal and presumably empathic volunteers, who thought they were participating in a teaching experiment, were found willing to subject their “experimental subjects” to what would have been painful and even possibly lethal electric shocks. Of course, the volunteers were themselves the real subjects and the “shocks” weren’t genuine. Milgram's research, conducted in the aftermath of the Second World War and Hitler’s death camps, sought to illuminate whether the willingness of seemingly “good Germans” to go along with the Nazi “final solution,” was an aberration or somehow related to a flaw in the German national character (whatever that means).

Milgram’s disconcerting finding—confirmed in various ways by other researchers—was that obedience to authority is, alas, widespread. It is unknown what proportion of border agents and ICE personnel are Trump supporters, but a reasonable guess suggests that it is relatively high; if so, then it is not surprising that so many have obediently participated in cruelly separating families, and subjecting even young children to conditions suggestive of concentration camps (although thankfully, not literal genocide).

4. The Frustration-Aggression Connection. Dollard et al demonstrated many years ago that there is a deep connection between frustration and aggression. Although it is clear that not all frustration leads to aggression, and not all aggression is generated by frustration, the correspondence has remained robust. One of the most potent political appeals of candidate and now President Trump has been to the frustration of his followers: frustration that “their country” is being taken over by others who are ethnically, religiously, socially, and in various other ways different from themselves, that for the first time in American history, the prospect no longer beckons that the children of the white working-class have prospects that are less appealing than their own, that they themselves have not been receiving the deference they believe they deserve, and so forth.

In summary: frustrations galore. And not surprisingly, Trump’s appeal to his frustrated base has relied heavily on his own expressed aggression: lock her up, don’t take care to avoid head injuries when you throw a suspect into a police van, punch protestors (I’ll pay your legal bills if you do). In short, aggression as a response to and outlet for frustration.

Sad to say, there is more, such as the “fundamental attribution error,” whereby behavior by others viewed as undesirable (e.g., Black Lives Matter protesters) is seen as indicating their nasty, violent, unpatriotic nature, thereby justifying a response (e.g., violent and abusive treatment by police, National Guard, and even the regular U.S. military of overwhelmingly nonviolent people exercising their constitutional rights as something regrettably forced upon “us,” the good guys).

Also the curious susceptibility of many people to charismatic “strong man" leaders, which risks inducing them to follow these leaders even to their own detriment. Most of Donald Trump’s policies have in fact done great harm to the well-being of many of his most ardent supporters, whereupon only a small minority have been inclined or able to separate themselves from their adherence.

I am not optimistic that those Americans whose psychology has rendered them most captive to President Trump will disenthrall themselves. Asked why the great majority of Republican office-holders continue to express—at least publicly—support for the president, a senior Republican strategist (who insisted on anonymity) answered that it was “a choice between staying on this hell-ship or jumping overboard and drowning.”