Science shows supporters will refuse to accept they are wrong about their political choices.
Donald Trump is always entangled in self-created controversies. But none of his actions has impacted his remarkably stable approval figures. This shouldn’t surprise anyone.
Fluctuating around 40pc, his popularity has shown the least variation of any president since World War II. Recent polling highlights this trend, proving that none of his comments make any dent in his core support. His suggestion that four congresswomen should “go back home” didn’t create a blip, his comments about Baltimore being “infested” didn’t either.
Those who oppose him find it difficult to understand how this is still the case. But we know the answer. Voters, particularly partisan voters, don’t reason using logic. They reason using emotion.
And once someone makes a decision, it’s nearly impossible to convince them they were wrong.
In The Political Brain, Drew Westen, a professor of psychology at Emory University, Georgia, details his research into how voters made decisions in the 2004 election between John Kerry and George W Bush.
He found that even informed voters made decisions using emotion, not logic. And that they would perform impressive mental gymnastics to avoid acknowledging their own candidate was wrong or flawed.
In his experiment, he presented partisan voters – those who had already decided their vote – with 18 sets of manufactured but realistic statements involving obvious inconsistencies: six by Kerry, six by Bush and six by neutral figures.
For example, one statement had Kerry writing to a constituent saying he had reservations about the Gulf War, while the next had a letter to a different voter providing overt support for it from the start.
Westen asked the voters to rate the level of inconsistency of each candidate, and scanned their brains while they did so. The Democratic voters found inconsistencies in the statements by Bush but not in Kerry’s, the Republican voters the opposite. When faced with threatening data, voters “reason” their way to “emotionally biased conclusions”.
The brain scans found that when confronted with the contradictions, neurons linked to stress activated. But once people found a way to justify the contradiction, those negative circuits switched off, and circuits linked to positive emotions switched on. Voters actually got a kick out of refusing to face the truth.
This all happens quickly and, likely, subconsciously. The mental rewiring happens without the voter being aware of it.
Once a voter has made up their mind, the brain works hard not to let them change it. The 40pc who have always supported Trump won’t budge. In fact, they get an emotional reward for sticking around.
Westen’s findings explain Trump’s stability of support. The impact of ‘cognitive dissonance’ on decision-making adds to the understanding.
This is the theory that acting in a way which is in conflict with a perceived self-belief or value causes real mental distress. To alleviate this distress, a person will seek to justify the action in another way, rather than admit it was problematic.
For example, if a voter didn’t believe themselves to be racist, and a candidate they voted for acted in a racist manner, they’re more likely to rationalise – “What he said wasn’t racist because…” or “I don’t like that he doesn’t stop chanting at rallies but the economy is growing”.
Cognitive dissonance, both the term and idea, was coined by psychologist Leon Festinger, who studied a doomsday cult in the 1960s which believed a giant flood was coming to remove all pesky non-believers. When the flood didn’t arrive as predicted, the most committed members didn’t acknowledge they were wrong, they just recalibrated and said the flood was due, but their faith saved the world.
His findings have been replicated and applied to dozens of fields, with joint studies from Harvard and Yale confirming cognitive dissonance impacts voting decisions. The act of voting for a candidate significantly impacts how favourably that voter subsequently views their record. Being wrong hurts. Literally. And so our brain shields us from the pain by allowing us to believe we were right all along.
Added to this is the fact Trump has stayed true to the values he set for himself and he has delivered on many of his campaign promises.
He cut taxes, he appointed the ‘right’ judges, he changed the playing field on trade, he took the US out of the Paris climate accord and he significantly damaged Obamacare.
Allied to this, the US economy is strong. 56pc of voters approve of Trump’s handling of the economy, even if they don’t approve of him.
And he’s stayed on brand. He never portrayed himself as a compassionate conservative. Or a virtuous family man. His brand is not that of a person who even tells the truth or acts with humility. And so he isn’t judged by that criteria.
The author Naomi Klein has found his base judge him by his brand as a ‘winner’. This is why he was able to stand up in a debate in 2016 and say that not paying his taxes makes him “smart”. It didn’t matter if he was morally right, it mattered that he won.
Contrast this with the last incumbent president to fail to be re-elected: George Bush Sr ran initially as a fiscal conservative and during campaigning told voters to read his lips – “no more taxes”. He then raised taxes. He went against his brand, and was punished for it.
Trump will continue to be Trump. Trump voters will continue to perform the mental gymnastics required to keep him on his pedestal and justify their votes.
Recent events, like his comments about the four congresswomen, were deplorable lows. But they haven’t provided a big enough shock to reset his voters’ internal wiring.
Everyone needs to stop being surprised by that. Stop throwing hands up and decrying the madness of it all. It’s not unexpected and it’s not unexplained.
Some 40pc of US voters are cognitively wired to support Trump and to interpret the reality he creates to suit their own values. They are unconvertible.
Only two paths exist to beat him in 2020: convert Trump voters in the swing states such as Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, Missouri and North Carolina who voted for Obama; or boost turnout of Democratic voters who stayed at home in 2016 in Georgia, Texas and the four swing states.
Trump’s comments and controversies don’t help him with these swing voters. But they don’t harm him as much as they should because many of his opponents are consistently distracted by the next outrage.
The focus for any Democratic candidate needs to be on how to utilise the anger his actions draw and channel it towards a useful objective – getting people out to vote, the other way.
Lorcan Nyhan is head of careers and a senior communications consultant at the Communications Clinic