In my last piece I mentioned how Trump’s behavior will not make his fans turn on him. There is very, very little that will make them do so, just as there is very little that will make me a fan of his. The science of human cognition can help us understand why. There’s the Backfire Effect. The Dunning Kruger Effect. Cognitive dissonance. These are well-researched and reasonably well-understood phenomenon. But they all feel overly complicated to me. There’s a reason Trump keeps doing outrageous things and his supporters don’t mind. The reason is that people don’t like to be wrong.
One of the nicest phrases to ever hear is, “You’re right.” We look for approval and confirmation everywhere. Students are an obvious example. A good grade makes you feel good; a bad grade makes you feel lousy. The amount of lousy you feel is directly related to how emotionally involved you are. If you get a C on a test that you didn’t study for, and forgot was coming, you won’t feel that bad. You might even feel relieved. But if you get a C on a test that you spent the last month religiously studying for, you will feel horrible. Parents will almost never feel their child is in the wrong. Why is that? It’s because there are few things people have a greater emotional investment in than their children.
Trump has spent his entire political career developing an emotional connection with voters. He’s been flirting with running for president for years, but his current career really got started with claiming that Obama wasn’t born in the US. This did two things. Obama’s fans got a strong reason to hate Trump. Obama’s detractors got strong reasons to love Trump. Both things amounted to the same goal, which is to create an emotional bond with his audience. If that means making some people hate him profusely, that’s fine. Because a roughly equal number of people will love him just as fervently. This strong bond that Trump has cultivated means that people are enormously invested in him. Such a huge investment means that if you do admit you were wrong about him, you will have an enormous psychological price to pay. It will feel terrible.
If you’re paying attention, you’ll notice a flaw in his plan. So many people emotionally invested in hating him also means that there is almost nothing he can do to win them over. Recent events emphasized this further. Immediately after the election, some voices that were critical of him changed slightly. They said to give him a chance. After all, he promised great things. Better healthcare, stronger economy, more security. But he has squandered any good will the Clinton voters might have had. This will hurt him, though not as much as you might think.
You might think that giving his detractors even more ammunition for hating him would be a problem for him. You’d be wrong. If Trump gives them nothing but reasons to distrust him, then they will simply focus on the flaws of his former political adversaries. I try to visit other bubbles. I hang around in the online forums and twitter feeds where his fans congregate. The vast, vast majority of articles and comments they share aren’t saying how great Trump is. They’re saying how terrible Clinton and Obama are. They are ignoring his flaws.
I wish things like Reddit and Facebook existed when Nixon was president. I would have loved to see what his fans thought of him in the weeks leading up to his resignation. It’s easy to forget, but Nixon was wildly popular at one point. He won the ’72 election 520 electoral votes to 17. He won the popular vote by a margin of 23%. This is while the Watergate scandal is slowly unfolding. We don’t have a Twitter feed from the 70s, but we do have popular media. Movies and books were massively pessimistic. Happy endings were in short supply. It seems to me the emotional tone of the country must have been massively negative. In short, we felt terrible.
It isn’t difficult to imagine something like that happening again. If there is concrete evidence of a crime so egregious that lawmakers and law enforcement are forced to remove Trump from office, it will probably lead to years of just feeling horrible. This is the danger of a strong emotional bond. It links you to your object of desire tightly, but will leave you so much lower if you’re disappointed.