WASHINGTON — Hillary Clinton is the dumbest, laziest, least-successful, most incompetent evil genius to ever orchestrate the most complicated conspiracy in history. Or at least, that is the summary of how Donald Trump describes her.
No, it doesn’t make much sense when you put it like that, but consider: On the one hand, the GOP presidential nominee lambastes his Democratic rival for many supposed ills ― incompetence, terrible judgment, defective instincts, and, perhaps worst of all, low energy. (“No naps for Trump!” he sometimes declares.)
On the other hand, Clinton is crooked, guilty of decades of crimes, and has somehow managed to rig the Justice Department, local prosecutors and the media to escape punishment for all those years. And then she went on to fix the entire electoral system and put herself at the very doorstep of 1600 Pennsylvania Ave. (Grassy knoll, you’re fired.)
Holding those two ideas of Clinton simultaneously in the mind doesn’t make sense. The two visions are cognitively dissonant, as psychologists would say. If one thing is true, then the other can’t be, and for most people there is a tension that holding such views creates. Generally, a person with a couple of dissonant ideas would modify their behavior or their beliefs to ease the internal conflict.
But not Trump. The brash businessman can spend his days tramping around the campaign trail parroting “bad judgment” and “Crooked Hillary” like an orange-pated toddler who can’t stop with the Hoops and Yoyo card.
How does he do that and still see himself as some sort of consistent, rational human being? It seemed like maybe some psychologists would have answers. They did.
Perhaps the fullest explanation was offered by Elliot Aronson, the author of The Social Animal and one of the pioneers of cognitive dissonance theory.
For Trump, Aronson thinks reporters and political observers hold a mistaken fundamental assumption: that he is rational when he speaks.
“I don’t believe that Trump is aware of the dissonance you refer to because he will say anything to win an argument at any time — ignoring the fact that he stated the opposite just a week ago, or indeed, just a minute ago,” Aronson said in an email.
And somehow, the idea of it being recorded by the entire media for millions of people to examine doesn’t matter. (“The media is so dishonest,” Trump often says.)
“There is one thing you need to know about Trump — and that explains just about all of his erratic, self-destructive statements and behavior,” Aronson said. “His self-esteem is both high and fragile.”
The contrast would be a person with high self-esteem who is well-grounded and has a solid basis for a high self opinion. Such a person is not threatened by failure or losing, can make a mistake and learn from it and sees criticism as a gift, Aronson said.
But someone like Trump sees any setback or criticism as an exigent threat to that very high self-regard. So no slight can be ignored. Every insult must be answered.
“This explains why a candidate for President of the most powerful country in the world continues to tweet about some woman being fat, on and on at 4 in the morning,” Aronson said. “He simply must justify his previous statement by convincing everyone that she WAS fat. Losing any argument, even a trivial one, means total failure to a person with high/fragile self-esteem.”
Princeton psychologist Joel Cooper, another pioneer in dissonance research, agreed in part with Aronson, noting “Trump’s erratic and inconsistent set of propositions, including the way he describes Hillary Clinton, is a commentary on his self-esteem.”
And he agreed that Trump’s behavior defies norms.
“Most people have little tolerance for their own inconsistency,” Cooper said. “We try to change our beliefs and behaviors to make them as consistent as possible. Donald Trump does not seem to have that need. Inconsistent ideas reside side-by-side in his mental portrayal of the world.”
But Cooper thought Trump’s bluster was more of a front, and his rampant inconsistency a sign that deep down the former reality TV personality fears he is not a particularly good person. People with low self-esteem are aware that good and rational people have consistent attitudes, behaviors and beliefs, Cooper said. They say to themselves, “I am not such a person. At a basic level, I am neither good nor worthy. My inconsistency is one of my faults.”
That allows Trump to function without trying to address his behavior, but it doesn’t follow at all that he wants anyone else to hold the same low opinion of Trump. “It is also true that such people may masquerade with pompous self-regard, but they are harboring deep seated doubts about their worthiness,” Cooper said.
Patricia Devine, another prominent psychologist whose work has focused on prejudice and stereotypes, agreed with Aronson in general that Trump says whatever he feels he needs to say in the moment, and believes it while he says it. “I doubt there is any effort on his part to make the disparate ideas he espouses to cohere,” Devine said.
All of that raises an interesting question for Trump supporters. If Trump can ignore his own contradictions because he has a need to either shield his fragile self-esteem or hide his unworthiness from others, why can’t they examine the same recordings of Trump saying inconsistent things, and realize they make no sense?
The problem for them is that they don’t especially want to see the problems in Trump’s statements and positions, said Devine, of the University of Wisconsin. They face real underlying economic and social problems of their own, coupled with deep frustration at the political system’s failure to address them. They like Trump, he speaks to what ails them ― and they don’t really analyze what he says.
“They would easily identify the inconsistencies,” Devine said. “They, however, are not rationally processing the information. They have identified their guy and want to see him in the White House. The key issue they focus on is that he is a Washington outsider who says he can change politics. He’s not corrupted by politics, or so he tells his supporters. Hillary, he says, is the status quo, Washington insider.”
From there it’s a small leap to the rest of the Trump message, and the twining of the ideas that Clinton is both an idiot and a genius. “He adds she is corrupt, lazy, evil, dumb, etc. His supporters eat that up. He continues the negative, corruption theme by highlighting how she can rig a system,” Devine said. “They accept the premise without considering what would be required in terms of truly being a tremendously powerful mastermind to pull that off.”
It’s what they want to hear, and they accept it happily. “It’s a classic example of biased information processing,” Devine said. “People prefer information (or at least conclusions presumably drawn from that information) that supports their already existing views.”
Devine doesn’t let Clinton supporters off the hook for overlooking some of the email and Clinton Foundation reports that have marred her campaign, but they at least don’t have to reconcile so many wildly conflicting “facts.”
“The issues that come up for Hillary are, essentially, more of the same,” Devine said. “She has a long (and distinguished) history of service and along the way, she and those around her have done typical politics (e.g., quibbling behind the scenes of public information as revealed by Wikileaks; raising money for campaigns and themselves). Not all of it seems wonderful but none of it is surprising.”
In the classic studies on cognitive dissonance inspired by a UFO doomsday cult, one of the things that led people to tighten their embrace of false, dissonant ideas (such as the world is about to end and aliens will save a select few believers) is to get them to take some sort of action in support of the idea. Although the psychologists didn’t say it, voting can be such an action. If people go to the polls and check the box for a candidate who says wildly contradictory, disprovable things (and issues dire warnings about the imminent demise of the country), there would be an internal pressure to justify the vote. For some, it could just be the sort of mental gymnastics of Rep. Jason Chaffetz (R-Utah). He was among the first Republicans to unendorse Trump after recordings revealed the GOP nominee boasting about sexual assault. But Chaffetz nevertheless voted for him on the grounds that Clinton is even worse.
Past observations of people who have had their prophets proven wrong, however, also show that many, rather than accept the reality in front of them, instead come up with ever more elaborate scenarios to explain why the aliens didn’t come this time.
In the likely case that Trump loses, despite his predictions, the candidate has already offered a complicated scheme to latch onto with his “rigged” allegations. In the unlikely case that Clinton loses, there are similar conspiratorial scenarios available that could provide solace to her less-accepting supporters involving Russian hackers or media complicity.
Either way, the winner of the election probably needs to keep front and center in their mind the powerful role cognitive dissonance plays in politics and persuasion ― especially this year, when the divides feel so wide, the anger bubbles so close to the surface, Trump is dancing to one of the most dissonant tunes the country has ever heard.
“There will be some important healing to be done once the election is over,” Devine said. “I hope who ever wins the White House is up to the challenge, and is tuned into the nature of the divisions within our society in a way that can heal.”
Editor’s note: Donald Trump regularly incites political violence and is a serial liar, rampant xenophobe, racist, misogynist and birther who has repeatedly pledged to ban all Muslims — 1.6 billion members of an entire religion — from entering the U.S.
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