The Trump Virus: How to Constrain Its Spread

As diseases go, on the personal level, being infected with Trumpism is not particularly onerous -- more herpes than Ebola. Should the disease spread beyond current levels, the consequences for the nation would be disastrous.
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As Donald Trump's pursuit of the presidency moves toward the Republican convention and then, as seems likely, towards the general election, it is increasingly clear that his base of support won't wither any time soon. His brand of nativism and misogyny resonates with a vocal and powerful minority of Republicans who have given him impressive victories in most of the Republican primaries to date.

His candidacy will stall, however, if his support can be capped at current levels. Fortunately for his opponents, Republican and Democrat alike, cognitive science and network theory tell us something about how to blunt his candidacy.

In formulating effective strategies, it helps to think of Trump as a virus and Trumpism as the infectious disease that causes people's passions to overtake reason.

Charles Cooke of the National Review first identified the symptoms of Trump-infection in August 2015, but he didn't explore the epidemiology of the virus.

It's obviously a virus that harms hearing and biases cognition, thus rendering the sufferer immune to contrary information. Trump himself was Patient Zero. His method of speaking to the gut, not to the intellect, was the initial mode of transmission. His language, nurtured on reality television, is fine-tuned to keep the viewer watching and engaged; provoked and outraged.

This resistance to new information is well studied. The balanced presentation of honest information may not be sufficient to change a Trump supporter's mind. It may even backfire, as seen when the "Stop Trump" movement was launched featuring accurate criticisms of Donald Trump's business practices and political acumen by Republican elders like Mitt Romney. Trump supporters were outraged by the interference, and many became even more committed to their candidate.

One person infected with Trumpism, Lola Butler, a backer from Mandeville, La. told The New York Times, "There's nothing short of Trump shooting my daughter in the street and my grandchildren -- there is nothing and nobody that's going to dissuade me from voting for Trump."

Trump backers -- for the most part -- are older white males without a college education. These men fear economic uncertainty, and the decline in the amount of opportunity previously afforded them by dint of gender or race. This diminution of stature is painful and real. It makes them particularly susceptible to the virus, and inclined to reject contradictory data.

In a study in the journal Pediatrics, political scientist Brendan Nyhan of Dartmouth College and three colleagues explored what messages most effectively change the minds of people who felt that vaccines were dangerous. They tried different options, including a factual refutation of the linkage between vaccines and autism, a discussion of the diseases one could contract if unvaccinated, and even a story about a young child who contracted measles in a pediatrician's waiting room. None of these messages worked. Those who believed vaccines were dangerous, continued to do so. Moreover, some respondents became even less likely to give their kids vaccines.

These results were in line with similar studies done by Nyhan to investigate the persistence of the "Obama is a Muslim" myth, or the mistaken belief that Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. In an interview with The Boston Globe, Nyhan said, "It's absolutely threatening to admit you're wrong." There's a relevant term in cognitive science called "motivated reasoning", where the person unconsciously seeks to retain a certain belief even when presented with evidence to the contrary.

There is some small chance that a slow, steady drumbeat of information regarding Trump'sallegedly sleazy business practices, blatant misogyny and shocking lack of preparation for the presidency will weaken the virus enough to change the mind of some of his followers. David Redlawsk, a professor of political science at Rutgers, found that when presented with enough information -- that is a "tipping point" -- some people will alter their opinions. He wrote in The New York Times, however, that such change "appears to require both a lot of data that challenges our beliefs and the motivation to want to change."

Unfortunately, that change is accompanied by anxiety. So, while it may be possible to slowly erode a Trump supporter's enthusiasm for his candidate, science tells us it's a long shot.

Our minds come preprogrammed to discredit evidence selectively. That's why we should assume Trumpism is a very hardy virus, and that those infected are unlikely to be cured.

Those seeking to contain Trumpism would benefit from exploring an emerging field of study that shows how best to stop the spread of bad information. Those not yet infected must be convinced that the nonsense that gushes from the Trump campaign is especially virulent. Online, those who might be susceptible to the disease must be inoculated with information to counter the babble and the smears the candidate and his followers propagate. Most at risk is an entire swath of the electorate, the "low information voter", who has invested little thought into the primaries and who remains unaware of the specifics of the various candidates. They are the most in need of good information.

Network theory provides some insights. Ceren Budak and two of her colleagues at University of California, Santa Barbara have explored the problem of how to contain the spread of misinformation in social networks. This exploration is particularly relevant because much of Trump's virus is spread via Twitter and Facebook. One of Budak's findings applies: identify those influencers who haven't yet been infected, and then employ them as bulwarks against the mean memes. The Trump followers can talk amongst themselves, as they do, tweeting and retweeting whatever captures the imagination of @realDonaldTrump. If those messages bounce primarily between his most fervent supporters, the rest of us are insulated from the circus.

There is some emerging evidence that Trumpism has been quarantined. He lost primaries in Utah and Texas. Then there is Wisconsin, where right wing radio has been both critical and mocking of Trump (Charlie Sykes, a popular radio host in Milwaukee calls Trump supporters "Trumpkins") and conservative heroes like Governor Scott Walker have endorsed Ted Cruz.

Trump's favorability ratings have declined further. In the most recent polls, 63 percent of respondents view him unfavorably, while only 31 percent view him favorably. A large gap that appears to be widening.

Another group that has shown resistance to Trumpism is women. The misogyny inherent in Trump's comments about prominent women, like Megyn Kelly and Carly Fiorina, has only bolstered female immunity.

This bodes poorly for Trump's general election prospects, but it might not matter with regard to the primaries, where a relatively small number of eligible voters go to the polls.

As diseases go, on the personal level, being infected with Trumpism is not particularly onerous -- more herpes than Ebola. Should the disease spread beyond current levels, the consequences for the nation would be disastrous.

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