In the wake of a hot mic tape that caught Donald Trump bragging about sexual assault, followed by multiple accusations of sexual assault, the Republican nominee hasn’t offered any statements of explanation or contrition.
Instead, he went on the offensive and tried to redirect the negative attention to Bill Clinton (and by association, Hillary), by calling a press conference of women who’d accused the former president of sexual misconduct.
Elsewhere in the political landscape, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie ― who dedicated his speech at the Republican National Convention to mounting a prosecutorial campaign against Hillary Clinton ― is now, himself, the subject of a criminal investigation.
Which leads to the question: What is the psychological impulse behind hypocrisy? What causes people to attack others for the same misdeeds they’ve been criticized for?
According to psychology experts, it’s a form of projection, which is a common defense mechanism rooted in adolescence. Political campaigns can be ruthless ― the goal, after all, is to win votes at all costs ― and candidates may be especially susceptible to falling back on immature psychological impulses.
“If the two [political] parties came to me for therapy and I was hearing all that’s going on, I would immediately say that you all are at a stage of adolescence with how you’re treating one another,” Mark Stevens, a psychologist and professor at California State University, Northridge, told HuffPost.
“When you think about adolescence, hypocrisy is part of it. When an adolescent gets blamed for something, they’ll wind up saying, ‘Well you do that, too,’” Stevens said. “It’s a way to protect themselves.”
“If the two [political] parties came to me for therapy... I would immediately say that 'you all are at a stage of adolescence.'”
‘Authoritarians’ are likely to be hypocrites
People have a tendency to defend themselves against their own missteps by pretending they never happened, according to John Robertson, a retired psychologist and author of a book on authoritarian men.
“Somebody who has difficulty with anger is more likely to call out anger in somebody else,” Robertson told The Huffington Post. “Somebody who is rude and offensive is more likely to call out that same thing in others as well.”
Some personality types are more likely to falls prey to this defensive impulse than others. Authoritarian individuals ― those who score high on measures of narcissism, obsessiveness, over-the-top behavior and offensiveness ― might be particularly susceptible to projection, Robertson explained.
“They gravitate toward situations in work settings where they can be in charge. Where they can have power over others,” Robertson said. “Not because of anything benevolent, but because of the sheer experience of having the power.”
The campaign trail doesn’t help, but it’s not the root cause
Blaming others also has the obvious tactical advantage of temporarily distracting some from the issue at hand, but according to Stevens, it could ultimately alienate voters.
In the case of Trump’s hot mic moment, the Republican nominee tried to excuse the incident by calling his comments “locker room talk.”
“His apology was very superficial,” Stevens said. “It didn’t allow him to dig deeper inside himself to be able to look at, ‘Well, how is it that I’m still doing locker room talk in my late 50s? How does locker room talk say something about my issues of power and my issues of control?’”
Although Stevens thinks that more vulnerability on the campaign trail would resonate with voters, it’s hard to imagine any candidate being that open with the public.
“Authoritarians have a way of manipulating situations so that folks who are more vulnerable tend to doubt themselves.”
The best way to deal with an authoritarian
According to Robertson, trying to derail an authoritarian mid-attack may be near impossible.
“The origins of adult authoritarian behavior are often seen in adolescent bullying,” he explained. “Authoritarians have a way of manipulating situations so that folks who are more vulnerable tend to doubt themselves.”
That’s not to say, however, that all elections have to stoop to the mudslinging we’ve seen in the this year’s general.
In the Democratic primary, for example, Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders largely avoided personal attacks. When Sanders ultimately lost the Democratic nomination, he acknowledged his and Clinton’s differences, then conceded and endorsed her, which is a healthy way to end an argument, according to experts.
During the general election, personal attacks and deflection have been mainstays of the debates. The solution: Perhaps voters should heed Robertson’s advice to individuals who unwittingly fall into relationships with authoritarians.
“The more promising direction for folks who get trapped in relationships like this is to help them find a way to exit rather than to fight back,” he said.
In other words, the cure to what ails us? Nov. 8.