To Donald Trump’s critics – well over half the voter-eligible population according to polls – the past year has been a cascade of disasters ranging from lying and deceit to overt racism, sexism, classism, homophobia and xenophobia.
Almost every day, it seems, brings new evidence of a President rooted in a character disorder defined by insecurity, morality blindness, a wicked dose of attention deficit disorder and a hall of fame case of narcissism.
Surely, critics believe, the nightmares will eventually pile so high that anyone with an iota of intelligence and decency will be forced to accept the truth. There will be a moment when the Christian right must acknowledge the ungodliness of the beast, when the coal miners understand they’ve been duped, and when all those Trump supporters you’ve been avoiding shout out, “I was wrong.”
And, most importantly, when Trump’s Republican enablers in Congress – the people empowered to decide when impeachment and/or enactment of the 25th amendment (removal of the President because of mental or physical unfitness) is warranted — will reunite with their better instincts and declare “Enough is enough.”
“Drip, drip, drip it goes until the dam breaks and the truth spills,” as New York Times columnist Charles Blow put it. Blow was then referring to a series of early Russia leaks, but I believe the “drip, drip, drip” metaphor captures the current hopes of Trump antagonists. It feels logical. It’s physics.
A year of drips, drops and gushers later, however, the dam is still standing. The President’s base, that mythical 30-40 percent – continues to cheer him on, often more dogmatically than ever. And, other than a handful of mavericks, Congressional Republicans have become progressively less likely to stand up to even the most blatant lies, bigotry and all else.
This, in fact, is precisely what more than a half century of social psychology research would have predicted. Study after study has shown that the moment people take a strong position it activates psychological forces that drive them to prove they are right.
It plays out in many ways. We enthusiastically discuss the topic with like-minded people but avoid it like the flu with dissenters. We find ourselves scanning for news, movies, TV shows and, especially, niches in social media that cheer us on. The confirmations reverberate. If I opened an MSNBC article on my phone, for example, that phone would start recommending more stories from liberal sites.
When an undeniable argument does manage to slip through our social filters our minds go to work. We rationalize: “Sure he’s a crook but she’s worse,” a Trump supporter might conclude.
We demean our opponents: “They” are uncaring or gullible or uninformed. “We” are too smart to be fooled. In the eyes of a Trump critic, Sean Hannity brainwashes “them.” Rachel Maddox educates “us.”
If you’re a Trump supporter, of course, it’s vice versa. We spin our character assassinations 180 degrees when need be.
Many Hillary Clinton fans declared James Comey an enemy of democracy when he re-opened the email investigation pre-election. But the same man magically transformed into an icon of integrity when Trump fired him a few months later.
Humans are masters of self-persuasion. The more evidence we are wrong, the harder we try to convince ourselves we’re right. But there is a caveat. The challenges need to be doled out in manageable drips.
Good salesmen know the quickest way to lose a customer is to cut right to the chase. You need to proceed slowly, in small steps. Leave them to their own devices and they’ll eventually begin convincing themselves.
We see this widely. It explains why some people stay in bad marriages or get stuck in addictive habits, or how they reverse the habit through a “step program.” A former cult member captured the process well: “Nobody ever joins a cult. They just postpone the decision to leave.”
This self-confirming spinning of reality is normal psychology – not necessarily healthy, but normal. It is how we persevere in an impossibly complicated world and how we make sense of our equally complicated selves. And it transforms us to the core.
“If social psychology has taught us anything ... it is that we are likely not only to think ourselves into a way of acting but also to act ourselves into a way of thinking,” psychologist David Myers observed. Once the cycle begins, it perpetuates itself.
I suggest you hold this in mind if you think Trump enthusiasts are one drip away from jumping ship. If they voted for Trump after 19 women accused him of sexual misconduct what makes you think they’d be bothered by an affair with a porn star or two? If they stayed true after he supported white nationalists in Charlottesville, how upset would you expect them to be about his “---hole nation” statements?
The drip, drip, drips are not just unlikely to topple the Presidency but may be what keeps it afloat. It may reach a point of no return when nothing, no matter how repellent, will be enough to compel his supporters to declare “Enough is enough.”
Robert Levine of Fresno and Gualala, California, is professor emeritus of psychology at Fresno State. Connect with him at email@example.com
Read more about it
“Stranger in the Mirror; The Scientific Search for the Self,” by Robert Levine. Publisher by The Press, California State University, Fresno. $16.