Why do so many Americans stand in such stark denial of reality?
The August 2, 2017 Quinnipiac University National Poll found that 61% of American voters disapprove of the job Trump is doing, while 33% approve. With 200 million registered voters in the United States, that means that 66 million people still approve of President Trump.
Why? Why? Why? Why? Why? Why? Why? Why? Why? Why? Six months of observation and analysis has allowed me to identify the 10 key motivational factors at play in this situation.
I ask this question again and again each day from the perspective of an American who has left the Republican party. I did so because of the failure of that party to repudiate and remove from office this man whose actions over the past six months have shown him to be a dire threat to the American experiment in democracy, as well as an abomination and perversion of all that is good and true and honest.
Domino Principle #8 “Differing Perspectives” notes that one should always look at each situation from multiple perspectives and understand how others with opposing viewpoints have reached their position. Curiosity creates opportunities. In this case, the reasons and motivations are both complex and varied. My search for answers over the past six months has led me to closely observe the opinions of friends and neighbors and elected representatives, many of whom I consider to be basically good people, to try to understand the myriad of complex reasons individuals still show support for this president.
The basic facts: On May 9, 2017, Donald John Trump fired FBI Director James Comey. And as we are now well aware, on May 10, 2017, President Trump reportedly boasted of his firing of Comey in the oval office in a celebratory meeting with Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov and Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak. Trump’s comments made it clear that Comey’s firing was done for the stated purpose of obstructing the FBI’s investigation into the Trump campaign’s ties to Russia. During this same meeting, Trump also leaked ISIS-related code level Top Secret information to the Russians that Israel had reportedly provided to the US on the strict condition that it not be shared with our allies, much less with our adversaries.
Ever since the public disclosure that these events transpired, there has been clear and compelling grounds for Trump’s impeachment. (See my earlier article: The Dominoes of Impeachment). Additionally, subsequent disclosures on a weekly basis since May have provided a seemingly endless trail of “high crimes” and violation of his oath of office, as the president intently digs a deeper and deeper legal abyss of his own creation. This would include revelations of emails showing that Trump family members had met with Russian operatives in an effort to collude on the election. And just this week, it was discovered that Trump had set himself up for a witness tampering charge related to that very same matter. (See: Harvard Prof: Trump May Be in Hot Water for Witness Tampering.)
And over the past few months, Trump’s ongoing dissociation from reality, his lack of mental stability and his inability to exercise mature judgement have continued to erode to the point where it seems that he is often unable to differentiate truth from fiction or allies from adversaries. His behavior has become so erratic that it invites challenges from those who seek to do us harm, and that at a time of crisis (whether actual or manufactured), our president presents a clear and present danger that America could easily be drawn into triggering unnecessary global conflict. See: Donald Trump’s behavior is abnormal, An incoherent President Trump, and Trump’s Clueless Abdication of Presidential Responsibility.
Yet despite all of this, impeachment proceedings have not yet begun, and they are not even being vocally called for by all but a few politicians on either side of the political aisle in Congress. And while Trump’s approval ratings have continued to fall, there is still a sizable segment of the population that approves of Trump’s performance, and many of his supporters continue to deny as “false news” even facts which Trump and his family have publicly admitted are true.
Yesterday’s Quinnipiac University National Poll also showed that 62% believe Trump is not honest, while 34% believe that he is honest. The July 18, 2017 Public Policy Polling Poll showed that 72% of Trump voters consider the Russia story overall to be ‘fake news.’ Just 13% of Trump voters believe that members of Trump’s campaign team did work with the Russians to help his campaign, while 81% believe they didn’t.
If 34% of registered voters believe that Trump is honest, that means that approximately 68 million voters don’t see Trump as being a dishonest person. Yet at the six-month mark in Trump’s presidency, POTUS has publicly made an astounding 836 false or misleading claims. That’s an average of 4.6 false claims a day, far outpacing the number of falsehoods told by any previous president. (See: President Trump’s first six months: The fact-check tally and In 181 days, President Trump has made 836 false and misleading claims.)
These numbers are hard to fathom. While it is true that Trump’s approval numbers are at historic lows, it is difficult to understand why they are not even far lower. How can such a large segment of the American population be in such complete denial of reality? Why do a non-trivial number of Americans still support Trump despite everything I have described above?
I have observed 10 major categories of motivation that help explain why people continue to support Trump. While there is surely overlap between the categories, they each represent a different and important social phenomena. When I think of the people who I know that support Trump, I can ascribe their position to one or more of these motivations.
1. THE PREJUDICED. Being both racist and misogynistic, Trump of course acts as a magnet to attract those who are truly racist and misogynistic, as well as the xenophobic.
2. THE PROFITEERS. There are those who see opportunities for direct personal gain from Trump’s continued presidency, often in terribly perverse ways. Those who might enjoy profits from polluting and poisoning America seek the repeal of laws and regulations that protect the quality of our food and air and pharmaceutical products. Owners of private schools, private prisons, gun-industry businesses and wall construction companies are just a few of many types of businesses that expect to profit from this presidency. Trump has been a boon to the news media in America, as he turns American life into an anti-reality reality show on a daily basis. Those who seek to do business using corrupt and dishonest business practices and various forms of graft now have a president who has embraced such practices throughout his entire business career. These individuals support opportunities for American culture to move towards a kleptocracy centered on organized crime, much as Putin’s Russia exists today.
Of course, the sad reality is that this category of behavior also best explains the actions of so many in Congress as well as the Trump sycophants in the executive branch. Politicians on both sides of the aisle are putting party before country, and the conduct is utterly meretricious, whether it comes from Republicans or Democrats. For the good of America, Trump could and should be impeached and out of office by the end of this year, but he won’t be because both parties are complacent to using Trump to further their own political agendas. Meanwhile, America is placed in jeopardy each day that a madman remains in office. (See: Why Trump Is Not Mentally Fit to Be President.)
Republicans in Congress have seen Trump as a tool to further their political agenda, while simultaneously being afraid to challenge his fervent supporters in their constituent base. When John McCain joined Susan Collins and Lisa Murkowski to kill a health care bill that everyone knew would have horrific consequences for America, they took a first step in putting the needs of their constituents ahead of the needs of POTUS. As Republicans come to realize that their support of Trump puts their re-election at greater risk than it would be under a Mike Pence presidency, they will start supporting Trump’s removal from office, and we have now perhaps seen the first steps towards this happening. See: My Party Is in Denial About Donald Trump: We created him, and now we’re rationalizing him. When will it stop?, Lesson for Trump: Hardball Against Senators Is a Game He Can Lose, ‘We Pretended That the Emperor Wasn’t Naked’, and What Republicans Could Do About Trump.
The bigger issue, of course, is the utter failure of Congressional Democrats to strongly advocate for Trump’s removal prior to the 2018 elections. Democrats delay pressuring for impeachment because they plan to use the issue next year as their rallying cry in their efforts to raise campaign funds and gain seats in the House and Senate. Additionally, Mueller’s investigation, as it plays out over time, along with the parallel House and Senate investigations, are likely to continue to generate an ongoing parade of embarrassing revelations for Trump and the Republican Party. This will almost certainly result in criminal indictments, and will also likely result in Trump issuing pardons for himself, his family, and his friends. This will outrage the American public and bring more votes to Democratic candidates at election time. See: House Democrats are starting to outraise their Republican counterparts.
If Trump were removed from office now and Mike Pence were to bring some element of stability and coherency to the executive branch, the Democrats’ ability to rally the troops in the next election would be diminished, and the Republican Party would likely see greater success in furthering its agenda. When the Democrats in Congress, along with the American people, start bringing the kind of pressure to bear on impeachment that they applied to the health care debate, Trump’s end will be near. But until that happens, POTUS’s ability to abuse the American people will continue.
3. THE STUPID AND IGNORANT. There are those who either hide in ignorance or lack the capacity to grasp the complexities of the real world. America is becoming stupider by the day, as non-trivial segments of our country embrace ignorance and reject science. See my earlier article: Let’s Make America Smart Again.
Many make no effort to know or care about American politics beyond those few issues that affect them directly and immediately. For example, people across America are, on the whole, far more knowledgeable about the health care debate than they are about Trump’s entanglements and fondness for Russia and Putin. What news they get, if any, often comes from highly biased sources which typically do not fact check and do not uphold reasonable journalistic standards (See: the Journalism Quality and Partisanship 2017 Guide).
In describing what is known as the Dunning-Kruger effect, Stephen Fry observes that “The greatest enemy of knowledge is not ignorance… it is the illusion of knowledge.” This leads to situations where the tendency is for the least mentally proficient people to often overestimate their own abilities. See: Stephen Fry Explains Why People Believe Donald Trump and Trump and Republicans treat their voters like morons.
4. THE END JUSTIFIES THE MEANS’ERS. The “end justifies the means” people support Trump because they adopt the perspective of being self-serving pragmatists. During an election, they often create illustrative comparisons between the candidates, contrasting the candidates’ positions on major issues that affect their lives and/or for which they have very strong beliefs. The exercise is worthwhile when kept in proper perspective, but an abomination when it is not… some of these people would likely vote for Adolf Hitler if he came back to life and promised lower taxes than the other candidate. They blind themselves to the very real possibility that putting a mentally unwell and/or morally bankrupt person into office could lead to repercussions that would completely destroy their way of life.
5. THE INFALLIBLE. Some people find themselves unable to back away from a previously stated position, even in the face of overwhelming evidence, because they share Trump’s psychological need to always be right and never concede error. See: Psychological need to be right underlies Trump’s refusal to concede error.
6. THE LOYAL. There are those whose indoctrination to political or religious loyalty, or peer pressure from those who are so indoctrinated and part of their social or business circles, effectively prohibits them from doing anything but support the party line. This has occurred in an environment where it is obvious that POTUS is a pretender to following either the principles of the Republican Party or the Christian religion that they claim to support and embrace. See: Amazing Disgrace: How did Donald Trump—a thrice-married, biblically illiterate sexual predator—hijack the religious right?
7. THE AUTHORITARIANS AND THE HOLY ROLLERS. There are those who would truly prefer an authoritarian, nationalist moral order over our current democratic government. They believe America would be a better place if everyone were required to follow their beliefs, and they support the false premise that Trump’s actions provide a path to an outcome where everyone is effectively required to believe as they do. (The reality is, of course, that if left unchecked, Trumps actions would lead to America becoming a mafia state and kleptocracy not unlike Putin’s Russia, rather than the Christian theocracy many of his supporters envision — Had Ted Cruz become president, then these people would have had their true champion in office. Mike Pence as president will also make these people very happy).
Those who support the Dominionism movement seem to fit into both of the above two categories. Dominionists fundamentally oppose church-state separation — in fact, dominionists deny that America’s founders ever intended such a separation in the first place. The movement is extremely active at the highest levels of the state government of Texas. See: The Radical Theology That Could Make Religious Freedom a Thing of the Past.
8. THE HILLARY AND OBAMA HATERS. There are those whose hatred for Hillary and Obama (for a wide variety of reasons) has led them to such a rage that it has effectively blinded them to the reality that Trump is typically far worse at supporting their interests on those very same issues on which they have assailed Hillary and Obama with criticism. These people often follow in POTUS’s footsteps by trying to persuade others by using faulty reasoning techniques like “false equivalence” (See: How “False Equivalence” Ruins Trump-Clinton News Coverage) and “whataboutism,” a propaganda technique formerly used by the Soviet Union in its dealings with the Western world. When criticisms were leveled at the Soviet Union, the Soviet response would be “What about…” followed by an event in the Western world. Today in America this technique is used to try to change the subject while deflecting criticism of Trump on to either the real or imagined failings of Obama or Hillary.
…What about all of the Clinton ties to Russia, including Podesta Company, Uranium deal, Russian Reset, big dollar speeches etc.
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) July 22, 2017
The reason that President Obama did NOTHING about Russia after being notified by the CIA of meddling is that he expected Clinton would win..
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) June 26, 2017
9. THE DESTROYERS. There are those who embrace Trump primarily because of his calls to rebel against the established bureaucracy and his promises to destroy a system that they see as having left white working-class people poorer and forgotten over recent decades. Such desires are often rooted in extremely rational grievances against the current system. The problem is that the vessel these people have chosen to execute this mission on their behalf is a “false and corrupt prophet” intent on using the office of the presidency to enrich himself and those close to him, while not showing the slightest real desire to help those who have entrusted him with this mission.
Many of these people seem permanently blinded or unable to intellectually grasp the fact that Trump’s actual actions show him to be pursuing a reality that is far worse for them than the system he has pledged to destroy… or in some cases, they simply don’t care, adopting the perspective that if their way of life is going to be screwed, then everyone else’s should be as well.
This video from D. L. Hughley is absolutely brilliant and spot on at explaining this mindset, which is actually quite prevalent:
10. THE GASLIGHTED. There are those who seem directly affected and overwhelmed by the various gaslighting and distortion techniques that Trump employs to confuse, distract, and disorient. It is rare to hear Trump speak for more than a minute without him employing faulty reasoning and emotional appeal tactics that often include: belittling and dismissiveness; exaggeration; self-aggrandizement; self-victimization; projection; blatant lying; rewriting history and reality denial; normalization; blame reflection and deflection; deconstructive conditioning; idealization and devaluation; bullying, shaming, raging and threatening; fear mongering; isolation and much more. See Shahida Arabi’s excellent article: 20 Diversion Tactics Highly Manipulative Narcissists, Sociopaths And Psychopaths Use To Silence You and Stephanie Sarkis’ column: 11 Signs of Gaslighting in a Relationship.
As Albert Nurick recently noted in a Facebook post:
That so many seem to truly believe Trump’s “I alone can fix it” mantra is a tribute to the cultish following that has resulted from the successfulness of his gaslighting efforts; and to how resistant some of his followers have become to caring that Trump’s alternative realities fail to align with empirical observations of the real world. See: Is Trump Just Another Toxic Cult Leader?, Trump Fits the Profile of a Classic Cult Leader. Can His Followers Be Saved, and ‘Why Fact-Checking Doesn’t Faze Trump Fans.
[Observation added October 26, 2017: This article in Scientific American: How the Science of “Blue Lies” May Explain Trump’s Support, notes that “If we see Trump’s lies not as failures of character but rather as weapons of war, then we can come to see why his supporters might view him as an effective leader. From this perspective, lying is a feature, not a bug, of Trump’s campaign and presidency.” This effectively illustrates how Trump gaslights with lies and alternative realities to to gain support from his “the end justifies the means” supporters.]
[Note added October 29, 2017: For a much deeper look at how Trump uses gaslighting to distort, divert and distract, see my subsequent column:
[Note added August 7, 2018: This article on Eudaimonia, explaining Trump’s support among both elites and downwardly mobile whites, is absolutely brilliant:
- The Quislings of American Collapse: How Downwardly Mobile Americans are Being Radicalized into Betraying America
And that makes 10. The next time you hear someone singing Trump’s praises, listen to what they are saying and assess which of these ten categories of motivation are inspiring the speaker. It is likely that several of them will be at work in combination.
And now that we know the answer to “Why?” we are ultimately left asking our friends with their fancy persuasions the next logical question:
“How long will this keep going on?”
Note added September 17, 2020: This graphic, found circulating on Facebook, is actually quite accurate and insightful: