How a Watergate-era psychological study explains why ‘dead-enders’ may finally turn on Trump

Journalist and historian Rick Shenkman thinks President Donald Trump’s supporters may eventually turn on him, just as he finally stopped backing Richard Nixon.


Shenkman, the founder of History News Network, stuck with Nixon through Watergate and right up until two months before his August 1974 resignation before he had enough, and he’s been haunted ever since by his support for a corrupt president, he wrote for The Daily Beast.

“I didn’t support Nixon out of ignorance,” he explained. “I was a history major at Vassar during Watergate and eagerly followed the news. I knew exactly what he’d been accused of.”

Shenkman remained a “dead-ender” because he’d already made up his mind, and nothing his “liberal” classmates told him about Nixon’s perfidy could change his mind — and, in fact, only deepened his support.

“I didn’t want to admit I was wrong (who does?),” he said, “so I dreamed up reasons to show I wasn’t—a classic example of cognitive dissonance in action.”

Shenkman described a psychological study from the 1950s that showed how subjects reimagined their own experiences to explain away their own unease at getting duped, and he recognized his own “mental gymnastics” during the Watergate era.

Other neuroscience research shows how people ignore evidence that conflicts with their existing viewpoints, and scientists are beginning to unravel the ways emotion influences political decisions.

“If the researchers are right that populists are mostly angry, not anxious, their remarkable stubbornness immediately becomes explicable,” Shenkman said. “One of the findings of social scientists who study anger is that it makes people close-minded. After reading an article that expresses a view contrary to their own, people decline to follow links to find out more information. The angrier you become, the less likely are to welcome alternative points of view.”

“That’s a powerful motive for ignoring Trump’s thousands of naked lies,” he added.

Shenkman remembers feeling angry for months over Watergate — and not at Nixon, but rather at his liberal critics, and the president fed that anger.

But eventually that anger gave way to anxiety, he said, after Nixon’s attacks grew tiresome, and defending him became harder than abandoning him.

“If I am right about the circuitous path I took from Nixon supporter to Nixon-basher,” Shenkman said, “there’s hope that Trump supporters will have their own Road to Damascus epiphany. Like me, they may finally tire of anger, though who knows. Right-wing talk radio and Fox News have been peddling anger for years and the audience still loves it.”

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