News & Politics

When Will Trump Voters Realize They've Been Had?

People don't like to admit they were wrong, which is what they would be doing if they concede that Trump is not up to the job.

Photo Credit: George Sheldon / Shutterstock.com

When will the people of West Virginia and Pennsylvania, those stalwart Trump voters who believe he’ll be bringing back coal jobs, finally figure out they’ve been had?

History suggests it's unrealistic to expect people to change their minds quickly. This is a pattern that has held for centuries. In the 1600s the Salem witch trials dragged on for eight long months before townsfolk finally began to realize that they had been caught up in an irrational frenzy. More recently, Americans proved during Watergate that they are reluctant to turn on a president they have just elected despite mounds of evidence incriminating him in scandalous practices. The Watergate burglary took place on June 17, 1972. But it wasn't until April 30, 1973 – eleven months later – that his popularity finally fell below 50 percent. This was long after the Watergate burglars had been tried and convicted and the FBI had confirmed news reports that the Republicans had played dirty tricks on the Democrats during the campaign. Leaked testimony had even showed that former Attorney General John Mitchell knew about the break-in in advance. But not until Nixon fired White House Counsel John Dean and White House aides H.R. Haldeman and John Ehrlichman resigned did a majority turn against the president. And even at that point Nixon's poll numbers stood higher than Trump's. Nixon:  48 percent; Trump: 42 percent.

It's not just conservative voters who are reluctant to change their minds. So are liberals. After news reports surfaced in the 1970s proving that John Kennedy was a serial philanderer millions of his supporters refused to acknowledge it. A poll in 2013 show a majority of Americans still think of him as a good family man.

Thus far not even many leading Democrats have been willing to come out in favor of Trump's impeachment. Cory Booker, the liberal senator from New Jersey, said this past week it's simply too soon. And if a guy like Booker is not yet prepared to come straight out for impeachment, why should we think Trump voters would be willing to? It is only just in the last few weeks that polls show that a plurality of voters now favor Trump's impeachment. (Twelve percent of self-identified Trump voters share this view, which is remarkable.)

It's no mystery why people are reluctant to change their minds. Social scientists have produced hundreds of studies that explain the phenomenon. Rank partisanship is only part of the answer. Mainly it’s that people don't like to admit they were wrong, which is what they would be doing if they concede that Trump is not up to the job. When Trump voters hear news that puts their leader in an unfavorable light they experience cognitive dissonance. The natural reaction to this is to deny the legitimacy of the source of the news that they find upsetting. This is what explains the harsh attacks on the liberal media. Those stories are literally making Trump voters feel bad. As the Emory University social scientist Drew Westen has demonstrated, people hearing information contrary to their beliefs will cease giving it credence. This is not a decision we make at the conscious level. Our brain makes it for us automatically.

So what leads people to finally change their minds? One of the most convincing explanations is provided by the Theory of Affective Intelligence. This mouthful of a name refers to the tendency of people experiencing cognitive dissonance to feel anxiety when they do so. As social scientist George Marcus has explained, when the burden of hanging onto an existing opinion becomes greater than the cost of changing it, we begin to reconsider our commitments. What's the trigger? Anxiety. When there's a mismatch between our views of the way the world works and reality we grow anxious. This provokes us to make a fresh evaluation.

What this research suggests is that we probably have a ways to go before Trump voters are going to switch their opinions. While some are evidently feeling buyers' remorse, a majority aren't. They're just not anxious enough yet. Liberals need not worry. The very same headlines that are giving them an upset stomach are making it more and more likely Trump voters are also experiencing discomfort. What might push them over the edge?  One possibility would be a decision to follow through on his threat to end subsidies to insurance companies under Obamacare, leading to the collapse of the system, and the loss of coverage for millions of Trump voters. That’s become more and more likely since the Senate is apparently unable to pass the repeal and replace measure Trump has been counting on.  So liberals just have to wait and watch.  Will the story unfold like Watergate?  Every day the answer increasingly seems yes.

An optimist would argue that social media will help push people to change their minds faster now than in the past.  But social media could also have the opposite effect. People living in a bubble who get their media from biased sources online may be less likely to encounter the contrary views that stimulate reflection than was common, say, in the Nixon years when virtually all Americans watched the mainstream network news shows.  Eventually, one supposes, people will catch on no matter how they consume news.  Of late even Fox News viewers have heard enough disturbing stories about Trump to begin to reconsider their commitment to him.  That is undoubtedly one reason why Nate Silver found that so many Trump voters are reluctant to count themselves among the strongest supporters.  

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Rick Shenkman is the editor and founder of the History News Network and the author most recently of Political Animals: How Our Stone-Age Brain Gets in the Way of Smart Politics (Basic Books, January 2016).