Many people have concluded by now that it is impossible to understand the workings of the mind of President Donald Trump. Is he a masterful politician following a preconceived plan to reform government and strengthen America’s international relations? Or is he a bully and a psychopathic liar whose policies will destroy American democracy and the nation’s status in the world?
While understanding Donald Trump might be near impossible, a book written in 1956 may give us insights into the motivation and behavior of Mr. Trump’s base of enthusiastic supporters. The book is “When Prophecy Fails,” by social psychologist Leon Festinger.
In it, Festinger described how he with a group of colleagues joined a doomsday cult led by a charismatic Chicago housewife, who claimed to communicate with extraterrestrial aliens who revealed to her that the world would be destroyed in a great flood on Dec. 21, 1954. She gathered a small group of followers who believed that they would be saved at midnight of the 20th by boarding a flying saucer that would take them to the planet Clarion. Many members of the group of true believers quit their jobs and sold all their possessions in preparation for the event. On the appointed night, the group sat in a circle, waiting for the flying saucer to appear. Instructed to remove any metallic items from their persons, they removed belts, bras and zippers from their clothing.
Midnight came, a clock struck 12, and (surprise) nothing happened. A long silence followed. Some in the group begin to cry in shocked disbelief, but others were comforted by the leader’s message that God had prevented the great flood because the group had, by their patient waiting, spread a light that saved the world.
Contrary to what might be expected, the failure of the prophecy only strengthened the faith of many of the individuals in the cult. Subsequent prophecies of global destruction (which obviously never happened) only re-energized the faith of the true believers.
In his book, Festinger called this process “cognitive dissonance.” He generalized from this example that under certain circumstances — specifically if an individual has expressed his or her commitment to a cult or set of ideas with some physical acts that cannot be reversed, then the individual may try to mitigate the contradiction between their ideas and reality by, in effect, “doubling down” and becoming even more committed to the ideas or the ideology. Every event or fact that contradicts one’s beliefs can actually work to increase a commitment to a false narrative.
This psychological inversion is especially powerful if it has the support of a larger group of true believers, and is reinforced by activities that bring believers together. These activities can include increased efforts to convert others — sometimes by spreading rumors that provoke personal fears, which themselves can be part of a cycle in which those rumors serve to confirm the fears that they provoked.
The idea of “cognitive dissonance” can describe much more than just the psychology of cults. Cognitive dissonance is in fact a fairly common coping mechanism, which all of us have probably used at one time or another. A smoker who is confronted with evidence of the dangers of smoking will often claim that the effects of smoking are not as bad as described. (You can substitute “climate change” in the previous sentence for “smoking.”) When we are confronted with two contradictory ideas, we often do not choose rationally between them, especially if we have already committed ourselves in some way to one of them.
To resolve such contradictions, to avoid the anxiety that holding two mutually exclusive ideas causes, we are apt to energetically embrace the idea to which we have previously committed ourselves. Once firmly committed, it is increasingly difficult to turn back. Once you buy a MAGA hat or attend a Trump rally, it is an easy step to disavowing previously-held abstractions such as free trade or reducing the debt. Before you know it, you find yourself believing that a wall will save us from rapists and terrorists, that America’s international allies are our enemies, and that our Cold War enemies are now our friends. The next step is believing conspiracy theories about sex slaves in Washington D.C. pizza shops. Before you get to that step, hopefully, reality will slap you on your head and tell you to wake up.
Alexander O. Boulton is a professor of History at Stevenson University. His email is firstname.lastname@example.org.