Thursday, October 15, 2020

Cognitive dissonance and the flawed American democracy

Why does Donald Trump's electoral base continue the cult-like devotion to a corrupt, cruel, narcissistic and racist individual who failed in responding to the pandemic and even recommended bleach as a remedy; is a pathological liar; a failed businessman who had a history of not paying agreed prices to contractors; who views personal taxes as for the little people, and massive tax fraud as a reflection of his high intelligence; who calls citizens who join the military suckers and losers, while being an apologist for Russian dictator Vladamir Putin?

Sixty years before Trump won the presidency on a minority vote, the cultish phenomenon was explained — Trump's racism has won the support of the Religious Right but his advocacy of legalised discrimination against gay, lesbian and bisexual workers, was rejected by the Supreme Court last June. However, the followers not only bond around racism and homophobia, but a significant number also reject democratic norms.

Trump pardons criminal friends; like a tinpot dictator he calls for the jailing of his political opponents, and as the image on top shows, his devotees ape the Romans in the Colosseum in ancient times baying for blood with their yelling "lock her up," about Hillary Clinton.

This year Larry Bartels, a Vanderbilt University political scientist, used YouGov survey data showing that many Republican voters hold strong authoritarian and anti-democratic beliefs, with racism being a key driver of those attitudes.

In a new book, 'Authoritarian Nightmare' by Bob Altemeyer, a psychologist, and John W. Dean, a legal counsel who served in the Nixon White House, the authors say that about half of Trump's supporters agreed with the statement: “Once our government leaders and the authorities condemn the dangerous elements in our society, it will be the duty of every patriotic citizen to help stomp out the rot that is poisoning our country from within.”

Altemeyer and Dean characterise the position as “practically a Nazi cheer.”

Almost two-thirds of whites without a college degree voted for Trump in 2016, and they remain among the largest voting blocs in the country. But the gap between them and other more Democratic-leaning groups is shrinking.

Evangelical Protestants comprise about one-quarter of US adults and an estimated 76% are white. The evangelicals have made a Faustian Bargain with Trump and the leaders are the Quislings of their faith.

According to the Brookings Institution "The 2016 National Election Pool Exit Survey had Donald Trump leading Hillary Clinton among white evangelicals by a staggering 79% to 16%. In that exit survey, white evangelicals composed 46% of Trump’s coalition compared to 9% of Clinton’s coalition."

PEW says "Politically, Catholic registered voters are evenly split between those who identify with or lean toward the Democratic Party (47%) and those who favour the Republicans (46%). In their partisanship, US Catholics are deeply divided along racial and ethnic lines. Most Hispanic Catholics identify with or lean toward the Democratic Party, while 54% of white Catholics today identify with or lean toward the Republicans."

The United States is an outlier among rich countries for the percentage of people that say they pray each day. Religion is important to Donald Trump as a prop as it is for Vladamir Putin. A PEW Research Center survey found that 28% said Trump is “somewhat” religious and only 7% say he’s “very religious” — Trump has declined to name a favourite passage from the Bible and he has stated that he has never sought forgiveness from God for his sins. His June 1, 2020 stunt at St. John's Episcopal Church on Lafayette Square near the White House marked the 14th time that he had attended a church in the US since he took office in January 2017. About one-third of Americans have said Trump's election was the will of God. 

Half of evangelicals believe Trump is anointed by God!!

Early Covid-19 warning: “This will be the biggest national security threat you face in your presidency,” national security adviser Robert O’Brien told the president on January 28, 2020 according to a new book by Washington Post associate editor Bob Woodward. “This is going to be the roughest thing you face.”

On January 30, 2020 in Warren, Michigan, Trump said, “We have very little problem in this country at this moment — five. And those people are all recuperating successfully.”

Trump and his devotees continued to deride the use of masks even after a consensus had developed among scientists on their benefit.

Trump with a Bible and Putin wearing a Christian cross!


In the United States in 1956, 3 books that would become classics were published.

In 'The Power Elite,' C. Wright Mills (1916-1962), a sociologist, suggested that the American “elite,” or ruling class, comprised a cabal of military, business and political leaders whose decisions and actions had significant consequences.

The other 2 books were on conformity:

William H. Whyte (1917-1999), an editor of Fortune, the business magazine, who had coined the term "groupthink" in 1952, had a huge success with his book 'The Organization Man' (concluding chapter) which captured the conformity of corporate life at the same time as cinema audiences were watching Gregory Peck (1916-2003) playing the archetypal organisation man in 'The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit.' The "public worship of individualism” had recently turned into a nation of employees who “take the vows of organisation life” Whyte wrote. C. Wright Mills said of Whyte in The New York Times Book Review: ''He understands that the work-and-thrift ethic of success has grievously declined — except in the rhetoric of top executives; that the entrepreneurial scramble to success has been largely replaced by the organizational crawl.''

Whyte wasn't just a critic of conformity, he left journalism and became a noted uranologist, who spent years observing and filming people on the streets of New York.

The third book published in 1956, 'When Prophecy Fails' was written by Leon Festinger (1919-1989), a social psychologist and two colleagues at the University of Minnesota, Henry W. Riecken and Stanley Schachter. It anticipated the devotion of the Trump cult.

The book begins:

"A MAN with a conviction is a hard man to change. Tell him you disagree and he turns away. Show him facts or figures and he questions your sources. Appeal to logic and he fails to see your point.

We have all experienced the futility of trying to change a strong conviction, especially if the convinced person has some investment in his belief. We are familiar with the variety of ingenious defenses with which people protect their convictions, managing to keep them unscathed through the most devastating attacks.

But man’s resourcefulness goes beyond simply protecting a belief. Suppose an individual believes something with his whole heart; suppose further that he has a commitment to this belief, that he has taken irrevocable actions because of it; finally, suppose that he is presented with evidence, unequivocal and undeniable evidence, that his belief is wrong: what will happen? The individual will frequently emerge, not only unshaken, but even more convinced of the truth of his beliefs than ever before. Indeed, he may even show a new fervor about convincing and converting other people to his view."

In the book, the psychologists refer to dissonance and consonance, and Festinger would expand on this in his 1957 book, 'A Theory of Cognitive Dissonance.'

According to cognitive dissonance theory, people have a tendency to seek consistency among their cognitions (e.g. beliefs, opinions). When there is an inconsistency between attitudes and behaviours (dissonance), it is most likely that the attitude will change to accommodate the behaviour.

In 1954 Festinger and colleagues infiltrated a doomsday cult called the Seekers that was headed by Dorothy Martin, a suburban Chicago housewife who is called Marin Keech in 'When Prophecy Fails.'

Martin claimed to communicate with "guardians" on the planet Clarion via automatic writing and the key message was that huge floods would engulf the world on December 21, 1954 — Charles Laughead, a medical doctor who is called Dr Armstrong in the book, was Martin's spokesman and he foresaw Biblical scale floods spreading across the world into 1955.

On the morning of December 20, 1954, Martin was beamed a new message from above: “At the hour of midnight you shall be put into parked cars and taken to a place where ye shall be put aboard a porch [flying saucer].”

The chosen few had left jobs and sold possessions as they prepared for destiny and liberation from planet Earth.

Midnight came and went but nothing happened.

At about 4:00 am one of the group says: “I’ve burned every bridge. I’ve turned my back on the world. I can’t afford to doubt. I have to believe.”

At 4:45 am Martin gets a new message: God has decided to spare the Earth. Together, the small group of believers has spread so much “light” on this night that the Earth is saved.

Five minutes later, one last message from above: The aliens want the good news “to be released immediately to the newspapers.” Armed with this new mission, the believers inform all the local papers and radio stations before daybreak.

Convincing more people to buy into a belief seems to help alleviate the cognitive dissonance engendered when that belief is under siege.

Festinger and his colleagues proposed the following 5 necessary conditions for a prophecy to gain traction: "1. There must be a conviction. 2. There must be a commitment to this conviction. i.e, believers have to have taken an important action that is hard to undo (such as quitting a job or selling a house). 3. The conviction must be amenable to unequivocal disconfirmation, i.e, there must be a way of testing the conviction 4. Such unequivocal disconfirmation must occur. 5. Social support must be available subsequent to the disconfirmation (Groups of believers can support one another better than isolated believers)."

Also in 1954 Solomon Asch (1907-1996), another American psychologist, demonstrated how group pressure can even cause us to ignore what we can plainly see with our own eyes.

In a famous experiment, he showed test subjects three lines on a card and asked them which one was longest. "When the other people in the room (all Asch’s coworkers, unbeknown to the subject) gave the same answer, the subject did, too – even when it was clearly erroneous.demonstrated that group pressure can even cause us to ignore what we can plainly see with our own eyes...A single opposing voice can make all the difference. When just one other person in the group stuck to the truth, the test subjects were more likely to trust the evidence of their own senses."

The Dunning-Kruger effect and cognitive dissonance

Prof David Dunning on the Dunning-Krueger effect says that "people with severe gaps in knowledge and expertise typically fail to recognise how little they know and how badly they perform. To sum it up, the knowledge and intelligence that are required to be good at a task are often the same qualities needed to recognize that one is not good at that task — and if one lacks such knowledge and intelligence, one remains ignorant that one is not good at that task. This includes political judgment."

This isn't an issue for only Trump followers but if they only rely on the poisonous propaganda of Murdoch's Fox News, they might as well be living in a communist “paradise” where the ruler is never wrong.

Max Boot, a Washington Post columnist, writes that a Pew Research Center survey makes clear the extent of the problem. Among those who get their election news primarily from Fox “News,” 86% say Trump is delivering the “completely right” or “mostly right” message about the pandemic, 78% that “the US has controlled the outbreak as much as it could have” and 61% that Trump and his administration get the facts right about the coronavirus “almost all” or “most of the time.” Perhaps the most disturbing finding of all: 39% of Fox News viewers say that QAnon — an insane conspiracy theory that posits that Trump’s opponents are satanic child-molesters — is “somewhat good” or “very good” for the country.

QAnon promoted the nonsense in 2016 that Hillary Clinton had sex slaves in a pizza shop basement in Washington DC.

In the 1990s feminists excused Bill Clinton's sexual behaviour and now after four years of chaos Republicans' responses to cognitive dissonance is to look beyond Trump's carnage and to go along with the demonisation of the Democratic Party.

The Trump base is strongly bonded by shared racism and the common enemy that is seen as a mortal threat.

Trump parrots "law and order" while praising white supremacists. The FBI director warns that white militias are the biggest domestic terrorist threat but Trump says the threat comes from the "radical left."

Trump supporters are charged with planning the kidnapping and murder of Gretchen Whitmer, governor of Michigan — the president abuses the governor and says nothing about the charges.


The United States has a history of voter suppression — the Voting Rights Act was passed in 1965 to enable black citizens to freely vote but the Republicans once called the party of Lincoln — have been suppressing the vote for decades. Trump has called on "poll watchers" to go to polling stations on November 3 to effectively intimidate voters.

Independent experts argue that there is no evidence of significant voter fraud, which is the usual excuse for suppression — The Brennan Center for Justice named in honour of Justice William J. Brennan (1906-1997) of the Supreme Court, in its report 'The Myth of Voter Fraud' says "repeated, false allegations of fraud can make it harder for millions of eligible Americans to participate in elections."

Trump screams "voter fraud" as it would be his excuse for defeat in the election: New York TimesHow Trump’s ‘Voter Fraud’ Lie Is Disenfranchising Americans. It is Trump and his devotees who are engaging in voter fraud.

Given that the US is regarded as a flawed democracy, international observers should visit the country to monitor the fairness of the election but many states ban observers. Covid-19 also will be a factor in travel this year.

The Washington Post reports that a Republican activist Tom Fitton who runs the tax-exempt charity Judicial Watch has called on other activists to find a way to prevent mail-in ballots from being sent to voters during a pandemic. “We need to stop those ballots from going out, and I want the lawyers here to tell us what to do,” said Fitton, “But this is a crisis that we’re not prepared for. I mean, our side is not prepared for.”

J. Christian Adams, a former Justice Department official, urged activists not to worry about the criticism that might come their way. “Be not afraid of the accusations that you’re a voter suppressor, you’re a racist and so forth,” Adams said.

The governor of Texas has issued an order to remove mail ballot drop-off sites across Texas and only one mail-drop site per county is allowed. On Wednesday, the 14th Court of Appeals dismissed a lawsuit against Harris County, allowing for curbside and drive-thru voting to continue. Harris County includes the city of Houston and has a population of 4.7m.

According to The Economist Intelligence Unit’s measure of democracy, almost one-half (48.4%) of the world’s population live in a democracy of some sort, although only 5.7% reside in a “full democracy,” down from 8.9% in 2015 as a result of the US being demoted from a “full democracy” to a “flawed democracy” in 2016. More than one-third of the world’s population lives under authoritarian rule, with a large share being in China.

Ireland has the 6th ranking of 165 countries and 22 full democracies. The US is a flawed democracy at 25.


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