Support The Bulwark and subscribe today.
  Join Now

The Republican Party’s Motivated Reasoning

How do you persuade people who won’t believe anything except for what they want to hear?
July 15, 2021
The Republican Party’s Motivated Reasoning
Supporters of US President Donald Trump rally at the State Capitol in Lansing, Michigan, on November 7, 2020, after Democratic Presidential nominee Joe Biden was declared the winner of the 2020 US elections. (Photo by SETH HERALD / AFP) (Photo by SETH HERALD/AFP via Getty Images)

Professionals in political communication often talk about having “credible messengers” to speak to and persuade an audience. An advocate for some belief or position could have the most logical and compelling argument in all of Athens—but unless that person has the audience’s trust, his message is unlikely to land.

Of course, individuals have their own reasons for trusting what others say. A common one is personal familiarity: Most people will default to believing a family member, a friend, or a neighbor over a stranger. Thus the power of “retail politics,” or “word of mouth.” At a wider scale, fellow members of a community—say, a political community—can earn the benefit of the doubt by association. If Jolene is a Federalist, she is more likely to believe a narrative of current events told by a fellow member of the Federalist party than one told by a Democratic-Republican.

And sometimes, people will trust someone simply because the messenger is saying what they want to hear.

Psychologists call this “motivated reasoning.”

Keep all this in mind as you consider Ed McBroom, a Republican state senator in Michigan who recently came to national attention thanks to the rantings of former President Trump and a riveting profile written by the Atlantic’s Tim Alberta. McBroom chairs the Michigan senate’s oversight committee, a position that empowered him to investigate allegations of voter fraud during the 2020 general election. At first, McBroom criticized both President Trump and candidate Biden in a statement he made on Election Day: “One candidate seems to be willing to pour gas on every potential fear and doubt about the integrity of the system while the other seems uninterested in some very troubling reports and witness testimony.”

He cautioned against premature judgment either way.

“I recommend believers pray for, and all people work for, seeing truth revealed and being patient in waiting for it. This is what I will continue to do as chair of the Senate Oversight Committee as we investigate alleged election improprieties. We must avoid spreading rumors or making pronouncements based on someone who has an opinion and some personal facts but not all of the facts.”

Speaking of facts, here is the background and record on McBroom:

  • He is a fourth-generation Michigander of the state’s Upper Peninsula.
  • He is a dairy farmer and the music director of his local Baptist church.
  • He and his wife have a big family of their own; Alberta relays that he came into the care of seven more children after his brother, with whom he ran the farm, died in a car accident in 2018.
  • He entered politics to advocate for traditional or socially conservative beliefs. “He glowed with certain passions—outlawing abortion, preserving family values, fighting bureaucrats on behalf of the little guy—that could not be championed in the stables,” Alberta writes. McBroom stated his position on gun ownership in 2012: “The Second Amendment guarantees our rights to own firearms[,] and I stand strongly for that correct interpretation.”
  • The American Conservative Union gave McBroom the best marks of any Michigan state senator—voting in line with the organization’s position 95 percent of the time—in 2019, the most recent year of data.

By the old rules of political communication, no one is more qualified to be a “credible messenger” to the right-of-center voters of the U.P. than Ed McBroom.

But by now, you know where this story is going.

Late last month, McBroom and three of his senate colleagues—two of them Republicans, only one a Democrat—released their report, and it “crackled with annoyance at certain far-flung beliefs,” writes Alberta:

His committee interviewed scores of witnesses, subpoenaed and reviewed thousands of pages of documents, dissected the procedural mechanics of Michigan’s highly decentralized elections system, and scrutinized the most trafficked claims about corruption at the state’s ballot box in November. McBroom’s conclusion hit Lansing like a meteor: It was all a bunch of nonsense.

“Our clear finding is that citizens should be confident the results represent the true results of the ballots cast by the people of Michigan,” McBroom wrote in the report. “There is no evidence presented at this time to prove either significant acts of fraud or that an organized, wide-scale effort to commit fraudulent activity was perpetrated in order to subvert the will of Michigan voters.”

For good measure, McBroom added: “The Committee strongly recommends citizens use a critical eye and ear toward those who have pushed demonstrably false theories for their own personal gain.”

So thorough were the authors’ conclusions that they recommended “the [state] attorney general consider investigating those who have been utilizing misleading and false information about Antrim County,” where an obvious and brief reporting error showed Biden thumping Trump, “to raise money or publicity for their own ends.”

Yet despite three of the four senators who wrote the election report being Republicans; and despite McBroom’s ideological reputation, the product of a decade in Michigan’s state legislature (he was a state rep from 2010 to 2018), and the familiarity of the McBroom family name, and McBroom’s culturally Christian values—despite all that, his political standing is still taking a hit.

Trump trashed McBroom and the state senate president, Republican Mike Shirkey. He published their office phone numbers. He urged people to “vote them the hell out of office.”

How’s that working out? Well, here’s a taste: In response to a recent post about commercial fishing regulations that McBroom shared on his Facebook page, one Michigander wrote, “Your mail box is full so reaching out. I am requesting a full forensic audit of Michigan’s 2020 election. This is what we the people want.”

But more to the point about credible messengers is this: McBroom said that he’s felt heat from people he knows—allies of his—not just randos on social media. “It’s been very discouraging, and very sad, to have people I know who have supported me, and always said they respected me and found me to be honest, who suddenly don’t trust me because of what some guy told them on the internet,” he told Alberta.

If one were to rank the credibility of Republican officials to deliver a message critical of Trump to the Trump base, from least credible to most credible, it would look something like this:

  • The Jeff Flake Tier: unsparing, unwavering, and defined by his criticism of Trump.
  • The Liz Cheney Tier: also unsparing, but later to the party.
  • The Trump Administration Whistleblower Tier: credible enough to have been on the team, but . . . not on the team anymore.
  • The Brad Raffensperger Tier: State-based and employed in what’s supposed to be nonpartisan work, but only nominally Republican.
  • The Ed McBroom Tier: The “I’m just like you” kind of politician who knows and has much in common with his community, in fact is severely conservative—and most essential, is not an anti-Trumper by any means.

But look at the outcomes for these namesakes. Flake is out of the Senate, taking an ambassadorship, and probably out of Republican politics forever. Cheney lost her leadership post and is now in a fight to keep her seat. Defectors from the Trump administration—who departed in protest, not to pursue other Trump-aligned work—are either out of the public eye or part of a small anti-Trump resistance. Raffensperger is being challenged for Georgia secretary of state by Rep. Jody Hice, a Trump endorsee and apostle of stolen-election claims whom state Republican operatives reportedly peg as a prohibitive favorite.

And now there’s the agrarian, religiously devout, devoutly conservative state senator on the edge of the U.S.-Canadian border, nearly a thousand miles from Washington, D.C., but forever now inside its political sphere.

“McBroom is aware of the risks,” Alberta writes.

“McBroom said he is not fazed by the criticism or the prospect of a primary challenge, which he was already expecting,” notes the Michigan Bridge.

“I’ve been totally honest and up front, and if (voters) judge that’s not what they want, and if the majority of them want a different course of action, that’s okay,” he told that publication.

Note what is meant by “they” and “want”—McBroom means the voters may want someone who is not “totally honest and up front.”

That is what ultimately disqualified Jeff Flake—not his being a “RINO” or a “squish.” That is what disqualified Cheney—not her family name and its association with “forever wars.” That is what disqualified dissenting Trump alumni; what disqualified Raffensperger, and Aaron Van Langevelde, and any Maricopa County Republican who opposes the “audit.” It is what disqualified Ed McBroom.

Maybe some of these people and those like them will still be elected officials come the next few years. But they are part of only one and the same tier:

The Jeff Flake and Liz Cheney and Trump Administration Whistleblower and Brad Raffensperger and Ed McBroom Tier.

What McBroom clarified is this:

Trump’s base is the animating force of the Republican party, which holds GOP officials accountable mostly for their accountability to Trump. To this group, there is no such thing as a credible critic of the former president.

Persuasion often faces a Sisyphean climb even inside a normal political arena. But the unanswered question that confronts coalition-builders today is how to reach a movement for which all reasoning is motivated reasoning; for which facts and proof are subjective. As Chaucer would remind them, “For truly, he who preaches to those who do not want to hear his words, his sermon annoys them.”

Chris Deaton

Chris Deaton is a writer living in Atlanta.