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Trump’s Republican National Convention and the Psychology of Obedience

This is how cognitive dissonance works.
June 3, 2020
Trump’s Republican National Convention and the Psychology of Obedience
US Republican presidential hopeful Donald Trump addresses a rally March 14, 2016 in Vienna Center, Ohio. / AFP / Brendan Smialowski (Photo credit should read BRENDAN SMIALOWSKI/AFP via Getty Images)

Last night President Trump announced that he is pulling the August Republican National Convention out of Charlotte, displeased that North Carolina Governor Roy Cooper has sought to mitigate the risks of coronavirus by scaling down the event. Presumably, appropriate public safety measures would also include the wearing of masks and some social distancing.

Instead, Trump now seeks a location where some 20,000 Republicans can dutifully pack into a convention center and enthusiastically cheer his renomination. Presumably with no public health strictures—especially not masks.

The conventioneers who eventually show up for this event, sans masks, will be made up of two groups of people. The first are those convinced that the COVID-19 crisis was a hoax, or at least substantially overblown. Among this crowd will be people who view masks, as a supposedly respectable journalist recently suggested, as unpresidential, if not the exclusive province of “liberal pussies.”

But these people are not very interesting. Every group has its extremists.

What is interesting is that there will almost certainly be Republican National Convention attendees who do view the coronavirus as a serious public health crisis.

Nevertheless, you can bet dollars to donuts that some of these people—most, I expect—will put health concerns to the side for the sake of conformity.

It won’t be the first compromise, of course. Over the last four years, many reasonable Republicans have found themselves tolerating an escalating range of presidential behaviors they’d have condemned during any previous administration.

How did we get here?

Part of the explanation is the pragmatic reality of Trump’s Twitter presence: The kind of people who are deeply enough enmeshed in the Republican party to go to a national convention live with the knowledge that failure to exhibit conspicuous loyalty to Trump always carries the possibility of a public flogging and the mobilization of Trump’s base against their interests.

We saw the impact of Trump’s strategic intimidation most recently when, as A.B. Stoddard described, the National Republican Senatorial Committee (NRSC) distributed a memo urging GOP candidates not to defend Trump’s handling of the pandemic, and instead suggested they “attack China.” Yet “after a scolding,” says Stoddard, “the NRSC walked this back.” Total fealty is required.

That this phenomenon is manifest in a party previously defined by moral principles and a fierce small-government, independent, anti-authoritarian streak—as Tim Alberta describes so beautifully and so painfully in his book American Carnage—defies all expectation.

But Twitter cowardice doesn’t explain everything.

Over five decades ago, the psychologist Leon Festinger described how we manage the dilemma that’s presented when we privately believe one thing, but publicly assert the opposite.

This situation generates what Festinger called “cognitive dissonance.” This term has become familiar, but the rest of Festinger’s theory has been forgotten. Festinger proposed that people do not typically remain in this uncomfortable state. Instead, cognitive dissonance is often resolved by people subconsciously modifying their private views to better align them with their public sentiments, and not the other way around.

This may help explain why, after Trump skeptics cross over and express their support, they seem to be drawn ever further into the fold.

But surely, when confronted with an acknowledged health risk—like attending (a probably maskless) packed political convention—that would force some to snap to their senses and break the spell, right?

Maybe. It’s possible that some potential attendees will find a way to beg off. But most are likely to attend. Having rationalized so much already, they are likely to find it less psychologically stressful to wade in further than to stop and ask themselves how they got in so deep.

The kicker is that rather than resenting Trump or the Republican party for demanding their participation, the attendees are far more likely to emerge from such a convention with even firmer convictions, as classic data around the psychology of hazing, from scientists at Stanford and the U.S. Army Leadership Human Research Unit, suggests.

“Subjects who underwent a severe initiation” in order to become part of a group, the researchers concluded in 1959, “perceived the group as being significantly more attractive than did those who underwent a mild initiation or no initiation.”

The proposed explanation? “Festinger’s theory of cognitive dissonance”—that is, if someone has gone through an unpleasant initiation to become part of a group, this can be “dissonant with his cognition that there are things about the group that he does not like.”

To reduce this dissonance, an initiate can either “convince himself that the initiation was not very unpleasant, or he can exaggerate the positive characteristics of the group and minimize its negative aspects,” the researchers explain. The more severe the initiation, the less viable the first option becomes, and the more the person must overestimate the attractiveness of the group.

“Compelling people to do something changes their psychology,” Duke professor Dan Ariely told me. While emphatically not endorsing this approach himself, he acknowledges that “forcing people to take a risk [like showing up at a crowded convention during the COVID crisis] can actually increase loyalty.”

As repugnant as the idea of a president insisting on a fully packed convention against virtually all medical advice is, Trump’s psychological instincts may be uncannily sound. Whatever else you want to say about Donald Trump, he is a keen student of human weakness.

Statistically, the vast majority of attendees are likely to do just fine, even if the convention itself becomes a superspreader event. It’s possible that some participants could return to their communities and disseminate the virus. But that would all happen invisibly and at some remove—both temporally and geographically—from the event.

And even that bad outcome isn’t a certainty.

What is certain is that virtually all participants from the convention will emerge fired up, fiercely loyal, and more determined than ever to do everything they can to support the re-election of their Dear Leader.

David Shaywitz

David Shaywitz is a physician-scientist at a biopharmaceutical company, an adjunct scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, and a lecturer in the Department of Biomedical Informatics at Harvard Medical School.