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Trump's Cult Ran by his Cognitive Dissonance

Photo by Annie Spratt on Unsplash

Donald Trump’s refusal to accept the election results seems beyond the pale, even after almost 25,000 lies and misleading statements. As usual, amateur psychological explanations have emerged. But not the one that seems obvious to those who study cults. And Trumpism is a cult because followers are loyal to Trump even when he flipflops or is inconsistent on policy.

Cognitive dissonance (CD), the concept of Stanford psychologist Leon Festinger, provides the answer. When an inconsistency between attitudes or behaviors (dissonance) exists, there is a need to eliminate the dissonance, especially among those unpinned from reality. When things do not go his way, Trump finds a path out by inhabiting a reality where he is comfortable.

Trump knew that polls predicted he would lose the election. As a Social Darwinist, he despises losers, and he knew he was going to lose. He considered himself mentally and physically stronger than Biden. He identified Republicans casting ballots at election polls as much stronger than Democrats who were so weak that they mailed in their ballots. Therefore, Trump felt entitled to victory.

To imagine that Trumpists will abandon Trump is foolish: He will keep his cult alive by almost any means possible. As a Social Darwinist, he needs to appear strong and will not fade away.

As CD predicts, winning was so more attractive than accepting defeat that Trump designed a victory scenario in which the enemies were mail-in voters who received ballots without asking. Accordingly, he announced that he won because the election was rigged, and he contested election results, both in court and by pressuring his cult followers in office to interfere with the unacceptable vote.

Cognitive dissonance can be resolved by rationalization—accepting the reality that an opponent wins because more popular and then giving a concession speech. What most cements irrational resolution of CD is selective exposure to information.

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Trump’s followers also experienced CD. Many Republican officeholders could have admitted Trump’s loss, but that option had little reward. They supported Trump’s post-election kabuki performance because of a payoff—keeping their jobs or gaining a pardon. Trump voters followed suit because accepting the world as it is had no reward compared to the Faustian joy of showing defiance of elites.

Trump lost legal battles because courts, state election officials, governors, Secretaries of State, and state legislators proved to be independent, following the law, He therefore has fewer options now. As vote challenges continue to lose, the focus will be on Congress, which on January 6 will tally votes from the Electoral College.

When Congress meets on that date, Trump will insist that Republican members of Congress raise objections. If a Senator and a Representative object, then the two houses will meet separately. Majority Democrats will reject the objection in the House, so the matter will then be up to the Senate, where Republicans hold the majority unless the outcome of the Georgia elections on January 5 creates a tie. But if the two houses still disagree two weeks later, the Speaker of the House becomes Acting President, something Republicans do not want. A majority of Republicans would therefore reject any objections.

What CD options are then left for Trump? CD theory suggests several possibilities:

  1. The payoff option still exists but will decrease on January 20 because pardons will cease as a reward, though many elected Republicans may still fear losing to Trumpists in 2022.
  2. The deepening option, where a false scenario becomes more intense, predicts that Trump and Congressional Trumpists will haunt the Biden administration with repeated claims of illegitimacy until 2024.
  3. The free choice option, where Trump challenges his followers to show intense loyalty by contributing to his 2024 fundraising campaign, may decline after Biden takes office but will persist if Trump rallies continue to maintain his popularity.
  4. The scenario change option will exist when the “rigged election” scenario is replaced by another one, such as manufacturing a major scandal in the Biden administration. IF Republicans gain a majority in the House in the 2022 election, expect impeachment.
  5. The forbidden option involves a scenario now taboo that later may seem attractive. He has already been encouraged to declare martial law. The secession scenario may gain support if endorsed by Trump. The civil war scenario was stopped by the FBI in Michigan but may reappear. And the violent scenario has already emerged, albeit occasionally during marches and rallies.

When members of a religious cult believe that the world will end on a particular day, they might commit mass suicide when that day arrives and passes without fanfare. To imagine that Trumpists will abandon Trump is foolish: He will keep his cult alive by almost any means possible. As a Social Darwinist, he needs to appear strong and will not fade away.

Michael Haas