Despite all the divisiveness in American politics, the culmination of which is a general election pitting two nominees with the highest general election unfavorables in the stat’s history, it seems there is one sentiment with which most Americans probably agree. Most of us are asking the same question:
“How can anyone support that person?!”
Can you feel the unity? Is God Bless America ringing in your ears? We’re all wondering how it’s possible that anyone can be supportive of candidate X, whether Hillary Clinton or Donald Trump.
There are several ways to explain our incredulity. I often try to do it psychologically. Several posts have gotten into confirmation bias and the reinforcement theory. The term “cognitive dissonance” can also be helpful.
Cognitive dissonance tells us that the human mind is adverse to, and discomforted by, holding two contradictory beliefs. We resist the conundrum. That often means we subconsciously or purposefully seek out sources (e.g. liberal or conservative print, radio, TV, and friends) that reinforce what we already believe, either to arm us with more talking points or because we don’t trust anything else. Cognitive dissonance goes a step further, suggesting that even if we did hear information that contradicted what we believed, we’d interpret it in a way that reduces that disquieting dissonance. We bend facts and opinions in a way that fits our preconceived notions. We rationalize why a politician of our party says certain things, while rarely giving the politician of the opposing party nearly as much credit. Read a Bush excerpt to a Democrat and they’ll likely listen with a critical ear; read that same excerpt but say it came from Obama and they’ll consume it in a much more receptive way.
With that in mind, let me attempt to show you how the other side sees your candidate.
Let’s say Trump ran as a Democrat. Frankly, it’s not that big of a stretch, right? As Ted Cruz couldn’t stop reminding us, Trump had a lot of liberal positions and campaign donations in his past. In fact, considering his recent positions on Planned Parenthood, eminent domain, affirmative action, trade, and more, he still has some.
In his run for the Democratic nomination, we’ll call him Hypothetical Trump. He of course takes mostly liberal positions, though on a few issues Democrats consider him annoyingly conservative. Hypothetical Trump still lacks all political experience, instead having his same business and real estate background. Importantly, he still says some pretty outlandish things, but instead of saying derogatory things about Democrats, “illegals,” and women, he says them about Republicans, “evangelicals,” and men. For example:
Let me tell ya something, folks. Those evangelicals. You know who I’m talking about. Those Bible-thumpers. Those southern rednecks. When they send people in our face with their anti-science beliefs, they’re not sending their best. They’re sending people that have a lot of problems. Look at the divorce rates in those red states. The education level. The obesity. They’re racists. And some, I assume, are good people.
Democrats would cringe. I mean, sure, he might be right about some of this stuff, but if only he could say it with more tact. Be nicer about it. For many Democrats, Hypothetical Trump is tough to support, but a lot of hardcore supporters like that he’s aggressively taking the fight to the other side.
Meanwhile, Hypothetical Trump is similar to Real Trump in policy knowledge, in that he doesn’t show much of it. He can’t really get into the details with most of his responses. Hypothetical Trump also probably doesn’t know the names of certain state leaders or nuances of eastern European politics. Democrats really wish Hypothetical Trump would study up so they could take him more seriously in the nomination process.
Due to a passionate base and domination of the media, Hypothetical Trump surprisingly defeats more well-spoken and experienced Democrats in the primary to become the nominee. Many Democrats are beside themselves. Can I really vote for this guy? Do I go third party? Do I stay home? Let me see who the Republicans nominate…
Meanwhile, the Hypothetical Republican Primary spat out someone quite different than the Democratic nominee. On the Republican side, a candidate emerged that really knew his stuff. Incredible foreign policy knowledge. The candidate had been around politics a long time and served at multiple levels of government, even once serving as a powerful cabinet secretary. This candidate wasn’t a hardcore conservative ideologue, like another candidate that he defeated in the primary. He wasn’t moderate, either, but this candidate did boast a history of pragmatism. Ultimately, this person was as experienced as experience could be, in stark contrast to Hypothetical Trump on the Democratic side.
Now, it sounds like Democrats, in this hypothetical scenario, should seriously entertain voting for this Republican nominee, right? Or, at the very least, they should not support Hypothetical Trump. Surely, in a time of international turmoil, many Democrats would consider defecting from the party, just this once, in order to vote against their insulting, tenderfooted, loose cannon Democratic nominee, even if Hypothetical Trump was ostensibly (hopefully?) more in line with their ideology.
But here’s the catch. Want to know the name of that learned, experienced, pragmatic Republican nominee?
What say you, Democrats? Who would you rather have as president — amateurish, probably liberal, Hypothetical Donald Trump, or experienced, pragmatic, Actual Dick Cheney.
In that context, I think it becomes easier for a Democrat to understand why Republicans are rallying around their imperfect candidate in an effort to stop Hillary Clinton. All of a sudden, all those positives in the résumé wouldn’t matter. Instead, it’d be about Halliburton and corruption. It’d be about how cold and impersonal he is. It’d be about connections to old administrations and lying to the American people. Democrats would place all past misconducts front and center. How can Republicans even DEFEND him? Have they looked at the facts? At his record? No way he gets my vote. People have died because of him and he never had to answer for it! He should be utterly disqualified.
Meanwhile, I expect that Republicans see that the choice between the experienced Cheney and Hypothetical Trump — a radical who says awful things about evangelicals — also seems like a no-brainer. Just like Democrats minimize, explain away, or outright dismiss the charges against Clinton, Republicans do the same with Cheney. If it were him against liberal Hypothetical Trump, Republicans would be making the same argument about Trump’s temperament, ignorance, and inexperience that Democrats are now.
There are other ways we see this kind of rationalization. Remember when the knock on Obama was that he was inexperienced? A first term U.S. Senator wants to be president? And he’s running against John McCain, who has decades of experience? Sure, Obama could pack stadiums and people loved listening to his speeches, but while high on rhetoric and oratory he was low on specifics and credibility. We can’t make him commander-in-chief.
So went the Republican spin.
The Democratic spin, meanwhile, was that Obama was an outsider there to shake up Washington. He was the candidate of change. Out with the old regime, in with the new guard. He was a different kind of politician who looked to bridge the red and blue state divide.
And on they went.
On they went, that is, until a new change change candidate comes along, and their own party runs someone with more experience. My personal favorite, from members of both parties, is when they parse out the “right kind of experience,” a qualification that could be manipulated to fit just about any qualification du jour in order to promote one’s candidate of choice.
With his presidency now winding down, Obama detractors speak with one voice regarding the success of this experiment with an inexperienced outsider. To fix his mess, however, they turn to another one. Now it is Republicans who don’t want an established politician with years of important experience. Because of cognitive dissonance, experience becomes devalued in favor of other factors. Meanwhile, unlike 2008, Democrats now think experience is essential.
This would all be hilarious if, you know, we weren’t talking about the presidency.