Confabulators for Trump

The more we learn about the brain, the more we learn that our decision-making process is far from conscious and is decidedly non-rational. Sure, when we are asked why we made a certain decision, we can usually come up with a serviceable explanation, but in most cases that explanation — that “reason why” — was formed after the decision was made. Not before.

This is certainly true in politics and is especially true in primary politics, when voters are choosing between a set of candidates that all track relatively close to their ideological positioning. Supporters of Ted Cruz, Marco Rubio and Donald Trump are all able to identify what they would describe as major differences between their preferred candidate and their respective opponents, but in many cases those differences were identified after they had been pushed in one direction or another at an affective, non-conscious level.

Once our brain has been pushed in one direction or another, we will attempt to justify that direction. This is most readily observed in split-brain patients. As Harvard psychologist Fiery Cushman explained:

Neuroscientists have devised clever experiments in which information is provided to the right hemisphere (for instance, pictures of naked people), causing a change in behavior (embarrassed giggling). Split-brain individuals are then asked to explain their behavior verbally, which relies on the left hemisphere. Realizing that their body is laughing, but unaware of the nude images, the left hemisphere will confabulate an excuse for the body’s behavior (“I keep laughing because you ask such funny questions, Doc!”).

Case in point:

Donald Trump, screenshot via 60 Minutes

Donald Trump, screenshot via 60 Minutes

No, the Trump voter in question hasn’t had brain surgery, but this is still some next-level confabulation. The same basic process is taking place. The voter has engaged in a behavior (supporting Trump) and now has to fish for a justification of their position (he has a secret plan to fight ISIS, perhaps). The reason they came up with is obviously bogus, as plenty of candidates have adopted Trump’s positions on issues ranging from the Great Wall of Texas to Syrian refugees and Trump has called them out for it — “We wouldn’t even be talking about immigration if it weren’t for me” — to his benefit. But that doesn’t matter. He’s their candidate, and they’re sticking to him.

In cognitive terms, this is less expensive. Confirming existing beliefs is easy; changing them is hard. That’s why people faced with disconfirming information regarding a political opinion will work to discredit or rationalize the information rather than incorporate it into a new opinion. That’s why when you show Trump supporters attacks on Trump, it makes them like him more, not less.

We all do this to a certain degree, but it’s especially interesting to watch Trump’s voters do it because he gives them so much latitude. Politicians are intentionally vague so as to avoid alienating specific voters who have specific concerns, but Trump is so vague — he will make us “win again” on trade (how?), he will build infrastructure (besides the wall?) and he will replace Obamacare with “something terrific;” and he’ll do it all with “good management” — that he gives voters tons of room to fill in the blanks for themselves.

Even when the blanks they have to fill are the blanks in Trump’s platform.


Jon Green graduated from Kenyon College with a B.A. in Political Science and high honors in Political Cognition. He worked as a field organizer for Congressman Tom Perriello in 2010 and a Regional Field Director for President Obama's re-election campaign in 2012. Jon writes on a number of topics, but pays especially close attention to elections, religion and political cognition. Follow him on Twitter at @_Jon_Green, and on Google+. .

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  • Kgprophet

    These extremists still have a problem if they want Trump to be president. They alone don’t have enough votes to win him the general election. Therefore, moderate Republicans and everyone else will have to be convinced that vague policy stances are the winning ticket. “Believe Me” doesn’t cut it for me.

  • nicho

    Making vague campaign promises and letting voters project their own hopes onto them. Hmmm. Where have we seen that before? Oh, yeah. It was in 2008 — some guy names Obala or Obara or something like that. He played that game perfectly. Whatever happened to him?

  • Bill_Perdue

    Correct. His rhetoric is extremely racist and pro war and his election would be a continuation of the racist immigration and war policies of every Democrat and Republican administration since Carter and Reagan.

    Even more are likely to vote for HRH HRC, who’s just as bad in spite of her denials. In either case thewars of aggression, attacks on unions and the standard of living of workingpeople and racism will continue unabated and we’ll have to fight for a real –
    socialist – solution.

    The left, in the form of socialist parties will use the campaign to promote the idea of building a mass socialist party and creating a worker’s government and state. We’ll continue to build the labor left, organize the unorganized and push hard for higher wages, 40 hours a week pay even if the weekly work time is lower and socialized medicine.

  • The_Fixer

    Yes, you are correct. I wrote that after a long, stressful and tiring day and my memory failed me.

  • DGT

    Actually, his quote was “I love the poorly educated!, which is arguably worse.

  • Margaretlarmstrong4


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  • goulo

    But Trump is a Republican, and he IS fooling huge numbers of people successfully… Whether those huge numbers of people self-identify as “Republicans” or as “independents” seems kind of a secondary issue. The important (and scary) thing is that huge numbers of people apparently are going to vote for him.

  • The_Fixer

    Well, he did say “I Love low-information voters!” That’s who he’s catering to. As well as those who read the racism into his comments and latch onto that.

    They share one trait – being intellectually stunted.

  • FLL

    Yes, Trump mirrors the values of white nationalists. Do not make the mistake of assuming that white nationalists are mostly anti-abortion. They are not. The available information, although anecdotal, indicates that most white nationalists feel that pro-life policies do not favor white demographics but pro-choice policies do. Hence, they really don’t care that Trump supports most programs of Planned Parenthood. Furthermore, white nationalists have never been that keen on the international free market policies that conservative Republicans have always loved. They would be in favor of tariffs on foreign imports, as Trump is. The Republican party is splintering, and the remnants are turning into a white nationalist party, much like the KKK nativist movement of the 1920s.

  • Also, Trump isn’t even bothering to hide his enthusiastic backing of white supremacist causes, which is inviting them to crawl out from the woodwork:

    Donald Trump’s presidential campaign gave press credentials to the white nationalist radio program The Political Cesspool, which says it will soon air an interview with Donald Trump Jr. National civil rights groups have criticized the program for supporting anti-Semites, Holocaust deniers, and white supremacists like David Duke. The show openly states on its website that it’s a “pro-White” program that wishes “to revive the White birthrate above replacement level fertility.” It is hosted by white nationalist James Edwards, who has claimed that Martin Luther King Jr.’s “dream is our nightmare,” “interracial sex is white genocide,” and “slavery is the greatest thing that ever happened to” African-Americans.

    http://mediamatters.org/research/2016/03/01/donald-trumps-campaign-gave-press-credentials-t/208939

  • Or more simply, there are lots of incredibly ignorant, stupid people out there and Trump is their guy because he makes ‘ignorant and stupid’ seem like worthwhile traits. He’s the same for the bigots, too: He seems to make being a hateful bigot socially acceptable again.

  • Outspoken1

    Thinking bad… yelling good….

  • Bill_Perdue

    People project their own thoughts on candidates all the time, but the period when Democrats and Republicans can count on that or on fooling huge numbers of people is over. That’s a good thing.

    ”PRINCETON, N.J. — In 2015, for the fifth consecutive year, at least four in 10 U.S. adults identified as political independents. The 42% identifying as independents in 2015 was down slightly from the record 43% in 2014. This elevated percentage of political independents leaves Democratic (29%) and Republican (26%) identification at or near recent low points, with the modest Democratic advantage roughly where it has been over the past five years.” http://www.gallup.com/poll/188096/democratic-republican-identification-near-historical-lows.aspx?utm_source=alert&utm_medium=email&utm_content=morelink&utm_campaign=syndication

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