With the most recent lawsuit — dubbed “The Big One” by President Trump — filed by Republicans seeking to overturn the results of the 2020 election swiftly (and predictably) swatted down by the Supreme Court, and the Electoral College recently voting to award the presidency to Joe Biden, the walls are closing in around “deposed king” Trump’s would-be-authoritarian ambitions. Sure, there will all-but-certainly be some bad-faith and doomed-to-fail theatrics when Congress tallies the Electoral College results on Jan. 6, 2021, but the case, to the extent it was ever open in the first place, is closed.
While Trump’s legal claims have been routinely tossed out (sometimes humorously) of court due to their absurdity and separation from reality, many of our Republican classmates, friends and family members (77% of Republicans, according to one oft-cited poll) still believe — in spite of the evidence — that Trump lost the 2020 election to President-elect Biden due to fraud. Why is this the case? What to say when a friend mentions the “stolen election”? How to respond when Aunt Karen retweets a debunked conspiracy theory video? Help!
It’s worth first noting that there are myriad good-faith reasons why our classmates, friends, family, and loved ones supported Trump for reelection in 2020. Liberals and conservatives place different relative weights on different values, Trump spoke to working-class white voters in a way that resonated, Trump spoke to minority voters in a way that resonated, Joe Biden’s son, Hunter, engaged in questionable business dealings, Republicans distrust media and government institutions more so than do Democrats, there are plenty of single-issue voters, and many other reasons.
There is no doubt that each of the above considerations has merit in explaining support for Trump before Election Day on Nov. 3. However, I find these considerations insufficient in explaining continued support for Trump’s antidemocratic efforts after he lost the election. Most thoughtful commentators I’ve read have offered rationales that attempt to explain such continued support for Trump by simply repeating and rephrasing all the reasons people voted for him, but those miss the point. Although there is some natural overlap between the two — particularly with respect to mistrust of the media and other institutions — the rationales people have for supporting one candidate’s fight against another in a democracy do not necessarily lead those people to support one candidate’s fight against democracy itself. Fortunately, better understanding our Republican classmates, friends and family members and their support for Trump’s election nonsense can be found by applying the lessons learned from studying social psychology.
In one excerpt from his seminal work on the psychology of persuasion, “Influence,” Dr. Robert Cialdini explores how a group of cult members responded when the date of their prophesied flood and end-of-the-world doomsday scenario came and passed. The cult members actually became significantly more rooted in their beliefs and insisted more on spreading their worldview immediately after their prophesized doomsday scenario had come and gone. Analysis by researchers who had clandestinely joined the cult to better understand human behavior is below, with added emphasis by me.
Oddly, it was not their prior certainty that drove the members to propagate the faith; it was an encroaching sense of uncertainty. It was the dawning realization that if the spaceship and flood predictions were wrong, so might be the entire belief system on which they rested. For those huddled in the living room, that growing possibility must have seemed hideous. The group members had gone too far, given up too much for their beliefs to see them destroyed; the shame, the economic cost, the mockery would be too great to bear. The overarching need of the cultists to cling to those beliefs seeps poignantly from their own words: “I’ve had to go a long way. I’ve given up just about everything. I’ve cut every tie. I’ve burned every bridge. I’ve turned my back on the world. I can’t afford to doubt. I have to believe. And there isn’t any other truth.”
Although there are, of course, differences in magnitude, many of our Republican classmates, friends and family members are the (unfortunate and unwitting) cultists in this scenario, and Trump — supported by his enablers in Congress and the right-wing media — is the cult leader who promised he alone knew things that others did not. After years of being fed lie after lie (which may have gotten worse under Trump’s open embrace of “alternative facts,” but certainly didn’t start under him), many of our Republican classmates, friends and family members find it easier — mentally and emotionally — to continue the increasingly conspiratorial spiral rather than to accept that the cult leader’s predictions were wrong. Joe Biden won the election in 2020; the would-be-emperor has no clothes.
This natural inclination — part conscious, part subconscious — to recede to mental safety rather than face a difficult truth is compounded by the phenomenon of confirmation bias, the tendency of people to seek out information that supports their pre-existing worldview. When even Fox News (excluding, of course, the opinion shows) had editorial and professional standards that disallowed the continuation of support for Trump’s nonsense, our classmates, friends and family declared Fox News part of the conspiracy and flocked to Newsmax and OANN.
The confirmation bias is amplified by the escalation of commitment bias, in which people who have already publicly committed to something (say, via a social media post or a text to a friend or family member) are much less likely to change their minds because doing so would be implicitly rescinding a commitment, causing additional mental and emotional pain. Add in the effects of social proof and ingroup bias created when other Republican peers cry fraud (or, in the case of many Republican elected officials who know better, simply stay silent), and we are left with a potent cocktail of social psychological pressures intoxicating our Republican classmates, friends and family members.
The appropriate response, then, for us to show toward our classmates, friends, family and loved ones who refuse to accept that Trump lost the election fair and square is most similar to that which you would show them if they tell you they have joined a cult and that the end is near. You should not attack or judge them, telling them they are “deplorable” and moving on with your day after #cancelling them. This is counterproductive and will only further entrench them in their misguided beliefs. Instead, you should offer compassion, curiosity, interest, perspective, advice and, above all else, kindness and support.
You may — subtly and tactfully — point out to your classmates, friends and family when “the end” has come and gone, when their promised prophecies have failed to materialize and when objective reality has rendered their explanation of the world untenable. This may take the form of acknowledging the Trump campaign’s latest legal failure, the debunking of yet another viral TikTok video alleging “proof” of fraud or perhaps this the recent Electoral College vote.
Your Republican classmates, friends and family may ignore what you say. They may attack you personally. They may move the goalposts again and again. They may try to show you the newest social media post as “proof” of their claim. You cannot control their feelings and actions. However, understanding that immensely powerful social psychological phenomena are driving their behavior, you can empathize with them, and you can support them.
Many who were part of the NXIVM cult were so committed to the cause that they accepted “branding” by tattooing themselves with its symbol. This is before they realized the scam and filed lawsuits. Similarly, many of those swindled by Trump University signed prepared statements praising the university and offering video testimonials celebrating their success. This is before they realized the scam and filed lawsuits.
It may take days, months or even years for our classmates, friends and family to accept the results of the 2020 election, which may begin a broader journey toward accepting facts and rejecting alternative facts. For some, this may never happen. Recognizing where our loved ones are in the process, though, is a great first step; let’s be there to support them.
To conclude, I recall a pithy folk saying: It is far easier to fool people than to convince them that they’ve been fooled.
Joseph Walters is a J.D./MBA candidate at Stanford University. He primarily studies the intersection of law and business, although he occasionally explores social psychology.