Doubt is an uneasy and dissatisfied state from which we struggle to free ourselves and pass into the state of belief; while the latter is a calm and satisfactory state which we do not wish to avoid, or to change to a belief, in anything else. On the contrary, we cling tenaciously, not merely to believing, but to believing just what we do believe.
~Charles Sanders Pierce “The Fixation of Belief”1
© Darrell Arnold Ph.D.– (Reprinted with Permission)
Trump’s failed court actions after the 2020 election underline that he lost the election. His claims of fraud have now been examined by the courts and rejected. Election officials have had a chance to more deeply scrutinize the election. Recounts have shown, once again, that Biden won. It’s common to expect that faced with this evidence the Trump supporters would acquiesce and accept the legitimacy of the election. Some would think that even Donald Trump would. Trump’s supporters should be able to grasp that the allegations are empty — or at the very least have been shown to be wrong.
Those more optimistic might even think that when we see that Trump has fired Christopher Krebs, the director of the Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency of Homeland Security, apparently for circulating the multi-agency document that emphasized that this election was “the safest in history,” Trump supporters might also suspect that Trump is attempting some kind of cover-up. Or they might conclude that the whole post-election protest by the Trump team is some kind of charade. While these would be reasonable expectations, this in fact is not what is happening.
What’s happening instead is that Trump’s base is doubling down on their false beliefs. Philosophers and behavioral psychologists call the phenomenon that we’re witnessing the “backfire effect.”2 This is the phenomenon that arguments and disproofs of a person’s beliefs often lead to the person becoming even more convinced of the false beliefs than they were before seeing the evidence. This is sometimes chalked up to mental laziness, combined with a widespread desire that individuals have to view themselves as consistent and to have consistent views over time (sometimes known as the consistency bias).
In light of all this, once we have a belief (or at least once a certain mentally lazy or insecure person has a belief), it appears to take less effort or to be less daunting to the ego to find rationalizations for why it is true rather than to re-evaluate it. This causes less cognitive dissonance. Not rarely a belief is also tied into a network or system of other beliefs against which it makes sense. It is consistent with those other beliefs. Were an individual to pull that one link out of the belief system, the entire system might appear to weaken.
In the case of the Trump supporters, we find that many are already suspicious of the “deep state.” Many voted for Trump because he tells a different narrative than the traditional career politician. Against this backdrop, the recent court rejection of the allegations of fraud thus doesn’t show that there was no fraud but that the suspicion of the courts by Trump’s base is justified.
The fact that “lifelong politicians” like governors and lieutenant governors or election officials, after review, still don’t acknowledge that Trump is president doesn’t show that Trump is wrong about the election. It simply shows that Trump is correct that career politicians and bureaucrats are what’s wrong with this country. And the fact that Trump fires Krebs, which the Left views as a nefarious cover-up of the election, isn’t nefarious at all. It’s a sign that Trump alone is the one who will actually take action against this deep state.
Contrary to expectations, then, Trump’s second failure — his failure with the courts and the state legislators — doesn’t have the effect on his base that it would have on people who were open to the honest evaluation of evidence. Instead, the antics work. He repeats the false claims and has a forum to do so for a longer period of time. The further scrutiny that should convince people that there really is no doubt that Trump has lost the election actually leads to the opposite result. His base believes more firmly than ever that he won.
1. “The Fixation of Belief” is one of the great, short pieces in the history of philosophy. It comes highly recommended.
2. The existence of a specific “backfire effect” is controversial and the effect may be better understood as a kind of confirmation bias. For more see Wikipedia’s entry on confirmation bias.