In 1954, social psychologist Leon Festinger embedded himself in a cult called The Seekers, whose leader, Dorothy Martin, preached that a UFO would rescue them before destroying the planet on Dec. 21 of that year. When that didn’t happen, many sect members left. But most of the inner circle remained, inventing all kinds of rationales for why the prophecy didn’t come true (e.g. their faith persuaded the aliens to give Earth a second chance) and redoubled their devotion.
From this research, Festinger developed the theory of cognitive dissonance: that human beings will do just about anything to resolve contradictions between our deeply held beliefs about the world and the reality of the world itself. Cognitive dissonance is so unpleasant, so disordering and catastrophic for the ego, that no amount of absurd, tortured reasoning is worse than reality contradicting a deeply held belief.
I first encountered the concept of cognitive dissonance as a grad student in religious studies (I ended up writing my dissertation on a failed messianic movement) but it’s become a cornerstone of contemporary psychology in a variety of contexts. It applies to much more than religion: it is, I think, the best explanation for today’s political and ideological divides, and for the mind-blowing fact that 70 percent of Republicans say they think the election Trump lost was not “free and fair.”
All of us try to resolve cognitive dissonance, but the Trump movement has been a years-long exercise in it. Election denial is its latest manifestation. But before that came COVID denial, science denial, climate denial, ‘alternative facts,’ the inability of Trump’s most devoted fans to see him for the obvious con man that he is, and, at the movement’s very core, denial of the social and demographic changes that are transforming America.
In all of these cases, developments in history are contradicting deeply held beliefs—in fact, not mere “beliefs” but organizing principles of the world that create one’s sense of place within it. If Donald Trump legitimately lost the election, most Americans can put up with Socialism or Black Lives Matter or the Liberal Media or whatever else. If America is really, legitimately changing, then the white-, male-, straight-, and Christian-dominated world is gone and will never come back. If climate change is real, then the way I’ve been living my life has been causing harm, and has to change, even if that means government regulations and restrictions. If the Republicans are just duping me into supporting massive benefits for the ultra-rich, I’m a stupid mark. If Trump really is a con man with a bad weave and even worse makeup, then I’ve been deluded for four years. And so on.
Again, these aren’t mere beliefs; they are how people understand themselves and their communities. That’s what’s challenging about cognitive dissonance. It’s pointless to argue facts with someone in the throes of denial, because no twist of facts is too preposterous to entertain if the alternative is letting go of one’s entire worldview and sense of self.
Cognitive dissonance is also a primary reason that people resort to conspiracy theories, which Trumpworld increasingly resembles, not only in fringe manifestations like QAnon but in the allegation of widespread fraud in the presidential election, which, of course, has no factual basis whatsoever and is, at this point, simply a conspiracy theory writ large.
Conspiracy theories explain phenomena too difficult to simply accept: Plandemic explains how COVID-19 could upend the world, Trutherism explains how 9/11 could upend the world, QAnon explains how Trump has “not yet” uprooted the profound evil among American elites. And for believers, however horrible the conspiracy is—Cannibal pedophiles! Reptilian aliens!—it is less horrible than the possibility that no one is minding the store, that bad things happen to good people, that life is filled with randomness, chance, and change, and that most people actually don’t agree with your ideas, all of which are cognitively dissonant for human animals trying to find security in the world.
In this light, QAnon isn’t some weird, fringe phenomenon with no connection to populist politics. It’s a logical extension of the populist worldview. If “the people” are actually the majority, then a sinister minority—Jews, ‘coastal elites’, the media, the Satanic pedophiles, whoever—is actually in control. It’s a short jump from that to full-blown conspiracy madness. And when the anointed messenger of “the people” turns out to be a buffoon chiefly interested in his own enrichment, well, that must all be a ruse. Or a media conspiracy. Or whatever.
In fact, of course, America is changing not because of manipulation by shadowy elites, be they coastal, Semitic, pedophiliac, or reptilian, but because of demographics and social change on questions like sexuality, gender, race, and religion. The numbers are incontrovertible. But that would mean that the populists are actually wrong about what “America” even is. That would mean they are wrong about who they are; they’re not the “real Americans,” they’re just one subset of real Americans, and a dwindling one at that. That is intolerable.
To be sure, denial as a means of avoiding cognitive dissonance exists across the political spectrum. Plenty of progressives have been 9/11 Truthers, anti-vaxxers, and COVID deniers. Plenty more believe in astrology, pseudo-science, and the quackery of the “wellness industry” despite contrary evidence. In the phenomenon known as “conspirituality,” many have even co-opted right-wing conspiracies like QAnon and grafted them onto a New Age worldview.
Nor is right-wing cognitive dissonance new. Drawing on the McCarthy period, historian Richard Hofstadter coined the term “paranoid style in American politics” to describe the populist worldview, as alive now as then, that sees real America as simultaneously a beacon of strength and a citadel under siege by nefarious outsiders (communists, Jews, Muslims, immigrants, whoever). Someone is always out to destroy America, and it’s always five minutes to midnight.
Likewise today. Trump can’t be defeated fairly—that would mean that America isn’t what the “America First” crowd says it is, and that the identities of tens of millions of Americans are in need of serious revision. So it must be the fault of some ‘Other’: the media, the Democrats, the Jews, the great Satanic conspiracy.
The human aversion to cognitive dissonance is widespread, powerful, and connected to our core conceptions of the meaning of life and how to survive it. It is as primal as it gets. So no, my numerous data-filled articles about Trump’s lawsuits will not persuade a true believer.
Don’t worry, though; cognitive dissonance is so strong a motivator that it will eventually triumph over its current manifestation. When the facts are incontrovertible, all but a small hardcore of Trump’s supporters will simply tweak their meta-theories. God works in mysterious ways, after all. Or maybe Biden’s election was punishment for our sins. Or maybe, for those more secularly inclined, we were getting complacent under Trump, and now we’ll have to wake up.
Whatever it takes, Trump’s devoted base will find a way to preserve their beliefs in the face of his eventual loss. I suppose that’s a good thing: eventually they’ll figure out a way to explain that, too.