Kathleen Vohs: The psychological phenomenon that blinds Trump supporters to his racism

President Donald Trump’s tweet proposing that four Democratic congresswomen of color — three of them born in the United States, one a naturalized citizen — “go back” to the “totally broken and crime infested places from which they came” was textbook racism. Yet while some Republicans condemned the statement — Sen. Tim Scott of South Carolina, who is black, lamented its “racially offensive language” — others flatly denied that there was a racial component to the salvo.

A particularly contorted reaction came from Rep. Andy Harris of Maryland, who said, "Clearly, it's not a racist comment," adding that the president "could have meant go back to the district they came from, to the neighborhood they came from." But the president could hardly have made his meaning more clear: He said the four "originally came from countries whose governments are a complete and total catastrophe."

"Well, I certainly do not think the president's a racist," said Rep. James Comer, R-Ky., who suggested that the tweet was justified by the representatives' constant criticism "not only [of] the president but also Congress and our country."

Fear of crossing a president who's popular with the Republican base surely explains some of the convoluted rationalizations on offer. But a psychological phenomenon called cognitive dissonance may also shed light on some people's unwillingness to acknowledge the self-evident racism in the tweets.

Cognitive dissonance, first described by the psychologist Leon Festinger in the late 1950s, occurs when conflict emerges between what people want to believe and the reality that threatens those beliefs. The human mind does not like such inconsistencies: They set off alarms that spur the mind to alter some beliefs to make the perceived reality fit with one's preferred views.

In the case of Trump’s remarks — when absorbed by his supporters who do not consider themselves racist — those inconsistencies can be summarized in a sort of syllogism: (1) I do not support racists. (2) I do support President Trump. (3) President Trump has just made a racist remark. Those three facts simply don’t fit together comfortably in the mind.

Just as a hungry person will seek food to alleviate hunger, Festinger argued, people who experience mental discrepancies of this sort will work to put them in accord, to reduce the dissonance. And they will often go to extraordinary lengths to do so: Resolving cognitive dissonance often takes considerable mental gymnastics.

Supporters of Trump who experience cognitive dissonance over his remarks essentially have three psychological options to resolve it, altering in various ways the three beliefs that are in tension. One is to change the belief that they do not support racists. This response is unlikely, however, because it would require a massive overhaul of the view of the self, placing the person in a category he or she knows is morally dubious, not to mention socially vilified. Very rare is the person who will resolve psychological dissonance by saying, "Actually, I am a monster."

Another option is to introduce new beliefs that bolster support for Trump. This does not address the conflicts among beliefs head-on but rather lessens the impact of the inflammatory statement by considering positive information about the president.

One approach along these lines is to emphasize the awfulness of the policy positions and statements of the congresswomen Trump attacked, thereby casting the president as a defender of decency (and perhaps as a victim himself, not an aggressor). Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., for instance, described Democratic Reps. Rashida Tlaib of Michigan, Ayanna Pressley of Massachusetts, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York and Ilhan Omar of Minnesota as "a bunch of communists" who "hate Israel" and "hate our own country."

Relatedly, Marc Short, Vice President Mike Pence’s chief of staff, played up Trump’s lack of racism in other contexts, noting that his transportation secretary, Elaine Chao, was born in Taiwan. As reasons for supporting the president grow — either his sterling qualities or the negative characteristics of his opponents — it becomes easier to overlook a single misstep.

A third route to resolving dissonance, in this specific case, is to flatly (and boldly) reject the consensus that telling someone to “go back” to their family’s country of origin is racist. Rep. Harris — with his revisionist argument that Trump wanted the women to go back to their districts — is probably the most striking example of this. But Fox News analyst Brit Hume may also belong in this category, with his hairsplitting statement that Trump’s comments were “nativist, xenophobic ... and politically stupid” — but absolutely not racist, “a word so recklessly flung around these days that its actual meaning is being lost.”

If Trump is just the latest in a long parade of people falsely accused of racism by liberals, that, too, makes it easier to take his side. ("Xenophobic" is not too far from "racist," definitionally, but it does not carry nearly the same moral charge, so reframing the accusation that way may well ease psychological tension.)

Since the uproar, Trump has proclaimed that many people agree with his controversial statement and that indeed, “a lot of people love it.” But decades of behavioral research suggests that not all the people refraining from condemning the president support his attacks. Instead, they’re doing mental contortions to explain away the ugliness, to justify their continued support of him — and to maintain their positive views of themselves.

Kathleen Vohs | The University of Minnesota

Kathleen Vohs is the distinguished McKnight university professor and Land O’Lakes chair in marketing at the University of Minnesota’s Carlson School of Management.