Donald Trump

In Trump Era, Many Political Activists Follow Their Leader, Not Their Principles

The reward centers of the brain light up when partisans reject information that contradicts their political preferences, the same way drug addicts' brains do.


Politics is a team sport, so it has always required a certain flexibility on matters of principle. But two recent studies suggest that, for many Americans, only one principle really matters: following the leader.

And the Trump administration is proving it in spades.

An idealized account of how we reach our political loyalties might look something like this: First, we study the issues, weighing the facts and the applicable ethical standards—liberty, justice, equality, fairness, etc. Having thought long and hard, we then reach a set of conclusions about the correct public policy. Then we look around to see who shares our conclusions. Finally, we align ourselves with them.

In fact, a great deal of research on the psychology of political affiliation says we do pretty much the exact opposite: First, we decide what team we're on. Then we learn what our team's collective view on a given issue is. Then we look at the principles and the facts, cherry-picking those that support our team's view and rejecting the rest as somehow flawed.

In one well-known experiment, political scientist Brendan Nyhan presented political partisans with news stories that contained incorrect information—e.g., that the Bush administration had banned stem-cell research. Nyhan also included a correction pointing out the inaccuracy. Partisans were actually more likely to believe the inaccuracy after reading the correction—a phenomenon called the backlash effect.

People seem to be hard-wired to act this way. Using brain scans, Emory University researcher Drew Westen found that the reward centers of the brain light up when partisans reject information that contradicts their political preferences, in the same way the reward centers of a drug addict's brain light up when he uses drugs.

This would be troubling enough if people were consistent in their beliefs. But they aren't. Far from it.

For instance: Four years ago, during the Obama presidency, a Washington Post-ABC News poll found that just 22 percent of Republicans supported a missile strike to stop Syrian president Bashar al-Assad's use of chemical weapons against his own people. But a poll taken after Donald Trump ordered air strikes for the same reason found that 86 percent of Republicans supported it.

The same phenomenon has played out with regard to Russia. Republicans used to view Vladimir Putin with hostility, and ridiculed efforts at rapprochement such as Hillary Clinton's "reset" button. Since Trump took office Republicans view Russia more favorably than Democrats do.

Democrats exhibit similar changes of heart. Although their views are more consistent on Syria, Democrats' positions on a host of other issues have shifted markedly. The anti-war movement that had bedeviled George W. Bush largely disappeared when Obama took office, as did concerns about the dangers of the national-security state—even though Obama ratcheted up both the war in Afghanistan and warrantless electronic surveillance. As one research paper put it, "Democrats, who had been motivated to participate by anti-Republican sentiments, withdrew from antiwar protests when the Democratic Party achieved electoral success."

Even political identity itself is undergoing a shift. The Atlantic reports on recent findings by two political scientists examining the views of the conservative base. Grassroots activists now judge senators with very conservative voting records—such as Jeff Flake of Arizona and Ben Sasse of Nebraska—as moderate, while deeming others with moderate records more conservative.

The researchers posit that this is because Flake and Sasse have sharply criticized Trump—never mind that Trump himself deviates from traditional conservatism on a whole host of issues, from free trade to eminent domain.

If they're right, then many people now define conservatism not by a particular set of principles or a coherent political philosophy. Instead, they define it by the identity of the leader of the Republican Party. Since Trump is president, what he does is ipso facto conservative. Therefore, anyone who criticizes him—even from the right—becomes "liberal."

The phenomenon even extends to issues of morality. A recent poll by the Deseret News finds that Republicans and Democrats have largely switched places on adultery by public officials: "Today, 57 percent of Republicans say it wouldn't affect their vote if a presidential candidate had an extramarital affair in the past, compared to 47 percent of Democrats. In January 2016, the figures were nearly reversed, with 48 percent of Republicans and 64 percent of Democrats saying it wouldn't matter, the survey reported." That's quite a change in less than 18 months—and quite a change from the Bill Clinton era.

Not all partisans change their views so easily, of course. Many Republicans remain deeply opposed to Donald Trump, and many Democrats disapproved of Obama's warmongering and Clinton's tomcat behavior. But for far too many, holding the right view on a policy question is far less important than being on the right team—or being opposed to the wrong one.

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  1. So totally different than the Obama, Bush, and Clinton eras.

    1. Or, for that matter, the Reagan, Kennedy, or Roosevelt eras.

      1. But not Taft. Because Taft was different.

        Chief Justice doncha know.

      2. Or, in the alternative, the Castro, Hussein, or Ghaddafi eras.

    2. Yeah the headline of this piece is kind of strange.

      It’s not like Trump invented any of this.

      1. Because Trump!

        I won’t blame Mr. Hinkle, because authors don’t normally get to write their own headlines.

        I will blame “Reason Staff”, and say that thoughtless clickbait is not exactly making me rush to subscribe or donate or turn off AdBlock.

  2. It’s not a bad strategy, especially if you’re concerned about some issues (like gun control) where the alternative really is worse.

    In business parlance, when you’re comparing alternative IRRs, you don’t necessarily avoid any situation with a negative return. Sometimes, you have to choose between two negative returns. In those cases, you pick the one with the lowest negative return and avoid the one with the larger loss.

    Refuse to make a choice in those situations, and you end up perpetuating the status quo, e.g. ObamaCare, which may be worse than any other option.

    Life is a never ending series of imperfect choices. Wait for perfect choices to come along before you can decide, and you’ll end up old, gray, poor, and lonely. Hey, but at least you never made any compromises, right! And isn’t that what’s really important?

    1. There goes Ken “principles are for suckers” Shultz again.

    2. This is where the left – particularly the marxists – have everyone else beat by a mile. Here’s a libertarian, on a libertarian site dedicated to fleshing out principles (and employing mental defectives for charity) saying that one must sacrifice those principles.

      A Marxist understands that you have to take over institutions that are popular or important, such as Hollywood or university, and push your principles there. Simultaneously you demand your political leadership vote to those principles, understanding that any compromise is merely temporary, since you own the important real estate already.

      Conservatives and libertarians? They simply compromise their principles.

    3. Taking a compromising position on something is not quite what this article is describing. Republican voter’s views on Russia, or military action in Syria, are not examples of people making a least-bad choice; it’s changing one’s beliefs to match decisions already made. It’s cognitive dissonance mitigation: they voted for Trump, he’s doing/saying something they didn’t support, so rather then change their support for Trump (admitting they voted wrongly), it’s easier to change one’s beliefs to match what Trump is doing.

      1. And this is complete bs.

        Thanks for explaining the article, it was so high minded it made no sense to me.

        I’m doing what it takes to win and destroy the enemy. That’s my principle.

        1. Do you have something coherent to say?

  3. In Trump Era, Many Political Activists Follow Their Leader, Not Their Principles

    Can’t this be said for most, if not all, presidential “eras”?

    1. Only Trump has such power of his minion voters

  4. There’s so much I want to throw at my Bernie Bro friends after our most recent argument (opioid epidemic) but I must use tact and patience — they wouldn’t read a Reason article anyway. Especially one that frames their principles as principle-less.

  5. Will Reason pay me to write the same thing when the next administration comes along?

    1. Zing!

    2. Reason didn’t even pay Hinkle to write it this time: A. Barton Hinkle is senior editorial writer and a columnist at the Richmond Times-Dispatch.

      1. All KOZMOS, defined as any so-called libertarian making any criticism of MUH TRUMP are on the Reason payroll. IT IS KNOWN. /sarc

  6. Well, I am more tempted than ever to call my local voting office and ask them to rip up my voter card-any studies on that? Seriously, some jackass here in Virginia who is running for governor (GOP) left a message saying how great he was and the last thing he said was that he has always supported Trump. The dem dipshits are using buzzwords like “protecting reproductive rights” and “controlling gun violence” in their messages.

    1. Don’t worry, i met the (only?) Libertarian candidate for governor this weekend – he is just a kid, and is starting to suspect he is way out of his depth, and he is right. The state Democrat and Republican machines will grind him to a fine paste without even slowing down.

    2. Corey Stewart’s a minor candidate, though. Annoying and pretty low-info, but minor nonetheless. That primary is almost certain to go to an establishment GOP guy.

  7. I’m actually not seeing this as much with the Trump base as I was seeing it with the Obama base. Look at how many opposed AHCA because it didn’t actually get rid of Obamacare. Look at how many die-hards opposed the Syrian airstrike because he moved away from his non-interventionist campaign promises w/o congressional approval. I’m figuring out that most of them are not blindly following Trump like a cult figure, which is a very good thing. Yes, there are a lot of Trump cheerleader accounts on Twitter, but guys like PJW, Molyneux, Yiannopoulos, Coulter, the Freedom Caucus, etc., i.e. the intellectual and polemical centers of the movement, have been very willing to oppose Trump on principled grounds.

  8. Is this really a new phenomenon in “The Trump Era” though? It seems to me that principals > principles has been SOP for most people for a while now.

    1. But now it’s science!

  9. Using brain scans, Emory University researcher Drew Westen found that the reward centers of the brain light up when partisans reject information that contradicts their political preferences, in the same way the reward centers of a drug addict’s brain light up when he uses drugs.

    Maybe that boyscout from that post yesterday who’s going on that huge moral crusade against porn should set his sights on the scourge of partisanship instead.

  10. seems like there are plenty of republicans in office who are not sniffing Trumps ass hence not everything he wants is getting done. just Trumped the follow the leader theory. that said for a group to debate to for who to allow as their leader and once the debate is settled then following that leader wether as personal choice or choice to maintain the party goals is not a terrible thing and to do otherwise is pour anarchy. Unless of course you end up following them to the gas chambers but I don’t see that happening.

  11. Harry Browne called it the Previous Investment Trap.

  12. The Deseret News? The Deseret News! Are you kidding, quoting from this rag? This is the in-house organ of the Mormon Church, the crackpot cult that owns and operates the State of Utah. There is nothing in that paper but the dogma of a particular superstition. You couldn’t pick a more unreliable, wackier source to quote anything from. You should look more critically at your sources if you want to have any credibility.

  13. This seems close to “confirmation bias” as well, if it’s not the same thing. When you throw in your lot with a political personality you tend to confirm that decision by accepting whatever evidence supports it and rejecting whatever does not. It’s a common, human failing. By this distortion of reality people make themselves more secure in their past decisions and protect their egos.

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