Updated: Jan 5, 2021
February 7, 2020 | by Kimberly Yost, PhD
Recently, a Gallup poll reported approval for Donald Trump reaching an all-time high of 49%, even as he was being tried in the Senate for abuse of power and obstructing Congress. One of the questions repeatedly raised in my circle of politically active friends is, how can people support this guy? How can our fellow citizens and elected representatives be complicit in endorsing a president and an administration that continually demonstrates incompetence, neglect, greed, corruption, and a host of other qualities contrary to our shared American values. Why do they accept such actions and inactions clearly designed to diminish some people in order to uplift others? Why would people back a president whose policies conflict with their own economic or social interests? What’s wrong with these people?!?
We may find an answer to our questions through social justification theory, which suggests “people are motivated to justify and rationalize the way things are, so that existing social, economic, and political arrangements tend to be perceived as fair and legitimate” (Jost & Hunyady, 2005, p. 260). These arrangements can include accepting, and thus legitimizing, the ideologies of work ethic and meritocracy, fair-market forces and economic inequality, belief in a just world where one gets what they deserve, comfort with power distance and socially dominant groups, authoritarianism and political conservatism (Jost & Hunyady, 2005).
In other words, we twist our thinking in ways that support the status quo because we have a deep-seated belief that America is good and fair. When we have a concern that something may not be legitimate, such as the election of Donald Trump, we do the mental gymnastics to assuage our concerns.
Believing in these myths and accepting the foundational ideologies that justify the social system, is a compelling influence for people to rationalize their socio-economic position, especially for the disadvantaged. These ideologies create a desire to work toward a privileged socio-economic position and greater stability, thus further justifying the status quo. Our collective myth of America is that anyone can succeed if they work hard enough and play by the rules. Without this fundamental belief we would be culturally lost. An argument can be made that people support Donald Trump because they would like to be rich, powerful, and famous, just like Trump. It is an American dream no matter how repugnant when embodied by a man who continually lies and cheats to succeed.
The need to justify the social system is further heightened when people perceive the world around them to be a dangerous place. Donald Trump is a master at describing a dangerous, violent, and unsafe world. From immigrants who want to kill citizens to terrorists planning attacks on Americans to jobs being taken overseas, Trump sows fear of a changing world poised to cause death and despair. Indeed, his inaugural address in 2017 presented his worldview with the phrase “American carnage”.
Consequently, it is unsurprising that certain segments of the American population support him, and that the percentage is rising. Trump has foisted an image of a perceptually secure society founded on existing justified and accepted ideologies. For example, when brown children are taken from their parents and put in cages it becomes a ‘just world belief’ of people getting what they deserve for crossing a border when they were not authorized to do so and, thus, fully justified by some people. But, ultimately, the outcome is an authoritarian and inequitable society that swiftly – if not illegally and unethically – manages threats from asylum seekers, terrorists, and criminals. This is presented as preferable to the imagined alternative of chaos and violence stoked by the repetition of false and inflammatory stories. Importantly, people are absolved of engaging in personal or communal responsibility for solving problems, as Trump has announced he is the one to fix it. Though this ideology seems to be in direct conflict with democratic principles, where all citizens have a voice and a responsibility to solve problems, social justification theory shows people are comfortable with authoritarianism. The lack of efficacy, or at least the presence of apathy, is a susceptibility that authoritarian leaders can manipulate for their own personal gain.
This tragedy is compounded by the absence of a sturdy independent government. Our institutions are being ravaged. After three years in office, Trump has neglected to fill key governmental posts, placed ‘acting’ staff in leadership roles, and churned through members of his White House advisors. This is further complicated by compromising the independent nature of the Justice Department and ruthlessly demeaning the intelligence community. The use of power is no longer in service to America, but in service to those in the administration and Republican Party who hold power.
So, when you have another moment of wondering why people would support Trump and the GOP, remember it is not because they are stupid. It’s not because they are evil. It might not even be because they are victims of disinformation. They are trapped in the cycle of social justification that is nearing its lowest point in American history with the exploitation of basic ideologies by the Trump Administration. Our challenge is to provide an alternative.
As a society in crisis, we are presented with an existential moment and the opportunity to turn away from division and toward the possibilities of a future that embraces peace and justice.
We witness self-transformation through political engagement every day, which is a critical step in developing as a leader and creating change. What we might find in 2020, which was expressed in the midterm elections of 2018, is a shift in the thinking of a majority of Americans away from the bastardization of American values that justify an inequitable society, towards a communal solution to our most pressing issues and a recommitment to the truth of our values.
Jost, J. T. & Hunyady, O. (2005). Antecedents and consequences of system-justifying ideologies. Current Directions in Psychological Science 14(5), 260-265.