Donald Trump has a consistently loose relationship with the truth. So much so, in fact, that the fact-checking website PolitiFact rolled his numerous misstatements into one big “lie of the year.” But all the fact-checking in the world hasn’t pushed Trump toward a more evidence-based campaign, and his support has held steady or even increased in some polls. What explains Trump’s ability to seemingly overcome conventional political wisdom?
One way to understand Trump’s longevity is to look more closely at his supporters. Trump’s backers tend to be whiter, slightly older and less educated than the average Republican voter. But perhaps more importantly, his supporters have shown signs of being misinformed. Political science research has shown that the behavior of misinformed citizens is different from those who are uninformed, and this difference may explain Trump’s unusual staying power.
Because an informed citizenry is believed to be an essential element to a functioning democracy, political scientists have long been interested in what Americans know about politics. For the most part, scholars have found that many U.S. citizens don’t have basic information about politics and don’t hold consistent opinions on policy matters. More recently, scholarly interest has turned to a more nuanced understanding of what being politically informed means.
In 2000, James Kuklinski and other political scientists at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign established an important distinction: American citizens with incorrect information can be divided into two groups, the misinformed and the uninformed. The difference between the two is stark. Uninformed citizens don’t have any information at all, while those who are misinformed have information that conflicts with the best evidence and expert opinion. As Kuklinski and his colleagues established, in the U.S., the most misinformed citizens tend to be the most confident in their views and are also the strongest partisans. These folks fill the gaps in their knowledge base by using their existing belief systems. Once these inferences are stored into memory, they become “indistinguishable from hard data,” Kuklinski and his colleagues found.
Furthermore, in 2010, political scientists Brendan Nyhan1 and Jason Reifler2 found that when misinformed citizens are told that their facts are wrong, they often cling to their opinions even more strongly with what is known as defensive processing, or the “backfire effect.”
Strong partisans are more likely to participate in the primary process, making it also likely that at least some highly engaged primary voters are also confidently misinformed and unwilling to accept contradictory evidence.
Telltale signs of misinformation, for example, were on display in a focus group of Trump supporters run by Republican media consultant Frank Luntz. Not only did negative information about Trump that was presented by Luntz to the group strengthen support for the candidate, participants held on more confidently to their misinformation as the session progressed. As Nyhan and Reifler’s research suggests, attempts to present corrections and generate counterarguments to the group’s beliefs only strengthened their opinions. The persistent claims by Trump and his supporters that his critics are too concerned with political correctness is a good example of this psychological process at work.
It is in Trump’s interest to allow misinformation — such as his statements about immigrants or Muslim Americans — to flourish. New work by Jennifer Hochschild of Harvard and Katherine Levine Einstein of Boston University found that there are incentives for politicians to keep citizens both misinformed and politically active. For most politicians, it doesn’t make sense to use precious resources to try to move or dissuade people from their incorrect positions — especially if this misinformation supports the political actor’s policy positions or legislative goals (as it does in Trump’s case). Instead, “the investment of resources goes much further in efforts to work around, accommodate, or even encourage the active misinformed,” the researchers write. Moreover, Hochschild and Einstein remind us that people find psychological comfort in having their opinions validated by others, especially by elites. So, there are many cases in which it makes more sense for politicians to encourage people to stay misinformed rather than try to provide them with accurate information.
Don’t expect Trump’s fans to abandon him anytime soon. And while there are reasons to think Trump supporters may be less likely to vote, that many seem misinformed is one reason to think they will.