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Why do Trumpsters still support Donald Trump?

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Image by Gaga Skidmore (via flickr.com)

Donald Trump said he could “shoot somebody” and not lose any of his voters. Dr Misia Temler analyses the motivations of blind faith in politics.

THE AMERICAN PRESIDENTIAL election is less than two weeks away.

Trumpsters pledge their unwavering support for Republican candidate Donald Trump, despite his numerous racial slurs and revealed scandals.

They vehemently stand by claims that Hillary Clinton’s recent lead in the polls is due to vote rigging. Donald Trump himself said earlier this year that he could “shoot somebody” and not lose any of his voters. The Australian people are perplexed. Many view Trumpsters as racist bigots. Are all Trump supporters deplorable as the media suggests or is there another explanation for their allegiance?

An explanation for Trump allegiance may lie in how Trumpsters remember candidate specific information. The extreme polarisation of the American political parties leads to strong Republican and Democratic identities and this may affect how information is processed and remembered. This is because rather than an actual portrayal of the past, personally relevant memory is reconstructive and goal specific.

Two of of the main goals of our memory are to provide us with a sense of self and help us relate to the society we live in. In our everyday life, we encounter a wide array of information from many different sources. In order to understand the information we come across, our memory has evolved to take short cuts. It picks and chooses information that fits into our personal narratives so that we can make sense and meaning of our environment. What this means is that people generally will pay attention and remember information that fits in with their goals and identity and in contrast will ignore or minimise information that does not fit in with their goals and self identity.

When we have a strong sense of identity, we feel content and in control. Our sense of identity can be strengthened when we align ourselves with groups. We then tend to pay attention and remember factors associated with the groups we feel we belong to and ignore and not remember factors associated with groups to which we do not belong. 

Research has demonstrated group alignment to have incredibly powerful effects on memory. Individuals have recalled completely different memories and exhibited different moral disengagement for war atrocities depending simply on what groups they align themselves with. The stark polarisation of the American political system causes people to align their identities with that of their chosen parties and nominated candidates.

When Trump supporters hear any information about Trump, their adaptive functions of memory will influence what they remember and what they forget to maintain a consistent sense of self that is largely defined by their Republican Party identity. Confronted by new information that conflicts with their existing conservative beliefs, ideas or values, such as the recently surfaced coverage of lewd video leak and sexual assault allegations, can impact their sense of identity and cause psychological distress. To alleviate distress and retain self identity individuals are motivated to reduce the inconsistency within themselves by avoiding situations and information that is likely to cause them to feel psychologically uncomfortable.

Trumpsters may choose to spend time with others who share their Republican ideology and refrain from discussing the negative coverage on Trump. They may also tune into more conservative news network channels such as Fox News and avoid more liberal networks such as MSNBC or CNN. Even if Trump supporters feel they cannot ignore the recent scandals and allegations, and secretly do not like Trump, it is likely the majority will not voice their opinion and will not vote for opposite party’s candidate, Clinton, as this would cause too great fragmentation of identity.

Many Trumpsters are most likely not that different to many Clinton supporters. I was raised in southern Alabama. Many of my closest childhood friends are Trumpsters. They are not deplorable. Most have just strongly associated themselves with their party’s identity and united solidly behind their party’s nominated candidate because they feel as if they have no other choice.

Whether the Republican or Democratic Party identity will be a stronger motivation to encourage individual voters to the polls, we will find out on 9November. Regardless of the outcome, the hope is that once the election has taken place, voters from the two camps can extinguish the glaring division of identity and re-establish a sense of cohesive united American identity that has been missing this past year.

They can then move forward to process and remember information collectively to realise they stand together in their patriotism and are more similar than they like to admit.

Dr Misia Temler is a forensic psychologist and project coordinator of Not Guilty, The Sydney Exoneration Project at the University of Sydney. You can follow Misia at @MisiaTemler.

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