There’s no shortage of publicity maestro, name-emblazer Donald Trump think pieces on the Internet these days. Most will attribute his straight talk to his more-than-likely-fleeting frontrunner status. Others point to some anger or racism the Trump Brand Name has tapped into. The rest? Apologists or denouncers. But all seem to agree that Trump is bad for the Republican Party; he’s sucking all the air out of the nominee process. That some other alleged Serious Candidates won’t get the attention they need because Trump is, well, trumping them.
But they’ve all missed it. Trump is not the cause of the GOP’s problems—he’s the symptom.
I turn to the classic work by Leon Festinger, Henry Riecken, and Stanley Schachter in their 1956 tome “When Prophecy Fails: A Social and Psychological Study of a Modern Group That Predicted the Destruction of the World.” This was the seminal work where the phrase “cognitive dissonance” was coined. The researchers followed a doomsday cult, the Seekers, after their date of The End came and went.
What we’d assume is, after there was concrete, indisputable, undeniable evidence the prophecy was wrong, there would be mass disillusionment. Followers would turn on their leader and realize how silly they’d been. But that wasn’t the case. Instead, the authors observed a doubling down effect. The true believers found disconfirmation to be a reason to believe more truly. And then, firmly committed to their beliefs, they tried to find ways to justify the outcome. In the case of the Seekers, it was that they’d prayed and that stopped the flood which was to wipe out humanity.
When George W. Bush was sworn in with a Republican majority in the House and Senate, compassionate conservatism was going to be veto-less. Tax cuts were going to save the world and supply-side economics would make us all rich! In fact the Heritage Foundation assessed the Bush Tax Cuts would “1) Effectively pay off the federal debt; 2) Reduce the federal surplus by $1.4 trillion; 3) Substantially increase family income; 4) Save the entire Social Security surplus; 5) Increase personal savings; 6) Create more job opportunities.” Being in charge, Republicans cut taxes and THEN put a preemptive war on a credit card. Actually it was two major wars in two massive countries. We were promised we’d be greeted as liberators.
The prophesy conservatives believed—propagated—hoped was true, was that de-regulating business, cutting taxes and dropping a trillion dollars for an embassy in Iraq would “restore honor and dignity to the White House.”
What happened? Well, prophesy failed. Compassionate conservatism failed. The Bush Administration failed. Where’s the GOP now? Well if we go by cognitive dissonance theory, some devotees left the party. This is evident by all those “independent” (wink-wink) voters. The rest, the true believers, doubled down and that’s the best explanation for the tea party. And then the angry conservatives who made up this uprising claimed the economy buckling was Obama’s fault. Anyone’s fault! Too much government, they said. Too many taxes, they claimed. It was anything and everything else save failed prophesy from the Bush Years. Anything other than lies with broken promises built on faulty assumptions based on cherry-picked garbage.
In the wake of this revolt—this visceral, angry, point-to-anything mobile vulgus catapulted Sarah Palin into national prominence. And if you’ve ever wondered what a doubling down on Dubya looks like—it looks like Sarah palling-around-with-secessionists Palin’.
And the male version of this shiny totally unqualified and utterly ridiculous, money-grubbing, vacuous 2008 GOP It Girl is 2015’s Donald Trump. Palin’s signature move was to start media flame wars forcing us all to read endless piles of copy about her pettiness all while making the RNC hilariously lament their long dead intelligentsia. And that pretty much sums up The Donald. So far he’s been fired by NBC, dropped by Macy’s and collectively booed by everyone who sees Mexicans as anything other than rapists. He’s become a walking—err escalator-riding—media flame war.
And so of course Trump is now polling higher than any of the other 634 Republican candidates for president in this cycle. If we’re going by cognitive dissonance theory (and for this column, we are), Trump is the true believers doubling down on their resolve and grasping at straws to justify why Republican policies, when put into practice, utterly fail in every imaginable way.
Trump will not ruin the party. Trump is rising from the party’s ruins.
Image by Miles Gehm