Trump is infamous for spewing lies and his supporters are known for believing his claims. As noted in previous essays, one of the many things that is striking about supporters professing belief in Trump’s claims is that they accept claims that are logically inconsistent (even contradictory in some cases). Two claims are inconsistent when they both cannot be true but they both could be false. This is different from two claims being contradictory: if one claims contradicts another, one must be true and the other false.
The pandemic provides a horrific example of the ability of Trump supporters to profess belief in inconsistent claims. Many Trump supporters claim to believe that the virus is a hoax, that it is no worse than the flu, that it is a Chinese bioweapon, that Trump has been doing a great job with the pandemic and that Trump should get credit for the vaccine. When Bob Woodward released tapes proving that Trump acknowledged the danger of the virus in February, many Trump supporters accepted Trump’s claim that he wanted to play down the virus to avoid a panic. His supporters defended him, claiming that great leaders have and should lie to prevent panic in the face of terrible danger. If Trump was right to lie to play down the deadly danger of the virus, then this is inconsistent with the claim that it is like the flu and also inconsistent with the claim that it is a hoax. If he was right to lie because of the danger, then it is not like the flu nor is it a hoax. But if it is like the flu or a hoax, then he would not need to lie about the danger. One way to explain Trump supporters professing inconsistent beliefs is that some of them are accomplices. Another is that they are victims. I will begin with the accomplice explanation.
It is possible, even likely, that some of Trump’s supporters are aware when he is lying and perhaps even recognize when they make inconsistent claims. In this case, the inconsistency can easily be explained: they are accomplices to his lies and are simply repeating them. There is no inconsistency here in their beliefs because they do not believe what they are claiming. There are various reasons for people to serve as his accomplices in this matter. They might want to express their allegiance to him, they might find his lies advantageous in their own grifting, they might be trolls, or they might gain some other advantage by professing belief in his lies. Not believing the inconsistent claims does not make the claims consistent; it is just that the accomplices do not have inconsistent beliefs in this context.
As would be suspected, it can be rather difficult to prove that a supporter is an accomplice of Trump rather than a victim. While Trump sometimes pulls the curtain back and reveals things (like how Republicans want to make it harder to vote), it is unlikely that one of his accomplices would end a social media post professing belief in Trump’s claims by revealing that they do not believe the lies they just professed to believe. Sorting out the accomplices would require access to such things as private emails and recordings—things that would be difficult and often illegal to acquire. We can, of course, also wait for the inevitable flood of tell all books after Trump leaves the White House. In general, the accomplices are not very interesting from an epistemic standpoint: they are simply lying. About the only thing interesting is the epistemic problem of discerning the accomplices from the victims. Now, on to the victims.
In this context, the victims of Trump are supporters who believe his lies. These victims can be further divided into those who would change their view of Trump if they realized he was lying and those who would still support him (that is, would become accomplices). Given that Trump lies so badly and so blatantly even when his lies are easily exposed, my main explanation as to why these victims believe him is that they are often basing their beliefs on an appeal to authoritarian. This fallacious reasoning has the following form:
Premise 1: Authoritarian leader L makes claim c.
Conclusion: Claim C is true.
The fact that an authoritarian leader makes a claim does not provide evidence or a logical reason that supports the claim. It also does not disprove the claim—accepting or rejecting a claim because it comes from an authoritarian would both be errors. The authoritarian could be right about the claim but, as with any fallacy, the error lies in the reasoning.
A silly math example illustrates why this is bad logic:
Premise 1: The dear leader claims that 2+2 =7.
Conclusion: The dear leader is right.
Since this is bad logic, it gets its power from psychological rather than logical factors. In this case, these factors are the psychological features of authoritarian personalities. An authoritarian leader is characterized by the belief that they have a special status as a leader. At the greatest extreme, the authoritarian leader believes that they are the voice of their followers and that they alone can lead. Or, as Trump put it, “I alone can fix it.” Underlying this is the (false) belief that they possess exceptional skills, knowledge and ability. This causes them to make false claims and mistakes.
Since the authoritarian leader is reluctant to admit errors and limits, they must be dishonest to the degree they are not delusional and delusional to the degree they are not dishonest. Trump exemplifies this with his constant barrage of untruths and incessant bragging. These claims are embraced as true by his supporters who are victims.
An authoritarian leader like Trump desires followers and fortunately for him, there are those of the authoritarian follower type. While Trump’s accomplices make use of him and assist him, they know he is lying. The authoritarian follower believes that their leader is special, that the leader alone can fix things. Thus, the followers must buy into the leaders’ delusions and lies, convincing themselves despite the evidence to the contrary. Trump’s most devoted supporters incorrectly believe him to be honest and competent.
Since Trump has failed often and catastrophically, his victims must accept the deceitful explanations put forth to account for them. This requires rejecting facts and logic. These victims embrace lies and conspiracy theories—whatever supports the narrative of Trump’s greatness and success Those who do not agree with Trump are not merely wrong but are enemies. The claims of those who disagree are rejected out of hand, and often with hostility and insults. Thus, the followers tend to isolate themselves epistemically—which is a fancy way of saying that nothing that goes against their view of the leader ever gets in. While this explains, in part, their belief in Trump’s lies it also helps explain how they can believe inconsistent (even contradictory) claims.
Someone who forms certain beliefs based on the appeal to authoritarian will accept that what the authoritarian tells them is true. What justifies these beliefs in the minds of the victims is that the authoritarian made them. As such, they have no reason to consider any other evidence and are effectively immune to arguments against these beliefs. After all, if the justification of a belief is a matter of it being a claim made by the authoritarian, then any evidence or argument against that claim cannot impact its justification. The only things that could undermine the belief would be if the authoritarian told their followers to accept a new belief in place of the old (for example, the authoritarian saying that a once trusted ally is now an enemy) or if the victim stopped accepting the authoritarian for some reason. So how does this enable inconsistent beliefs?
The answer is that it does so quite easily. If the victim believes a claim because the authoritarian makes the claim and other factors are irrelevant, then consistency will not matter to that victim. These beliefs are not accepted because they are backed by evidence and they are not subject to critical assessment. As such, it would not even occur to the victim to check the claims made by the authoritarian against each other to see if they are consistent or not: these claims are simply believed and they are believed because the authoritarian makes them. In the case of Trump supporters who are victims, this seems to be what they are doing: they believe what Trump says because Trump says it—and that is good enough. It has to be; if they engaged in a honest assessment and search for the truth, they would not believe Trump’s lies. While they might bring up “evidence” and “argue” when responding to critics of Trump, these are not good faith efforts—they do not believe based on evidence (because there is none) and they will refuse all evidence and arguments that go against these beliefs. Trump’s victims believing his lies about the election and insisting there is evidence of widespread fraud is an excellent example of this. The utter lack of evidence has no impact on their beliefs nor does the inconsistency of some of their Trump originated beliefs—all that matters is what Trump says. This, of course, is a terrible epistemic system—although it is the foundation of authoritarianism (which is what Trumpism is, at least in part).