Before, during and after the election Trump and his allies tried to undermine democracy with lies. As this is being written, the worst outcome of these lies was when Trump followers attacked the capitol after Trump incited them. While the right tried to blame the attack on Antifa, the FBI quickly refuted this lie. Once it became clear that the attempted overthrow of the election had failed and the arrests began, members of Trump’s mob began pleading for pardons. While Trump did dispense many pardons, he had none for his capitol warriors—he abandoned them like they were an aging wife. Despite the lack of evidence for widespread fraud, despite the failure of the coup, and despite Joe being sworn in as president, the idea that the election was stolen persists and will, no doubt, be used to incite more domestic terrorism in the future. I am continuing my somewhat informal efforts in epistemic epidemiology and this persistent claim warrants ongoing analysis.
In some cases, those who claim widespread fraud are engaging in the rhetorical technique of moral masking. This occurs when a person claims motives that are morally superior to their true motives. They are, metaphorically speaking, donning a mask of goodness to conceal less laudable or even wicked motives. This method does have value as a persuasive tool: pretending to have laudable motivations can influence others to agree with one’s views or, at the very least, encourage them to be more tolerant of one’s actions. Trump and his fellows said that they were refusing to accept the results of a legitimate election because they want Trump to remain in power to continue to get what they want, would probably have less persuasive power than their lies.
This method often includes lying about the morality of one’s actions and being deceitful in related claims and arguments. Trump and his allies presented themselves as acting correctly in their efforts to undermine democracy, lied about fraud, and advanced what were at best bad faith arguments. Trump and his allies did, however, seem to be aware they were lying. But some of his supporters undoubtably tried to convince themselves that they were acting rightly.
While those putting on the moral mask know they are engaged in deceit, people also rationalize. While the moral mask could be presented as a form of rationalization, rationalization involves an effort at self-deception. The person engages in an action (which might be telling a lie) because of a specific motivation and then attempts to present a better motivation as their true motive. This typically involves trying to justify the action by convincing oneself (and perhaps others) that the motives were rational or good. The attempt to persuade oneself might fail, but there is at least the attempt to do so—this distinguishes rationalization from simple lying and from the moral mask method.
Since people rarely admit to rationalizing as they are doing it, it can be challenging to determine when someone is engaged in this behavior. After all, the outward behavior of someone engaged in rationalizing will typically not reveal that they are rationalizing. Sorting out when this is occurring usually requires knowing the person well enough to make plausible assessments of their real motives. While it seems likely that some or even many of Trump’s supporters have been rationalizing, I have no way of confirming this unless they admit to doing so.
Trump supporters can also, obviously, believe Trump’s lies and believe what they are doing is right. Given the utter lack of evidence for the claims of widespread fraud and Trumps repeated failures in court (even with judges his administration appointed) a person would need to engage awful reasoning (or no reasoning at all) to believe Trump’s lies. Wishful thinking, fallacious appeal to authority, and appeal to authoritarian would be but some of the likely fallacies that would lead someone to believing Trump. There are also numerous cognitive biases that would influence how his supporters form their false beliefs, such as confirmation bias.
Trump’s supporters are obviously not unique in falling for fallacies and rhetoric. They are also not unique in having cognitive biases. However, their believes are dangerous to themselves and others, as the attack on the capitol showed. In most cases, I hope, his supporters are suffering from normal issues with their belief forming mechanisms. While these issues are severe, they would be within the realm of normalcy and could perhaps be treated. Some treatment would involve improving their critical thinking skills, but treatment would also require motivating them to apply such skills. Perhaps the shock of Trump’s craven and utter betrayal of his capitol storming mob will help some of his followers escape the lies of Trump through normal means. But some of Trump’s followers exhibit the classic behavior of cultists and their minds exist within a fictional reality constructed by Trump and the right-wing media. Those who fully embrace QANon are an excellent example of this.
While there is a grey area between epistemic issues and mental illness, it seems likely that some of Trump’s followers crossed over from normal errors of belief to such corrupted belief-forming mechanisms that they would require medical treatment to recover or achieve some degree of mental health. This sort of mental illness would, obviously, be outside of the domain of philosophy and would be in the field of psychiatry. This is not to say that one could not apply epistemic theory to such belief formation, just that it would be so pathological that it becomes a concern for medical doctors.
It must be noted that when I consider that some Trump supporters might be mentally ill, I am not disparaging them or joking; the seriousness of their condition invokes only concern and worry. While some might be engaged in moral masking, rationalizing or merely deceived, some do seem to exist within a world disconnected from reality in a way that seems to be a form of madness. I am, obviously, not qualified to make such medical judgments—all I can do is point out that their belief forming mechanisms are so corrupted that they have left the realm of epistemology and have probably entered the domain of medical science.