Since the attack on Capitol, this statement and others like ‘This is not who we are,’ have been frequently used. The feeling is easy to understand. Disbelief is a natural reaction when the society you grew up in, seems to change dramatically. The human mind is however not constant and unchangeable. We are all exposed to various kinds of influence. Individuals change, so does society. As we know, a majority rejected the attack on Capitol, but the fact of the matter is that a large part of Republican voters (45% or 33 million people according to a YouGov survey) accepted it. Such a threat to US democracy and such stark polarisation were unthinkable a few years ago. So what happened? Social psychology, the science of how we influence one another, describes a number of factors that influence us. Several of them have clearly made a significant impact.
Similarity We tend to like people who are like us. We associate with them and are more inclined to trust them than others. Obviously Donald Trump was able to draw on this. It appears that lots of people, especially from the working classes, have felt disenfranchised, mistrusting the government and the so called elites, feeling side-lined as society developed. Then along comes Donald Trump, a reality show star, taking their side. Meaning, he played to their grievances in a language they could associate with, attacking the establishment for all it was worth. This was a man who obviously felt like them and took their side. A man to support, a natural leader.
Authority As a candidate in 2016 Trump seemed determined and strong. He already had a reputation as a man of action, someone likely to solve key problems like providing jobs, lowering taxes, ending competition from illegal immigrants and more. In other words, he had authority. We listen to authorities, and are easily influenced by what they say and do.
Propaganda If someone with authority resorts to propaganda, we are easily influenced. Stark examples: Nazi Germany and Rwanda, both countries where hefty propaganda was followed by large scale atrocities. As for Trump, anyone criticising him became enemies, liars and critical media became ‘fake news’. Persistent criticism would be ‘witch hunt’. Obviously this propaganda went home with lots of people, most significantly the claim that the Presidential election was stolen. But so did the flip side of his active propaganda, meaning his tacit acceptance of racism and white supremacy, false information such as the deep state phenomenon, QAnon conspiracy theories and more.
Cognitive dissonance We all need to live with ourselves. We need to consider ourselves rational and reasonably ethical human beings. If we happen to do something that collides with our attitude, that creates a dissonance in our mind that we have to get out of. A person who for some reason does something bad to a friend, will experience dissonance. This person can either turn back, apologise and decide to keep the relationship as it was, or he can adjust by liking his friend a little less, justifying what he did. Unfortunately the latter is what we normally do. The same happens if we don’t act when we feel we should. Nazi Germany may serve as an example. Before Hitler, Germany was in most ways a peaceful society. Resentment against jews was limited till Hitler started his propaganda. Sadly, next to no one stood up against him. As people had to live with their passivity, they adjusted by liking jews a little less. When Hitler again attacked jews, the same happened, each time making it easier for him to launch new and nastier attacks. This created a spiral effect, culminating with the Crystal Night, and from then on the fate of the jews was sealed. Is this relevant for the US? Sadly, the Republican party is a clear exhibit. Before Trump was elected President, senior republicans such as Lindsey Graham and Ted Cruz labelled him in extremely negative terms. Next, as he started his reign, they began swallowing camels. They stopped taking exceptions to his acts or statements, no matter how objectionable, and they had to live with themselves. So, their attitude changed. The same happened to Trump supporters who disliked his acts and statements, be it grabbing pussies, mocking a handicapped man, humouring Nazis, blatant lies or more. The vast majority of republican supporters did not object or stand up against him, and again, they had to live with themselves. So, they adapted. All the way to a point where Trump said he could get away with shooting someone out on the street in broad daylight. Peer pressure We are all influenced by the attitudes of our peers. We need to feel accepted and respected, and it takes courage to go against common perceptions and attitudes. As Trump became acceptable to a majority of republicans, peer pressure to do the same mounted.
Peer pressure We are all influenced by the attitudes of our peers. We need to feel accepted and respected, and it takes courage to go against common perceptions and attitudes. As Trump became acceptable to a majority of republicans, peer pressure to do the same mounted.
The consequences As all these factors of influence ganged up, Trump became credible and respectable, regardless of objectionable acts and persistent lies. He became the man to believe. Anyone objecting would be part of a conspiracy. The most extreme consequence is the rejection of the Presidential election, in the face of numerous court rulings, made by conservative judges as well as firm rejections from republican officials in key states. Hopefully Biden will be able to bring more sense and balance into the political landscape, but as of today, this is ‘the America we know’.
The purpose of this blog is dual. I wish to contribute to our understanding of conflict and conflict management, both in personal and geopolitical contexts. I also wish to discuss aspects of kidnapping, hoping to contribute to the knowledge needed by survival trainers as well by individuals who might get kidnapped. Olav Ofstad