When he started, some thought it was a joke. Now he’s on his way to becoming the Republican Party’s presidential nominee. This is one of those stories that people find so irrational, so inconceivable, that they don’t do anything at first because they think it simply can’t happen. Many believed his campaign would implode or that his big mouth would get him into trouble, but as of today, voters have proved them wrong.
If you were to go by what the media is saying, you would find it baffling that Trump is winning state after state. From comedian Louis C.K to President Obama, from the GOP’s own Mitt Romney to what seems like pretty much every journalist in every major newspaper in the United States, all you hear is reasons why you can’t vote for Trump. SNL is making fun of his connections with racism, and John Oliver’s arguments are pretty tough to dismiss. To dismiss rationally, that is.
Therein lies a clue to help us understand what happened. We like to think that we make rational, well-thought-out decisions, especially when it comes to something as important as electing our representatives in government. We wouldn’t choose lightly, would we?
But we do choose lightly. Think of the process of how people choose whom to vote for. How many people do you know who actually read the candidate’s platforms, or who carefully analyze his or her position regarding the issues that are important to them? There’s an overflow of information. It is not uncommon for candidates to mildly shift their views during a campaign, and our lives are often too busy for us to really stop and do a careful assessment of all of them.
We are not going by facts, but instead by an opinion here, an article there. Most of all, we are choosing whom to vote for based on how we feel about them. We kinda like Bernie; he seems honest. Hillary inspires confidence because she seems to know what she’s talking about. Trump is decisive and tells it like it is. We decide whom we like, and we base this on one or two things about them: how we perceived them the first time we saw them, their auras of success, how confident they sound. Sometimes we may not even know exactly why we like them. We just do.
Of course, we don’t want to accept this. It’s hard to admit that you based such an important decision on a whim. But it usually works like that. You make the choice based on very little information, like the impression he made on you, or one single idea she mentioned, or the fact that your family has always voted for that party. It is only after making the choice that you look for rational arguments that will allow you to explain (to others and yourself) why you made that choice.
Our decisions on this and many other subjects – which sports team to support, what school to send the kids to, or what yogurt to buy at the store – are different in the level of importance we attach to them after the fact, but the underlying process might not be so different after all.
Think about it. How did you choose the sports team you support? You didn’t analyze stats or debate which was the best team based on your pre-selected criteria. You just chose. Maybe it was because you lived in that team’s hometown, or because they seem to be winners (this one is actually pretty common). In the same way, you chose which candidate you like, and unlike with your sports team selection, in this one you rationalize afterwards to justify your gut feeling.
But what’s even more important is what happens to us once we have made our choice. There are few more powerful drivers of behavior than our desire to be consistent. Once we have decided to support an idea, a person, a team, there is something in us that will make us stick by those decisions, even in spite of evidence that it was a poor choice. We seek consistency because that brings predictability into our lives and a sense of coherence.
Our commitment is even stronger when we have made the choice public – by posting a supportive message on social media, say, or by wearing our team’s jersey. How many people do you know who switch teams, or change candidates, or suddenly decide they are not environmentally friendly anymore? Once you decided to endorse the idea, person or team, there is something of you invested in it, and that makes it hard to renounce it later on.
This is why all this campaigning against Trump has been, and probably will continue to be, for the most part unsuccessful. If you already decided you like the guy, and if, furthermore, you’ve made that preference public, then simply out of consistency, chances are rational arguments are not going to make you change your mind (or heart?). There’s a part of you invested in the Trump idea. As John Oliver put it, it might be a part you hate, but it’s a part of you nevertheless. An attack on Trump is an attack on a part of you, which is why all this negative media will most likely only harden your resolve. The attacks, rational as they may be, creates the “us vs. them” mentality that entrenches people into their positions.
So what can be done? For the first part, the messages should not try to convince Trump supporters to change their mind. They should be targeting the undecided or perhaps even “closet supporters,” those who kind of like the guy but haven’t openly endorsed him. The undecided are not emotionally invested yet, and the closet Trump supporters can still save face if they change their mind.
But beyond targeting, the messages should not be about who is the worst candidate, but instead what the alternative is. And this is where the Never Trump movement has failed so far. It has not provided a feasible way out of the Trump conundrum, and that has left some Republicans facing the ugly choice between a poor Republican or a Democrat. It is not clear they would choose the latter.
Sometimes we think that if we devote enough resources – energy, time or money – then we can change people. The truth is, negative messages don’t change people; they only make them more defensive regarding their position and paralyze action. If you want to create some sort of change, frame your message it in a positive manner, providing an alternative that is preferable by comparison.
Randall Trejos works as a business developer, helping startups and medium-sized companies grow. He’s the co-director of the Founder Institute in Costa Rica and a strategy consultant at Grupo Impulso. You can follow his blog La Catapulta or contact him through LinkedIn. He writes The Tico Times’ “Doing Business” column, published twice-monthly.