The 2020 Election: When Prophecy Fails

The November election was called by the election desks three weeks ago today. When all the dust settles on December 14, President-elect Biden will win 306 electoral votes to President Trump’s 232. Biden’s popular vote lead has now crested an astonishing six million votes. In the meantime, the Trump campaign has pursued a couple of recounts with minimal success (the Biden lead in Milwaukee actually increased) and a series of state and federal level lawsuits with virtually no success.

And yet, as numerous observers have noted, Trump supporters — especially of the evangelical celebrity class — continue to argue that the election will not only be overturned, but that Trump actually won in a landslide.

How can all these people (and potentially millions who support them) continue to believe this stuff? I suggested earlier this week that one answer can be found in When Prophecy Fails by Leon Festinger, Henry Reiken, and Stanley Schacter. The book, written in 1956, was a field study of Festinger’s theory of cognitive dissonance.

I re-read the book on Tuesday (only $0.99 on Kindle!) and was amazed at how helpful it was. Festinger had argued that having attitudes and behaviors that were in conflict created cognitive dissonance, a state of discomfort. There were several ways to resolve the dissonance: change the conflicting behavior/attitude, reduce the salience of the offending attitude, or add some new element to the mix that resolved the dissonance.

When Prophecy Fails (hereafter WPF) describes a real-life test of cognitive dissonance theory that seemingly dropped into the authors’ laps. In September of 1954, a group in Lake City (Chicago) with assistance from others in Collegeville (Lansing) announced that they had received word that a major cataclysm was going to occur that coming December 21. Massive earthquakes would result in flooding that would swamp most of central North America. Festinger and his co-authors, along with some other informants, joined the group in November and stayed in contact through December. [There are some interesting questions about the ethics of joining the group. By surreptitiously becoming a part, they may have added self-perceived legitimacy to the group members.]

A predicted cataclysm was exactly the kind of disconfirmation that would produce cognitive dissonance. All of the activity surrounding the system of belief — readings, meetings, messages from outer space, plans for the group’s rescue via flying saucer — would be put at risk if things didn’t come to pass. How would they resolve such a crisis of faith?

Now what is the effect of the disconfirmation, of the unequivocal fact that the prediction was wrong, upon the believer? The disconfirmation introduces an important and painful dissonance. The fact that the predicted events did not occur is dissonant with continuing to believe both the prediction and the remainder of the ideology of which the prediction was the central item. The failure of the prediction is also dissonant with all the actions that the believer took in preparation for its fulfillment. The magnitude of the dissonance will, of course, depend on the importance of the belief to the individual and on the magnitude of his preparatory activity (20).

But there is a way in which the remaining dissonance can be reduced. If more and more people can be persuaded that the system of belief is correct, then clearly it must, after all, be correct. … If the proselyting proves successful, then by gathering more adherents and effectively surrounding himself with supporters, the believer reduces dissonance to the point where he can live with it (21).

The leaders of the group (the authors call them Marion Keech and Thomas Armstrong) had long been religiously eclectic. They had been studying scientology, reincarnation, UFO sightings, seances, receiving involuntary writings, and more. (This is consistent with other sociological models on conversion to marginal religious groups.) Given their sources of information, the notion that a messenger named Sanandra from the planet Clarion would warn them of God’s plan for the coming cataclysm and then prepare them for their rescue would not be met with the levels of skepticism one might expect.

There are series of disconfirming events: the UFO’s don’t come, there is uncertainty about visitors who may or not from outer space, and finally, there are no earthquakes. But following this final disconfirming event, they make themselves more available to visitors and the press (including a public invitation to Christmas caroling), willing to explain their theoretical system to anyone who would listen. At least that’s how it worked for the True Believers — more fringe members simply drifted away.

On December 21 alone, Dr. Armstrong and Mrs. Keech made five tape recordings for radio broadcast. Within the next three days, Marian’s messages were used as reasons for drawing up new press releases and lifting the ban on photographers. Twice more the press was called in and their reception was warm and friendly. Reporters were granted extensive interviews and photographers welcomed (151).

There is much in WPF that has parallels to our current moment after the election results were known. First, there is a focus on self-confirming information sources (OANN) with access to unique information only known to the insiders (Q Anon conspiracies). Those certain of a massive Trump victory could support their predictions by pointing to esoteric knowledge (Jeff Sharlet recently argued it is a new Gnosticism) that gave them better insights. From Paula White calling on African Angels to belief in the Shy Trump Voters, forces were in play to provide a Trump victory in spite of what polls said.

Public relations events are part of this mythology. Trump Rallies with thousands supposedly turned away, Trump Truck Parades, Boat Parades, could all be used to assert an undeniable force of support. It’s no surprise that Rudy Giuliani’s favorite tactic is to call a press conference or a “hearing” to use selected media to repeat claims he can’t legally make in court.

Belief in the disaster of massive voter fraud through mail-in balloting was rampant among the True Believers (even if many of them voted absentee). The massive fraud was assumed as a force to be defeated. This is buttressed by the inclusion of affidavits which claim process issues like where observers could stand or how someone was treated. They aren’t fraud but with all of these loose threads, there must be a major story here. (insert old joke about a Christmas pony here).

Those evangelical leaders who had positioned themselves so strongly as Trump supporters didn’t have a way to eliminate their dissonance. The disconfirmation of the loss was too great (contrasted with the transactional support for Trump over judges). They haven’t simply supported a preferred candidate but have argued that the alternative would end society as we know it. They drew on their religious bona fides to buttress their argument and now they can’t back down without putting those at risk. (Just ask those evangelical leaders what happened on social media when they suggested Biden won!)

Increased proselytization comes as Sidney Powell spins wider and wilder theories asserting that the algorithms in voting machine, created by foreign dictators and supported by Republican leaders across the country had actually turned a Trump victory into a supposed Biden win. That argument eventually became too much for the Trump Campaign and she was cut loose (unless you’re a True Believer and then this was part of the plan all along).

But a milder version of the belief system continues regardless of disconfirmation. Surely, as Eric Trump argued, something is amiss if Biden could get all those votes when he didn’t leave his basement! Which is, of course, the way in which these closed information loops work.

What happens to these True Believers after Inauguration Day is an open-ended question. In all likelihood, they will continue undeterred in their belief that the election was stolen from them because that’s what they’ve been told for so long.

At the end of WPF, Marion Kreech and Dr. Armstrong were both threatened with involuntary commitment and left the midwest. While continuing to speak to fringe groups (probably at the kinds of hotels Rudy holds hearings at), they eventually disappear from the scene.

Of course, as long as there is OANN and Newsmax (Fox is so passe), there will be places for Trump and Giuliani and Ellis and Powell to tell their stories. And there will be a ready group of listeners who are already predisposed to believe them.

Festinger and colleagues would argue that the group of listeners would shrink over time. They found that the central figures of UFO group took the move into more active proselytizing. Yet the more fringe members simply faded into the background and tried not to bring up their involvement at Christmas parties.

We’ll need to revisit the situation next November to see if the fringe falls away as life returns to some version of normal. But I expect the True Believers will remain for years to come.

UPDATE 12/13/20

Since I wrote this two weeks ago, the Texas Attorney General filed a lawsuit in the Supreme Court requesting the votes in four of the contested states to be invalidated. Over 2/3 of Republican AGs and Republican members of the House signed amicii briefs (as did the lawyer for New California and New Nevada!). The Safe Harbor date was reached by which electoral college members were locked in. And last Friday afternoon, the Supreme Court refused to take up the Texas case (with Alito and Thomas saying they’d hear the case but decline the merits). Tomorrow, the Electoral College formally votes Joe Biden the president-elect.

So it’s over, right? Not if you’re a True Believer.

Yesterday was the Jericho Walk rally in Washington DC. I only followed on Twitter. But it’s worth reading the reflections of conservative writers David French and Rod Dreher to get a sense of the ways in which the most vocal fans of Donald Trump have doubled-down to resolve the cognitive dissonance of their election loss. It’s pretty much what Festinger and friends would have expected.

UPDATE TWO: January 20, 2021

Ben Collins and Brandy Zadrozny from NBC News have kept an eye on the QAnon movement over recent months so the rest of us don’t have to. If you weren’t aware, the Great Awakening was supposed to happen today — where all the cannibal liberals would be arrested and Trump would be established as ongoing president with the support from the military. It would all happen just before noon today when the victors would take over all broadcast channels to start the trials.

This afternoon, they have continued to monitor Q conversations. Needless to say, a number of QAnon supporters are disillusioned that nothing happened and Joe Biden is president.

In QAnon chats captured by the fact-checking technology company Logically.AI and reviewed by NBC News, QAnon supporters drew hard lines shortly before the inauguration began and felt instantly embarrassed when the coup did not occur.

“God help us we’re beyond ready. If nothing happens I will no longer believe in anything,” said one supporter at the beginning of inauguration.

“We all just got played,” said another, moments later.

I’ve seen some tweets of supporters suggesting that “this is all part of the plan” and that the big reveal will come in a couple of weeks. Those are the true believers and nothing is likely to dislodge them. Rush Limbaugh and One America News seem to be the last holdouts. Even the Proud Boys have moved on.

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