Cognitive dissonance

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Last night my wife and I watched (for the second or third time) the Steven Spielberg film “The Post” with Meryl Streep and Tom Hanks. Set in 1971, the film depicts the true story of attempts by The Washington Post to publish the notorious Pentagon Papers, a set of classified documents regarding America’s shameful 20-year involvement in the Vietnam War. The crisis point in the film comes when Katharine Graham, the Post’s publisher (played by Streep), must decide whether or not to publish the contents of those classified documents.

Spoiler alert: Katharine Graham, in an act of immense courage, decides to go ahead and publish, risking everything, the newspaper, the jobs of every employee at the Washington Post and prison for herself and her senior staff. The case is rushed to the Supreme Court. The Court, in a 6-3 decision in favour of the Post, decrees that the responsibility of the press “was to serve the governed, not the governors.”

It occurred to me after watching this deeply moving film that any normal person watching would root for the Washington Post. Even MAGA Republicans would recognize the primacy of the freedom of the press over the selfish need for the Nixon administration to protect its image by continuing to lie to the American people about Vietnam, to continue to conceal the dreadful secret that they knew the war was unwinnable and that they stayed in it anyway because they couldn’t bear to lose a war on their watch.

Now I realize I come dangerously close to creating a strawman argument here when I say I think the average MAGA Republican would cheer for the good guys in the film. But I think they would. But I also think they wouldn’t if the bad guy wasn’t Nixon but Donald Trump. And I think I can make a case for this assertion based on what I’ve observed over and over about the relationship between Trump and his idolatrous followers.

When it comes to Donald Trump’s supporters, black has become white, up has become down and the bad guys have become the good guys. For example, I would have never believed it was possible if I hadn’t seen for myself that rabid MAGA Republicans today think Vladimir Putin is admirable just because Trump, and Trump alone, admires him.

For as long as I can remember Russia was despised by Americans, particularly the conservative ones. Suddenly the most conservative Americans love Russia? How can this be?

One might argue that Russia is no longer the same Russia of the old Soviet era, but that won’t wash because Vladimir Putin is very much in favour of restoring his country to the old soviet system and its borders that existed between 1945 and 1991. Were he to do so now I doubt it would have any negative effect on his popularity with Trump, or by extension, the MAGA crowd. Putin’s popularity with the MAGA crowd doesn’t square with the almost fanatical hatred conservative Americans had for the USSR when I was growing up.

This is what psychologists today refer to when they talk about sustaining a cognitive dissonance. It’s the mind’s ability to hold two contradictory ideas simultaneously despite the resulting mental discomfort. It’s also what Orwell meant by “doublethink.” It’s what happens when anyone desperately wants to believe something for a reason they are compelled by, despite tradition and previous beliefs. It’s how Republicans who traditionally hated Russia can now suddenly love and support Russia for one reason and one reason alone: because Trump says so.

Michael Cohen, who knew Donald Trump as well as anyone ever has, asserts that Trump admires Putin because Putin is everything he, Trump, wants to be. Putin is possibly the richest man in the world (or at least he was before he launched his stupid war with Ukraine). Putin is all-powerful, or at least he appears to be. Putin can and does routinely have people murdered who actively oppose him. And Putin is universally beloved by many of his people, or at least they are too terrified of him not to pretend to love him.

But because Trump loves Vlad, MAGA loves Vlad. It doesn’t bother the MAGA crowd that back in 2017 Trump was willing to believe Putin over any of his various law enforcement agencies when Putin asserted that he hadn’t interfered with the 2016 election. It doesn’t bother the MAGA crowd that Trump publicly called for Russian help in defeating Hilary Clinton. It doesn’t bother the MAGA crowd that Trump clearly wants Russia to defeat Ukraine.

Sustaining a cognitive dissonance is certainly easier than I would have guessed. All most people really need to rationalise anything is a compelling reason. This is why MAGA Republicans are prepared to follow Trump anywhere, down any road no matter how contradictory, into any lie no matter how obviously false, into hell if necessary. And the longer they sustain this cognitive dissonance the easier it is to rationalise, and the harder it becomes to convince them they are wrong.

We can’t convert most of them but we don’t have to. We can change things without their help. As global warming becomes, day upon day, an undeniable, observable fact, as the out-of-control Republican Congress sinks into a cesspool of culture wars and vengeance committees, as corporate greed continues to widen the gap between the rich and the poor, we must make every election count. We must take back Congress before it’s too late.

We must remove the corrupting influence of money from the political landscape, add four more progressive justices to the Supreme Court and pass laws and enact Constitutional Amendments that will relieve America’s frightful gun problem and prevent Donald Trump and people like him from ever rising to power ever again. We know a cognitive dissonance when we see it, even if the MAGA Republicans don’t. And, as ever, ladies and gentlemen, brothers and sisters, comrades and friends, stay safe.

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