During last week’s CNN town hall, the audience laughed and applauded as Donald Trump mocked E. Jean Carroll as a “wack job.” This happened the day after a federal jury found the former president liable for sexual abuse and defamation in a civil trial that arose from allegations he raped Carroll some 30 years ago.
Trump’s cruelty, not to mention his absolute moral corruption, is well-documented. Going back to his observation that he could shoot someone on Fifth Avenue without losing a vote — so is the willingness of his supporters to embrace it. Still, no matter what you think of Carroll’s accusation, the deplorable chortling at her expense made me think about the little voice in our head that tells us the difference between right and wrong. With this crowd, that voice died a long time ago.
Social science has a term for it. It’s called “motivated reasoning,” said Liane Young, director at the Morality Lab at Boston College, where a team of researchers study the subject of morality and society’s reaction to it. People believe in right and wrong, said Young. But they are also motivated to protect favorable impressions “of those on our side, on our team,” Young told me. Trump supporters practice it to an extreme, but motivated reasoning drives all of us, Young said.
One research paper, titled “The Psychology of Motivated versus Rational Impression Updating,” shows how such thinking works in a non-political setting: Imagine you observe someone take money from a tip jar. If a trustworthy friend were doing this, you might generate an auxiliary hypothesis about her innocent intent. For example, she was trying to make change for a dollar. You are giving her the benefit of the doubt, because you have stronger beliefs about her trustworthiness. By contrast, if a stranger performed the same action, you might be less likely to make such a situational attribution, as you have weaker, less certain prior beliefs about her trustworthiness.
It’s human nature to want to believe the best about people you know and support. For example, said Young, “If my most conscientious grad student skips an important meeting, I don’t immediately change my mind about her. Instead, I consider the alternative possibility that an emergency came up.” While that analysis makes sense up to a point, the challenge, she said, is “to figure out when belief maintenance is motivated and biased versus rational.” Trump supporters, said Young, “want to keep supporting Trump, so they come up with all sorts of justifications. They can discount the credibility of his accusers, they can blame them, then try to explain away the story.” They can also cruelly laugh at an accuser they never wanted to believe.
When the subject is sexual assault, research shows that ideology also plays into perceptions about right and wrong. “Values that conservative-leaning participants tend to endorse more so than liberals, such as loyalty, authority, and purity, are associated with thinking [that] victims are more causally responsible and more morally blameworthy for what happens to them, including in the case of rape,” said Young. That may explain the reaction of Trump supporters to accusers like Carroll. But it doesn’t explain why Democrats defended Bill Clinton from similar accusations during and after his presidency.
In politics, we are all guilty of “motivated reasoning,” aren’t we? Democrats can get outraged over the hundreds of millions paid by Persian Gulf countries to the firm owned by Jared Kushner, Trump’s son-in-law. Meanwhile, the recent disclosure of financial documents that show that some of President Biden’s relatives — including his son, Hunter — were paid more than $10 million from foreign countries between 2015 and 2017 gets the “is-that-all-there-is” treatment. It’s not as much as Kushner’s windfall, and anyway, presidential relatives have long made money off of their family ties — or so the motivated reasoning goes. While there could be common moral ground over the idea that influence peddling is wrong no matter who’s doing it, each side will ignore or discount information that makes their side look bad.
This is where people will start arguing about false equivalencies and point out that Trump is in a morals-free zone of his own. He is, and he has yet to cross the line that makes him unacceptable to his core supporters, so much so that his mocking of Carroll at the CNN town hall barely registers on the scale of moral outrage. Spurred by motivated reasoning, his loyalists are sticking with him.
But now, how much does their motivated reasoning influence the rest of us to do the same? To rationalize, to look the other way, like Trump supporters do, to protect someone who best reflects their political interests, no matter what their moral failings?
Every time we break faith with the voice in our head that tells us the difference between right and wrong, it’s just another sign that Trump has lowered the bar for everyone.