The Motivated Ignorance of Trump Supporters

On the morning of August 8, 2022, 30 FBI agents and two federal prosecutors conducted a court-authorized search of Mar-a-Lago, Donald Trump’s Palm Beach, Florida, estate. The reason for the search, according to a 38-count indictment, was that after leaving office Trump mishandled classified documents, including some involving sensitive nuclear programs, and then obstructed the government’s efforts to reclaim them.

On the day before the FBI obtained the search warrant, one of the agents on the case sent an email to his bosses, according to The New York Times. “The F.B.I. intends for the execution of the warrant to be handled in a professional, low key manner,” he wrote, “and to be mindful of the optics of the search.” It was, and they were.

Over the course of 10 hours, the Times reported, “there was little drama as [agents] hauled away a trove of boxes containing highly sensitive state secrets in three vans and a rented Ryder box truck.”

On the day of the search, Trump was out of the state. The club at Mar-a-Lago was closed. Agents alerted one of Trump’s lawyers in advance of the search. And before the search, the FBI communicated with the Secret Service “to make sure we could get into Mar-a-Lago with no issues,” according to the testimony of former Assistant FBI Director Steven D’Antuono. It wasn’t a “show of force,” he said. “I was adamant about that, and that was something we all agreed on.”

The search warrant itself included a standard statement from the Department of Justice’s policy on the use of deadly force. There was nothing exceptional about it. But that didn’t prevent Trump or his supporters from claiming that President Biden and federal law-enforcement agents had been involved in a plot to assassinate the former president.

In a fundraising appeal, Trump wrote,

BIDEN’S DOJ WAS AUTHORIZED TO SHOOT ME! It’s just been revealed that Biden’s DOJ was authorized to use DEADLY FORCE for their DESPICABLE raid in Mar-a-Lago. You know they’re just itching to do the unthinkable … Joe Biden was locked & loaded ready to take me out & put my family in danger.

On May 23, Trump publicly claimed that the Department of Justice “authorized the use of ‘deadly force’ in their Illegal, UnConstitutional, and Un-American RAID of Mar-a-Lago, and that would include against our Great Secret Service, who they thought might be ‘in the line of fire.’”

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Trump supporters echoed those claims, as he knew they would. Steve Bannon, one of the architects of the MAGA movement, said, “This was an attempted assassination attempt on Donald John Trump or people associated with him. They wanted a gunfight.” Right-wing radio hosts stoked one another’s fury, claiming that there’s nothing Trump critics won’t do to stop him, up to and including attempting to assassinate him and putting the lives of his Secret Service detail in danger.

The statement by Trump went beyond inflaming his supporters; it created a mindset that moved them closer to violence, the very same mindset that led thousands of them to attack the Capitol on January 6 and threaten to hang Vice President Mike Pence. Which is why Special Counsel Jack Smith filed a motion asking the judge overseeing Trump’s classified-documents case to block him from making public statements that could put law enforcement in danger. “Those deceptive and inflammatory assertions irresponsibly put a target on the backs of the FBI agents involved in this case, as Trump well knows,” he wrote.

Motivated ignorance refers to willfully blinding oneself to facts. It’s choosing not to know. In many cases, for many people, knowing the truth is simply too costly, too psychologically painful, too threatening to their core identity. Nescience is therefore incentivized; people actively decide to remain in a state of ignorance. If they are presented with strong arguments against a position they hold, or compelling evidence that disproves the narrative they embrace, they will reject them. Doing so fends off the psychological distress of the realization that they’ve been lying to themselves and to others.

Motivated ignorance is a widespread phenomenon; most people, to one degree or another, employ it. What matters is the degree to which one embraces it, and the consequences of doing so. In the case of MAGA world, the lies that Trump supporters believe, or say they believe, are obviously untrue and obviously destructive. Since 2016 there’s been a ratchet effect, each conspiracy theory getting more preposterous and more malicious. Things that Trump supporters wouldn’t believe or accept in the past have since become loyalty tests. Election denialism is one example. The claim that Trump is the target of “lawfare,” victim to the weaponization of the justice system, is another.

I have struggled to understand how to view individuals who have not just voted for Trump but who celebrate him, who don’t merely tolerate him but who constantly defend his lawlessness and undisguised cruelty. How should I think about people who, in other domains of their lives, are admirable human beings and yet provide oxygen to his malicious movement? How complicit are people who live in an epistemic hall of mirrors and have sincerely—or half-sincerely—convinced themselves they are on the side of the angels?

Throughout my career I’ve tried to resist the temptation to make unwarranted judgments about the character of people based on their political views. For one thing, it’s quite possible my views on politics are misguided or distorted, so I exercise a degree of humility in assessing the views of others. For another, I know full well that politics forms only a part of our lives, and not the most important part. People can be personally upstanding and still be wrong on politics.

But something has changed for me in the Trump era. I struggle more than I once did to wall off a person’s character from their politics when their politics is binding them to an unusually—and I would say undeniably—destructive person. The lies that MAGA world parrots are so manifestly untrue, and the Trump ethic is so manifestly cruel, that they are difficult to set aside.

If a person insists, despite the overwhelming evidence, that Trump was the target of an assassination plot hatched by Joe Biden and carried out by the FBI, this is more than an intellectual failure; it is a moral failure, and a serious one at that. It’s only reasonable to conclude that such Trump supporters have not made a good-faith effort to understand what is really and truly happening. They are choosing to live within the lie, to invoke the words of the former Czech dissident and playwright Vaclav Havel.

One of the criteria that needs to be taken into account in assessing the moral culpability of people is how absurd the lies are that they are espousing; a second is how intentionally they are avoiding evidence that exposes the lies because they are deeply invested in the lie; and a third is is how consequential the lie is.

It’s one thing to embrace a conspiracy theory that is relevant only to you and your tiny corner of the world. It’s an entirely different matter if the falsehood you’re embracing and promoting is venomous, harming others, and eroding cherished principles, promoting violence and subverting American democracy.

In his book The Bible Told Them So: How Southern Evangelicals Fought to Preserve White Supremacy, J. Russell Hawkins tells the story of a June 1963 gathering of more than 200 religious leaders in the White House. President John F. Kennedy was trying to rally their support for civil-rights legislation.

Among those in attendance was Albert Garner, a Baptist minister from Florida, who told Kennedy that many southern white Christians held “strong moral convictions” on racial integration. It was, according to Garner, “against the will of their Creator.”

“Segregation is a principle of the Old Testament,” Garner said, adding, “Prior to this century neither Christianity nor any denomination of it ever accepted the integration philosophy.”

Two months later, in Hanahan, South Carolina, members of a Southern Baptist church—they described themselves as “Christ centered” and “Bible believing”—voted to take a firm stand against civil-rights legislation.

“The Hanahan Baptists were not alone,” according to Hawkins. “Across the South, white Christians thought the president was flaunting Christian orthodoxy in pursuing his civil rights agenda.” Kennedy “simply could not comprehend the truth Garner was communicating: based on their religious beliefs, southern white Christians thought integration was evil.”

A decade earlier, the Reverend Carey Daniel, pastor of First Baptist Church in West Dallas, Texas, had delivered a sermon titled “God the Original Segregationist,” in response to the 1954 Supreme Court decision in Brown v. Board of Education. It became influential within pro-segregationist southern states. Daniel later became president of the Central Texas Division of the Citizens Council of America for Segregation, which asked for a boycott of all businesses, lunch counters included, that served Black patrons. In 1960, Daniel attacked those “trying to destroy the white South by breaking the color line, thus giving aid and comfort to our Communist enemies.”

Now ask yourself this: Did the fierce advocacy on behalf of segregation, and the dehumanization of Black Americans, reflect in any meaningful way on the character of those who advanced such views, even if, say, they volunteered once a month at a homeless shelter and wrote a popular commentary on the Book of Romans?

Readers can decide whether MAGA supporters are better or worse than Albert Garner and Carey Daniel. My point is that all of us believe there’s some place on the continuum in which the political choices we make reflect on our character. Some movements are overt and malignant enough that to willingly be a part of them becomes ethically problematic.

This doesn’t mean those in MAGA world can’t be impressive people in other domains of life, just like critics of Trump may act reprehensibly in their personal lives and at their jobs. I’ve never argued, and I wouldn’t argue today, that politics tells us the most important things about a person’s life. Trump supporters and Trump critics alike can brighten the lives of others, encourage those who are suffering, and demonstrate moments of kindness and grandeur.

I understand, too, if their moral convictions keep them from voting for Joe Biden.

But it would be an affectation for me, at least, to pretend that in this particular circumstance otherwise good people, in joining the MAGA movement, in actively advocating on its behalf, and in planning to cast a vote for Trump, haven’t—given all we know—done something grievously wrong.

Some of them are cynical and know better; others are blind to the cult-like world to which they belong. Still others have convinced themselves that Trump, while flawed, is the best of bad options. It’s a “binary choice,” they say, and so they have talked themselves into supporting arguably the most comprehensively corrupt man in the history of American politics, certainly in presidential politics.

Whichever justification applies, they are giving not just their vote but their allegiance to a man and movement that have done great harm to our country and its ideals, and which seek to inflict even deeper wounds in the years ahead. Many of them are self-proclaimed evangelicals and fundamentalists, and they are also doing inestimable damage to the Christian faith they claim is central to their lives. That collaboration needs to be named. A generation from now, and probably sooner, it will be obvious to everyone that Trump supporters can’t claim they didn’t know.

The Atlantic