Shania Twain, the country singer who has sold more than 100 million records and is in the midst of attempting a big comeback, is probably wishing that she had steered clear of politics right about now. Being Canadian, she even has a great excuse for declining to comment on American debates. And yet, in a wide-ranging interview with the Guardian this weekend, she volunteered that she would have loved to vote for Donald Trump:
I would have voted for him because, even though he was offensive, he seemed honest. Do you want straight or polite? … If I were voting, I just don’t want bullshit. I would have voted for a feeling that it was transparent. And politics has a reputation of not being that, right?
So polarized is our politics—and so toxic is the president of the United States—that Twain was furiously starting to backpedal before the weekend was out. “I am passionately against discrimination of any kind and hope it’s clear from the choices I have made, and the people I stand with, that I do not hold any common moral beliefs with the current President,” she tweeted on Sunday night. But where most of the media simply saw a bizarre PR screw-up, I saw anecdotal confirmation of an important paper in the august American Sociological Review.
Let me explain.
In a recent academic article, Oliver Hahl, Minjae Kim and Ezra Zuckerman Sivan set out to figure out one of the central puzzles of the 2016 election: Why did so many people support Donald Trump even though he told so many blatant lies?
Some politicians lie about things voters don’t know to be untrue: They promise not to raise taxes, boast about their family values while shtupping their hairdressers, or claim to love babies when they would much rather not have to touch them. These kinds of lies are usually designed to go undetected. Politicians who employ them have some realistic hope of concealing their future policies, their marital infidelities, or their true views on the cuteness of babies long enough to get elected.
What’s striking about Donald Trump—and many other authoritarian populists around the world—is that he also loves to indulge in a second, more easily detectable kind of lie. “The concept of climate change,” Trump tweeted years before entering politics, “was created by and for the Chinese in order to make U.S. manufacturing non-competitive.” Barack Obama, Trump claimed during the 2016 campaign, had “founded ISIS.” Trump’s win in the Electoral College, he boasted a few weeks after the election, was “the biggest since Ronald Reagan.”
How, the authors of the recent study set out to understand, do populists like Trump get away with such obvious lies? And why is it that, in the words of Shania Twain, many voters even perceive them to be especially honest?
The simplest explanation would be to think that most people simply don’t realize that their political hero is lying. A lot of Americans know very little about politics. Online “echo chambers” shield partisans from contrasting viewpoints. The temptation to avoid cognitive dissonance by ignoring negative information about one’s preferred candidate is strong. For all of those reasons, it would be plausible to think that most of Trump’s supporters simply don’t realize that their candidate is a habitual liar.
Plausible, but false. As Hahl and his co-authors show, most Trump supporters are perfectly happy to acknowledge that the president occasionally lies. Confronted with his statement about global warming being a Chinese hoax, for example, 2 out of 3 Trump supporters rated the statement as “highly false”; only 1 out of 20 rated it as “highly true.”
If that is puzzling, another piece of evidence is stranger still: Even though most Trump supporters were willing to admit that Trump lies, they also rated him as extremely “authentic.” In fact, Trump was rated as being much more authentic by his supporters than Hillary Clinton was by hers.
This, the paper suggests, is the key to understanding Trump’s success.
When the political system is widely seen as doing its job, somebody like Trump, who violates its basic norms, is seen as illegitimate. A politician who blatantly lies doesn’t stand a chance. But this changes when more and more people come to believe that the system is rigged and that most politicians don’t have their best interests in mind. Amid such a “crisis of legitimacy,” voters don’t particularly care whether a politician plays by the rules of the game. Instead, they long for somebody who bluntly states how rotten the system really is.
In this kind of context, voters no longer abhor detectable lies, or even racist statements, in quite the same way as you’d expect. On the contrary, they start to see such visible violations of basic norms as proof that their favorite candidate really is different from everybody else. As I wrote in The People vs. Democracy, the reason why
populists and political newcomers are so willing to challenge basic democratic norms is in part tactical: whenever populists break such norms, they attract the univocal condemnation of the political establishment. And this of course proves that, as advertised, the populists really do represent a clean break from the status quo. There is thus something performative about populists’ tendency to break democratic norms: while their most provocative statements are often considered gaffes by political observers, their very willingness to commit such gaffes is a big part of their appeal.
Hahl et al. provide convincing evidence for this theory by asking the participants of their study how they would vote in a fictitious election. The exact design of the study is rather intricate—and well worth reading in the original—but the basic idea is simple enough: An outsider candidate is running for election for a leadership position in student government. If he tells an obvious lie during the campaign, his fate strongly depends on perceptions about whether the system is functioning well.
In one experimental setup, the incumbent is doing an honest job: He has gone out of his way to help a student who is in financial need and has worked hard without getting anything in return. In this case, the outsider candidate is heavily penalized for telling a lie.
In another setup, the incumbent is self-interested: He has failed to help his fellow student and is parlaying his position into a cushy job. In this case, the lying demagogue is actually rewarded for telling a lie: Though his supporters are fully aware that he has made false statements, his willingness to break the rules makes the outsider candidate seem more “authentic.”
This same logic, the authors suggest, was at play in the very real election that put Trump in the White House: “If the key to the authentic appeal of the lying demagogue is that he is signalling a willingness to be regarded as a pariah by the establishment, Trump was certainly a credible pariah,” the authors write. “In this sense, his statements reminded his voters that he is a pariah just like them.”
In fact, it’s striking how closely Twain’s reasons for why she would have supporting Donald Trump echo this finding. “Politics,” she said in her instantly infamous interview, “has a reputation for not being [transparent].” Given her distrust of the political system, her first priority was not to get suckered: “I just don’t want bullshit,” she said. Faced with a choice between a candidate whom she saw as “polite” and one whom she described as “straight,” her preference hardly comes as a surprise: She chose the liar who didn’t shy away from telling what she considered a deeper political truth.
It’s no mean feat to offer a convincing explanation for how Trump could get away with—or perhaps even profit from—his incessant lies. But the part of the paper that most haunts me goes beyond that. A “crisis of legitimacy,” Hahl and his co-authors point out, can take two forms: In a “representation crisis,” large segments of the population feel that the political establishment doesn’t govern on their behalf. Meanwhile, in a “power devaluation crisis,” a once dominant group resents the fact that politicians increasingly seem to pay attention to new, formerly less powerful groups.
The United States is currently suffering from both crises. Many minority groups understandably feel that the current government doesn’t have their best interests at heart. At the same time, many members of the shrinking ethnic majority have good reason to believe that their power will keep on dwindling. In other words, the legitimacy of the American political system is increasingly in doubt on both sides of the partisan divide.
For the foreseeable future, the terrain of American politics will remain ripe for lying demagogues of all stripes.