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A neuroscientist explains why Trump’s criminal trials will strengthen his support

As the United States witnesses the unprecedented criminal prosecution of former President Donald Trump, it’s time to ponder how these events will affect the upcoming presidential election.

While some Americans might expect the negative publicity of the court cases to diminish Trump’s popularity, an analysis of the relevant psychological phenomena suggests that the proceedings could ultimately have the opposite effect. In fact, CNN recently reported that a new poll shows Trump ahead of President Joe Biden by 5 percent nationwide. The criminal trials against Trump — four separate ones that together feature 88 felony charges — might not only fail to deter his supporters but could potentially galvanize them by tapping into powerful and counterintuitive mental effects.

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First, let’s just start with some common-sense reasoning. It is no secret that Donald Trump is not an ethical person. From being buddies with the sex trafficker Jeffrey Epstein, to the infamous "Access Hollywood" tape in which he bragged about groping women — “Grab ‘em by the pussy” being his precise words — Trump's behavior has long since been a subject of public scrutiny, and for good reason. The current Stormy Daniels hush money case and other matters are not likely to reveal anything particularly new or shocking to the public. The only way the cases are likely to hurt Trump with voters is by keeping him off the campaign trail. And of course, they’ll hurt his pockets.

But given how close the race between Trump and Biden is, we must consider the possibility that the sum total of these public trials will be to confirm Trump’s ongoing narrative: that he is an agent of change going up against a corrupt system that will do all they can to stop an outsider from gaining power.

Trump jet Republican presidential candidate, former U.S. President Donald Trump, speaks during a rally on May 1, 2024 at Avflight Saginaw in Freeland, Mich. Saginaw County is considered a swing county in Michigan and was the site of a September 2020 campaign visit by Trump. (Photo by Nic Antaya/Getty Images)

Conspiracy theories about a “deep state” — a government made up of a secret network of power operating in pursuit of their own agenda — will be seemingly validated in the eyes of Trump supporters as the trials play out in the months before Election Day 2024.

As a result, this could trigger what is known as the "backfire effect," a psychological phenomenon that would undoubtedly bolster Trump’s support. This effect occurs when people are presented with information that directly contradicts their deeply held beliefs. Instead of updating their views to align with new evidence — in this case, that Trump may actually be a criminal who indeed committed illegal acts — people become even more entrenched in their original position. It's like a mental defense mechanism that kicks in to protect their worldview from the uncomfortable cognitive dissonance caused by conflicting information.

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Regarding Trump's legal troubles, his supporters may view the criminal charges as a direct attack on their belief in his innocence and integrity. They will perceive the prosecution as a politically motivated witch hunt orchestrated by Trump's enemies to bring him down, causing them to double down on their support for Trump.

Additionally, the shared experience of feeling under attack can create a powerful sense of unity and solidarity among Trump's supporters.

A fundamental aspect of human psychology is the tendency to form in-groups and out-groups. When Trump is prosecuted — or persecuted, as Trump argues — his supporters will perceive it as an attack on their group identity. These followers see themselves as part of a righteous movement fighting against a common enemy. This "us vs. them" mentality means that the criminal prosecution will increase hostility toward the perceived out-group, which in this case is the legal system, the Democrats, and Joe Biden.

Another psychological phenomenon that may come into play is the "underdog effect." People often root for the underdog in a competition. The same can apply to legal battles and elections. The criminal prosecution of an individual can create a perception of them as the underdog, leading to increased public support and sympathy.

In Trump's case, his supporters view him as a brave outsider fighting against a rigged system, no matter that he is a billionaire former president who lives in rarified luxury and owns his own private Boeing 757 jet. The “underdog effect” can further boost their loyalty and admiration for Trump. This will cause them to rally around their leader and intensify their commitment to his cause.

Trump supporter with Trump tattoo A supporter displays her tattoo in support of Republican presidential candidate former President Donald Trump before a rally on May 1, 2024 at Avflight Saginaw in Freeland, Mich. (Photo by Nic Antaya/Getty Images)

Furthermore, the criminal trials against Trump may tap into the powerful narrative of victimhood and persecution. The psychological concept known as “persecution complex” suggests that individuals who perceive themselves as victims may experience heightened feelings of loyalty and camaraderie toward their in-group. By portraying himself as a victim of politically motivated persecution, Trump can reinforce his supporters' sense of shared victimhood and strengthen their resolve to stand by him.

ALSO READ: Trump-nominated FEC leader: let political donors hide their identities

It's important to note that these psychological effects are not limited to Trump's most loyal supporters. Even those who were previously on the fence or not planning to actively campaign for him may be swayed by the perception that he is being unfairly targeted. The criminal trials may serve as a rallying cry, mobilizing these individuals to become more vocal and engaged in their support for Trump.

For these reasons, as the legal proceedings unfold and the 2024 presidential election approaches, it is crucial for Democrats to carefully consider the unintended consequences of Trump’s criminal prosecutions, which follow civil court judgements that have already held Trump liable for business fraud, defamation and sexual abuse. (Trump maintains he’s innocent.) While holding Trump accountable for any alleged wrongdoing is undoubtedly important, the timing and nature of these prosecutions could inadvertently energize the campaign they seek to cripple.

Trump supporter Supporters of former President Trump wait for hours in a long line to attend a Trump campaign rally at an outdoor fairgrounds, April 13, 2024 in Schnecksville, Pennsylvania. (Photo by Andrew Lichtenstein/Corbis via Getty Images)

Democrats must be prepared to counter the psychological effects that will very likely bolster Trump's support. This could involve developing compelling counter-narratives that resonate with voters, highlighting the importance of the rule of law and emphasizing the need for accountability regardless of political position. It will be essential to strike a delicate balance between pursuing justice and minimizing the risk of these unintended psychological consequences.

Ultimately, the Democrats may find themselves in a catch-22: either they allow Trump to evade accountability for his alleged crimes, or they risk unleashing a cascade of psychological effects that could propel him back into the White House. In this high-stakes game of political chess, the unintended consequences of their next move could determine the fate of the nation for years to come.

Bobby Azarian is a cognitive neuroscientist and the author of the book The Romance of Reality: How the Universe Organizes Itself to Create Life, Consciousness, and Cosmic Complexity. He is also a blogger for Psychology Today and the creator of the Substack Road to Omega. Follow him on X and Instagram @BobbyAzarian.


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