Sunday, July 17, 2022

Explaining the Stupidity of Believing Trump's Big Lie: Madison's Fear of "Domestic Faction and Insurrection" and Out-Group Animosity in Social Media

Written in 1787 to support the ratification of the U.S. Constitution, James Madison's Number 10 of The Federalist is entitled "The Union as a Safeguard Against Domestic Faction and Insurrection."  He explained that the causes of faction are innate in human nature:

"The latent causes of faction are thus sown in the nature of man; and we see them every where brought into different degrees of activity, according to the different circumstances of civil society.  A zeal for different opinions concerning religion, concerning Government and many other points, as well of speculation as of practice; an attachment to different leaders ambitiously contending for pre-eminence and power; or to persons of other descriptions whose fortunes have been interesting to the human passions, have in turn divided mankind into parties, inflamed them with mutual animosity, and rendered them much more disposed to vex and oppress each other, than to cooperate for their common good.  So strong is this propensity of mankind to fall into mutual animosities, that where no substantial occasion presents itself, the most frivolous and fanciful distinctions have been sufficient to kindle their unfriendly passions and excite their most violent conflicts" (58-59).

As a leader "ambitiously contending for pre-eminence and power," Donald Trump has persuaded many Americans to believe his lie that the presidential election of 2020 was stolen from him, which has motivated his supporters to "domestic faction and insurrection," and that should make us wonder whether Madison's Constitution as a safeguard against such factional violence has failed.

We might argue that Madison's constitutional safeguards have worked in exposing Trump's lie as a lie.  The Constitution sets up a system of the rule of law and congressional oversight that has forced Trump and his supporters to present evidence that the presidential election was stolen from him, and they have so completely failed to present such evidence that the falsity of Trump's lie should be evident to everyone.

After the election, Trump and his supporters filed 64 cases in federal and state courts containing 187 counts in the six key battleground states--Arizona, Georgia, Michigan, Nevada, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin.  They also used procedures under state law to demand recounts of votes and investigation of the voting process.  In all of these court cases and all of the state reviews, they failed to find any evidence that the election had been stolen from Trump.  In some of my posts after the election (here and here), I pointed to Trump's failure to win court cases in Michigan, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin, even when the judges had been appointed by Trump!  Now, we have a massive study by some prominent conservative Republicans that surveys every court case and every state procedure for investigating the election, which shows that Trump and his supporters failed every time to present any evidence that the election was stolen.

Now, with the congressional investigation of Trump's insurrection of January 6, 2021, we can see that most of Trump's own advisors told him that there was no evidence of fraudulent voting, and those few advisors who encouraged him to overturn the election could not give him any evidence that the election had been stolen.

In all of these ways, America's constitutional system of government has worked to show that there is no evidence to support Trump's lie and thus no good reason to justify the factional violence of his supporters.  And yet some public opinion surveys indicate that as much as one-third of the American electorate still believes Trump's lie.  How can we explain this stupidity of the Trump faction?

Recently, Jonathan Haidt has argued in The Atlantic that what we see here is the stupidity arising from the evolved moral psychology of xenophobic factionalism that has been inflamed by online social media over the past ten years.  If this is right, Madison could have seen this as an example of how the causes of faction are "every where brought into different degrees of activity, according to the different circumstances of civil society."  Online social media is a unique circumstance of our modern civil society, but it might be provoking a propensity to out-group animosity that has always been latent in our evolved human nature.

Haidt points out that in 2009, Facebook for the first time allowed users to "Like" posts by clicking a button; and Twitter introduced the "Retweet" button that allowed users to not only endorse a post but also share it with all their followers.  In 2012, Facebook introduced its own "Share" button.  These innovations made it much easier for posts to go "viral."

Empirical studies of Twitter and Facebook have shown that posts with moral-emotional words are most likely to spread widely, and this diffusion is stronger within liberal and conservative networks than between them (Brady et al. 2017).  These studies have also shown that posts with words expressing animosity towards the political out-group is the strongest predictor of shares and retweets--that is, increased virality (Rathje et al. 2021).  Moreover, false political news diffuses faster and more broadly on social media than does true political news, apparently because false news provokes fear, disgust, and surprise, so that it is more emotionally arousing (Vosoughi et al. 2018).  And those individuals who report hating their political opponents are most likely to share political fake news to derogate their opponents (Osmundsen et al. 2021).

What this shows is that social media is promoting the moral and political polarization in American politics, and thus promoting what Madison feared--"domestic faction and insurrection"--because it inflames the evolved propensity to out-group animosity and in-group identity.  I have written about this (here and here) as the evolutionary psychology of "parochial altruism"--loving those who belong to one's group and hating those outside one's group.

It's not clear how social media platforms could be changed to mitigate this inclination to xenophobic factionalism.  Any effort to regulate the content of social media easily devolves into censorship.  But Haidt does point to one possible change that does not become censorship: the "Share" function on Facebook could be altered so that once a post has been shared twice, the third person would have to copy and paste the content into a new post.  This would not suppress anyone's free speech, but it could slow the spread of false and hateful posts.

Another way to reduce the influence of factional extremists would be to alter the procedures for party primaries and general elections.  We could end closed party primaries, so that candidates would compete in an open primary, and the top several candidates would advance to the general election.  We could also use ranked-choice voting, like that adopted in Alaska.  It's notable that in his recent rally in Alaska, Trump denounced Senator Murkowski's support for ranked-choice voting, because this would make it unlikely that his favored candidates could win.  If ranked-choice voting had been used in the 2016 Republican Party presidential primaries, Trump would probably have lost, because while his minority base of voters would have ranked him at the top, the majority would have ranked him at the bottom.

Another possible constitutional procedural reform would be to abolish the Electoral College, without which Trump could not have been elected in 2016.  There is no reason to believe that Madison and the other framers of the Constitution anticipated that the Electoral College as it functions today can favor an extremist factional candidate like Trump who wins a minority of the popular votes.


Brady, William J., Julian Wills, John Jost, Joshua Tucker, and Jay Van Bavel. 2017. "Emotion Shapes the Diffusion of Moralized Content in Social Networks." Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 114 (July 11): 7313-7318.

Danforth, John, Benjamin Ginsburg, Thomas B. Griffith, David Hoppe, J. Michael Luttig, Michael W. McConnell, Theodore Olson, and Gordon H. Smith. 2022. "Lost, Not Stolen: The Conservative Case that Trump Lost and Biden Won the 2020 Presidential Election."  Lost-Not-Stolen-The-Conservative-Case-that-Trump-Lost-and-Biden-Won-the-2020-Presidential-Election-July-2022.pdf (

Haidt, Jonathan. 2022. "Why the Past 10 Years of American Life Have Been Uniquely Stupid."  The Atlantic, May 2022.

Hamilton, Alexander, James Madison, and John Jay. 1961. The Federalist. Ed. Jacob E. Cooke. Middletown, CN: Wesleyan University Press.

Osmundsen, Mathias, Alexander Bor, Peter Bjerregaard Vahlstrup, Anja Bechmann, and Michael Bang Petersen. 2021. "Partisan Polarization Is the Primary Psychological Motivation Behind Political Fake News Sharing on Twitter." American Political Science Review 115: 999-1015.

Rathje, Steve, Jay Van Bavel, and Sander van der Linden. 2021. "Out-Group Animosity Drives Engagement on Social Media." Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 118: e2024292118.

Vosoughi, Soroush, Deb Roy, and Sinan Aral. 2018. "The Spread of True and False News Online." Science 359: 1146-1151.

1 comment:

Barto of the Oratory said...

This is an important perspective. Thank you.