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Why do people believe Donald Trump's false narratives?

Trump’s False Narratives: Why He’s So Good At Them, and Why So Many Believe Them

by Kristance Harlow

The stories we are told throughout our lives, both real and imagined, color the lens through which we interpret the world. The present is legitimized by the stories told about the past, and we are more likely to believe a story that aligns with the ones we’ve always been told. President-elect Donald Trump’s rhetoric works because it isn’t facts that can bring someone around to a new perspective. Only appealing to someone’s moral values can.

Moral values are appealed to through stories — and Trump is a storyteller. Trump is very far removed from the life of the working-class American; he’s a billionaire bred from millionaires. To keep his supporters from seeing how different he is, he appeals to the stigma of poverty with a story about getting rich and making other people rich. He uses storytelling as part of his manipulative M.O.

To illustrate the effectiveness of false narratives, let’s look back at Donald Trump’s comments in the third presidential debate about abortion:

Trump: “You can take the baby, rip the baby out of the womb of the mother. Hillary can say that’s OK. That’s not ok with me.”

But that’s not how abortions work. There are several types of abortion techniques; each is specific to the term of the pregnancy. During the first 13 weeks of pregnancy, non-invasive techniques are most often used. High doses of hormones are put into the body through the form of pills; these hormones cause the uterine lining to shed and/or the embryo is released with the uterine shedding.  Surgical abortions are also sometimes used during the first trimester. The most common is the vacuum aspiration abortion, in which a tube is inserted into a dilated uterus and the rest of the procedure is similar to menstrual extraction. As the pregnancy continues, the risks to the woman increase and the more controversial the abortions become. Most abortions, two-thirds of them, happen before the eighth week of pregnancy. As of 2012, 91 percent of all abortions happen before week 14. A fetus has zero chance of survival outside the womb at this gestation period.

Related: The Trump New Normal: It’s Here, And It’s Frightening

Cultural beliefs about abortion have changed throughout history. The word abortion is first seen in literature in 1547, but the act of terminating a pregnancy began much earlier, and has likely occurred in one form or another as long as humans have existed. The earliest evidence of an abortion inducing drug being used comes from China in 2600 B.C. The ancient Romans and the Greeks had no problem with abortion, unless the father objected. In the 5th century B.C., Hippocrates developed the Hippocratic Oath that medical practitioners still swear by today — and whether or not the original oath prohibits abortion has been debated since the its inception.

A century later, Plato and Aristotle promoted abortion as a means for population control. In the 4th century A.D., St. Augustine sanctioned abortion up to 40 days for a male fetus and up to 80 days for a female fetus — even though there was no way to know whether a fetus was a male or female prior to abortion.

The Bible doesn’t discuss abortion much, and what little is said in the Old Testament is in relation to the loss and control of property. Ten centuries later St. Thomas Aquinas stated a Catholic dogma which justified sex only for procreation. In 1588 Pope Sixtus outlawed all abortion, and three years later Pope Gregory XIV overturned those laws. Even among people in the same camp, beliefs swing on the pendulum. Beliefs about the ethics of abortion have always been influenced narratives told by powerful people.

Abortion has long been connected to ideas about property and power, themes Trump has capitalized on. In the 1860s, anti-abortion legislation became the status quo throughout the United States. A driving factor to outlawing abortion was the fear that the population would become overrun by the children of immigrants and that there would be too few Anglo-Saxon women having children. These laws were also aided by a push from the medical field as a way to force birth and pregnancy to be medicalized and sanctioned by professionals.

At this point, I expect readers are either cracking their knuckles, ready to begin their angry rebuttals — or they feel reassured by the facts. But this information will not persuade someone who does not already agree with the first qualifier, “that is not how abortions work.” This is the fundamental issue in American politics: our inability to believe information that contradicts our intrinsic values.

The preservation of fetal life at every stage is a moral imperative for many people. Trump successfully amped up fervor with his comments. It’s an issue that many people will not and cannot be swayed on. False stories, when the speaker is aware of their non-reality, are a manipulative tactic to win over people at a base level. Trump, the man born with a silver spoon in his mouth, who craps on a golden toilet, convinced misinformed Americans that he can help them, that he knows what their struggles are. He performs the two-faced dance of a salesman, winning the allegiance of his supporters by promises of grandeur and extremist narratives.

Trump makes his supporters feel like they’re in on the game. He’s the magician who pretends to show the audience how the illusion is performed. He amps up his people with impassioned speeches, making supporters more vulnerable to the angry defensive switch when presented with a factual rebuttal. Trump adds false credibility to core beliefs. He isn’t concerned with changing people’s minds. It’s easier to get people really riled up.

Eric Horowitz describes this process in an article for Pacific Standard:

“For political parties the priority is often driving activism rather than changing minds, and thus threatening arguments may be a better choice. But if you’re trying to convince a friend to change his views, it might be worthwhile to go against your instincts and hit him with all your weakest points.”

It requires less energy to accept something as true than it does to reject new information. Research published in Psychological Science in the Public Interest found that it is mentally taxing to fully evaluate information. It is difficult for our brains to dismiss something we already believe to be true, particularly if it threatens to uproot a core belief.

We humans are an egotistical lot, and challenges to deeply held values cause our defenses to flare up. It doesn’t really matter how logical or factual the challenge is. Trying to correct misinformation doesn’t work very well because it leaves a gap where the narrative was once filled. Storytelling is a more effective method of changing someone’s mind. However, even that won’t work if the new story is predicated on the acceptance of facts that challenge the original belief.



Kristance Harlow is a writer, researcher and journalist — and sometimes all three at the same time. She’s a loudmouth intersectional feminist and advocate for awareness of mental illness, domestic violence and addiction. Her grams once told her, “I can see you marrying Indiana Jones.” She responded, “I’d rather be Indiana Jones” and promptly obtained her master’s degree in archaeology. Originally from no-town USA, she has planted roots in India, England, Scotland, Argentina.

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