"How can Trump supporters still like him after that?"

This question has been asked with greater frequency since the last presidential debate, which is widely being called the worst one in history, and President Trump's subsequent COVID-19 diagnosis. The question itself is not new and has been repeatedly asked in some form or another since the 2016 elections.

As with most complex phenomena, the true answer is likely a combination of factors, but there is one answer that has not yet been offered. While many remain baffled as to how Trump supporters continue to like him despite his latest act of bullying, lying, egotism or vulgarity, we suggest that it is in fact because of those incidents that they do.

Let us explain. In psychology, there is a value-neutral concept known as behavioral integrity. It refers to the perception that an individual or group is behaving in a way that aligns with what they say, that they do what they say they will do, and that their messaging is consistent.

Research shows that when followers perceive a leader figure to demonstrate behavioral integrity, it bolsters their feelings of trust and confidence. An important clarification to be made here is that whether the leader in question actually does these things or not (e.g., does he actually do what he says he will do?) is not important to this concept, only that he is perceived as doing these things.

One of the reasons for Trump's enduring popularity, despite everything he has said and done, is that his supporters believe he has behavioral integrity. They perceive that his actions align with his words, they perceive that he does what he promises to do, and they perceive that his messaging is consistent (again, whether he really does these things or not does not matter).

A second clarification that needs to be made is that while many of his supporters may certainly agree with what he says or does, not all of his supporters necessarily do. Rather, even for those who might not support Trump, what they appreciate in Trump is the (perceived) consistency and authenticity with which he says and does the things that he does. An article in the Los Angeles Times, published after the first debate, included a quote from a voter named Jay Williams, 35, a Black construction worker, that captures this perfectly:

Williams was not particularly bothered that Trump had refused to condemn white supremacists. "Donald Trump will stand up for what he believes in," he said. "Whether we agree with it or not, he fully believes in it. I would say, in a way, you have to admit it's admirable that he stands firm. But at the same time, you know, it is what it is." He shrugged. "Most of the U.S. presidents were white supremacists,” he said. “Trump’s just more honest."

Honesty and authenticity are traits that have often been attributed to Trump (and, for that matter, to Bernie Sanders), and it has been speculated that authenticity may be a reason why both Trump and Sanders enjoy a certain fierce loyalty from their supporters. According to business theorist Jeffrey Pfeffer, however, the reality is that we do not grant power to those who are authentic and honest — we grant power to those who project confidence and strength and often that means their displaying traits we say we don't want our leaders to have: self-aggrandizement, shameless lying, and never admitting to mistakes.

Supporters of US President Donald Trump attend a rally at Orlando Sanford International Airport in Sanford, Florida Supporters of US President Donald Trump attend a rally at Orlando Sanford International Airport in Sanford, Florida Photo: AFP / SAUL LOEB

Besides, dogged consistency is not the same thing as authenticity. To make people believe you have behavioral integrity, you need to appear consistent but you don't necessarily need to be authentic.

In point of fact, Trump often does not do what he says he will do. He does not live in a way that aligns with his professed values. And he does not have consistent messaging. Yet for a number of reasons these discrepancies do not matter to his loyalists. One reason for this is that he has effectively discredited the media in the eyes of his followers such that reports of his inconsistencies are seen as "fake news." 

Trump himself has admitted that the reason he consistently attacks the media is so that when negative stories are published about him no one will believe them. Some of his supporters may even acknowledge that he is not as consistent as it may seem, but they do not care so long as he is consistent about the things that they care about most, and that he consistently goes after those they do not like, be they immigrants, career politicians, or liberal media.

Finally, another reason that Trump supporters may be stubborn in their support is that they crave consistency (i.e. behavioral integrity) in their own words and actions as well as in their leader's. Robert Cialdini, the guru of psychological influence, calls this the "Consistency" Principle of Persuasion, which holds that once people commit to an idea or course of action, they naturally wish to remain consistent with it because if they do not, it creates the discomfort of cognitive dissonance.

Research bears this out. One study, for instance, found that the more people were presented with evidence that threatens their beliefs and opinions, the more they clung to those beliefs and opinions, potentially explaining why the more Trump flaunts his narcissism and arrogance, or the more his political opponents point it out, the more fiercely his supporters defend him.

Like many observers of the current political situation in our country, we are deeply perturbed by the vicious divisiveness, spirit of animosity, and lack of trust in the democratic process that informs so much of our public discourse. But to continually express bewilderment over the obstinacy of Trump supporters does not fix the problem. True healing can only begin with understanding. When we understand that the perceived consistency of Trump's behavior, not its moral content, is precisely why his supporters like him, and that this comes from a natural tendency of human nature, it is then that we can form strategies to counter this self-reinforcing pattern.

(Rangapriya (Priya) Kannan is the chair and professor of the Department of Innovation and Entrepreneurship, and the founder-director of the Entrepreneurship and Innovation Catalyzer at the University of San Diego School of Business; Craig Barkacs, J.D., is a professor of business law and ethics in the Master's in Executive Leadership and MBA Programs at the University of San Diego School of Business)