When Rusty Bowers took the stand in Tuesday’s Jan. 6 congressional hearing, he riveted millions with his testimony about Donald Trump’s planned election sabotage. Bowers, the Republican Arizona House speaker, described how Trump and Rudy Giuliani asked him to help appoint phony electors in 2020 – and how he turned them down flat. Bowers stressed that he’d never break the vow he took to uphold the Constitution. “For me to do that because somebody just asked me to is foreign to my very being,” he said. “I will not do it.”
Yet the day before, in an interview with The Associated Press, Bowers threw a curveball. Despite bravely speaking out against Trump’s election interference, he insisted he’d still vote for him in 2024. “If he is the nominee, if he was up against Biden, I’d vote for him again,” Bowers said. “Simply because what he did the first time, before COVID, was so good for the country. In my view it was great. ”
Bowers’ choice to stay on the Trump train as it hurtles toward a cliff might seem baffling. From a psychological standpoint, though, it’s not all that surprising.
The gist of the resulting online furor was: Holy cognitive dissonance, Batman. How could Bowers possibly back a candidate who – as his own testimony so clearly showed – flouted the rule of law and shook the country’s democratic foundations?
Bowers’ choice to stay on the Trump train as it hurtles toward a cliff might seem baffling. From a psychological standpoint, though, it’s not all that surprising. It’s one thing to draw a moral line and refuse to endorse fake electors. But it’s quite another to renounce the political tribe you’ve supported much of your life – a pillar of attitudes, values and beliefs that props up key aspects of your identity.
As Bowers considered Giuliani and Trump’s scheme to appoint new Arizona electors, he faced one clear-cut question: Is this legal, or isn’t it? After determining that the scheme was illegal, he concluded quite rightly that greenlighting it would mean breaking his oath of office. In accordance with his decision, he took a stand against Trump’s actions that earned him the John F. Kennedy Profile in Courage Award this year.
But even for courageous people like Bowers, disavowing an entire political party and its current standard-bearer is a tall psychological order. Once we buy into a certain narrative about the world – one stating, for instance, that big government is bad, lower taxes are good and immigration is suspect – we engage in what’s called motivated reasoning to uphold that narrative.
Out of a desire for stability and well-being, we embrace arguments that support our view of the world and discard those that do not. In study after study, people prefer to seek out evidence that confirms their political or moral beliefs while steering around evidence that threatens those beliefs.
Turning toward the familiar and accepted can be an essential survival skill since humans thrive in cooperative groups where people mostly agree about the best way to live. For our hunter-gatherer ancestors, abandoning the tribe could mean death, and breaking with our communities can feel just as threatening today. “Quite literally, our views and opinions may help protect us, keep us safe,” wrote risk perception expert David Ropeik. “Small wonder, then, that we fight so hard to keep those walls strong and tall.”
Bowers is no exception to this rule. To reject the phony elector scheme, he only had to clear a single moral hurdle. But to reject the Republican Party and its future nominee, even if it’s Trump, he’d have to jettison decades worth of assumptions about which ideas and people are valuable and which are not. He’d also upend lifelong relationships with people who share his views.
This broad disavowal would not be as perilous as deserting the tribe with savannah predators in hot pursuit. But it would involve taxing mental work, requiring Bowers to assemble a new web of social connections, reassess values he’s taken for granted and redefine his place in the political scene. It’s a lot easier for Bowers to stay cocooned in “my party no matter what” thinking – even if his Trump support seems utterly contradictory – than to attempt this kind of identity overhaul.
That’s not to say Bowers, and others like him, should not try. Motivated reasoning allows people to feel secure and maintain their social ties, but it can also twist them into logical knots and tank their credibility, as Bowers’ Associated Press interview showed. And while the human desire to confirm pre-existing views might be strong, people can learn to overcome their own biases by exposing themselves to facts that refute their entrenched beliefs.
Until more politicians accept this challenge, though, we’re likely to see a steady procession of officials like Bowers: willing to put their lives on the line to speak up about corruption, but unwilling to question the ideas and beliefs that fueled that corruption in the first place.