Wednesday, June 1, 2016

Donald Trump versus the press, round 6741 (easter egg)

The press conference on Donald Trump's veterans' group donations brings up a fascinating question in political science that is harder to answer than most people think.  How influential are the media?  (Yes, plural).

Long ago on a continent far away, Godwin's Law began to take shape.  Yup, this guy.

Many people credited Joseph Goebbels with an important role in Hitler's rise to power based on the premise that propaganda can manipulate people into going full Nazi.  The more broad question, then, is whether or not propaganda in general has that kind of power, because if it does, then the media are in a very powerful position.

You probably think I'm about to compare Trump to Hitler, right?  I'm not.  I'm going to ask whether or not a press that hates Trump has the kind of power Goebbels thought, because if so, then Trump is toast.

Yesterday's press conference wasn't a press conference.  It was a street-fight, demonstrating that except for the Trump shills on Fox, talk radio and Joe Scarborough, just about every major figure in the media hates Trump.  If the press has the kind of power that Goebbels thought, then they can stop him.

Some time after WWII, though, political science research on the influence of media messages turned against the belief that people are so manipulable.  As the nascent field of political psychology developed, scholars became convinced first that political beliefs are too rooted in one's demographic and social situation to be influenced heavily by propaganda.  Then, research shifted to the role of party identification, and scholars began focusing on the importance of "cognitive dissonance" and ways to minimize it.

For those who have forgotten their Intro Psych, cognitive dissonance is the uncomfortable feeling that one gets from trying to hold two inconsistent ideas at the same time.  One of the ways to minimize cognitive dissonance is to reject messages inconsistent with one's existing beliefs.

Research then shifted to something of a middle ground, ascribing to the press the power to engage in "agenda-setting," influencing what people think about, but not what attitudes people hold.

To return to a book I mentioned yesterday, though, let's talk about John Zaller's The Nature and Origins of Mass Belief.  What does it take to overcome cognitive dissonance?  Message consistency.

Here's the basic issue.  Democrats are predisposed to view Clinton favorably and Trump negatively.  Republicans, the reverse.  What happens, then, when Republicans receive negative messages about Trump?  They are prone to reject those messages.  However, if a consistently negative message about Trump permeates the media, the cumulative effect can eat away at Trump's support among Republicans.

Yesterday's press conference demonstrated what I have said before-- the press truly hates Donald Trump.  And they should fear him.  Trump has promised to try to shut down any media outlets that criticize him if he becomes president.  And that finally came through in a press conference.  It looked like journalists found a way to deal with what I have been calling the Tony Clifton problem.  Trump was rattled.  The more rattled he looks, the weaker he looks.

What happens, then, when a presidential candidate is so hated by the press that message consistency against that candidate develops?  It depends on how deep down the rabbit hole one has to go to avoid negative messages about Trump.

Science progresses on the extreme cases.  Exhibit A:  Donald Trump.  We're going to learn exactly what happens when the press is almost unified in their revulsion towards a presidential nominee.  Does the unity matter more than the almost part, or does the almost part, well, trump unity?

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