Skip to main content

Why We Whitewash Trump’s Transgressions

Psychological research suggests people more easily excuse ethical lapses when they’re committed by someone who is perceived as a member of their own group.

By Tom Jacobs


(Photo: Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)

The conventional wisdom this final week before the 2016 election is that the presidential race is tightening because Republicans are “coming home.” Polling suggests many GOP voters who once insisted they would never vote for Donald Trump have decided to do just that.

How can they justify voting for a man with a long record of making racist remarks, treating women with contempt, continually posing false assertions, and generally pandering to people’s basest instincts? It’s actually not that difficult, according to Northeastern University psychologist David DeSteno.

In 2007, DeSteno published a study in which people were arbitrarily divided into two groups, and then watched as a fellow participant engaged in obvious cheating. People judged him far more leniently if he was identified as a member of their newly created clan.

It’s an example of what DeSteno calls “the flexibility of virtue.” We may think of ourselves as being guided by ethical principles, but the psychological pull of self interest is strong — and it extends to those we perceive as members of our group. If we assume their success will indirectly benefit ourselves, we are prone to forgive their moral transgressions — even if they involve groping women.

DeSteno, who wrote about the psychology of impulse control for Pacific Standard in 2014, discussed this dynamic — and its potential consequences for the election — in a phone interview.

As someone who studies decision-making, does the fact most Republican voters are casting ballots for Trump surprise you?

No, it doesn’t. We like to believe that our compasses of what is and isn’t OK moral behavior are fixed, and we judge people based on objective facts. But we don’t. How objectionable we see a moral transgression depends on our links to the person. We all will excuse ourselves certain moral transgressions that we’re willing to condemn others for. Well, that leniency we ascribe to ourselves we’ll also give to anybody who is on “our team,” however that is defined.

That kind of social bias is deeply ingrained. Evolution didn’t shape the mind to be saintly; it shaped the mind to be adaptive. When someone on your team commits a transgression that allows him or her to gain some resource or power, you are going to indirectly gain too. We have a tendency to rationalize that behavior.

So a lot depends on what you perceive as “my group.” There is some new polling out of Florida that suggests a significant number of Republican women are abandoning Trump. If that’s true, would it suggest such a choice would reflect a voter prioritizing her identity as a woman over her identity as a Republican?

That’s the wrinkle in all this: We all have multiple social identities with which we can categorize ourselves. It depends on which of those social identities are brought to the fore at any moment. If a Republican woman thinks of herself primarily in terms of party affiliation, Trump is my guy. If she’s thinking of herself in terms of gender, he’s probably not. I suspect a lot of Republican women are more bothered by Trump’s blemishes that have nothing to do with gender, because they feel disassociated from him.

So Hillary Clinton is smart to be emphasizing gender issues during this final week. Do you suspect former Bernie Sanders supporters are experiencing a similar process as they agree to support her?

I think so. That’s why Sanders has been working so hard to say he and Clinton are on the same team. He is trying to enlarge the radius of his supporters from “Bernie-ite progressive” to “Democrat.” He has embraced Clinton as a member of the same team much more so than many former Republican candidates have embraced Trump.

Are we conscious of applying double standards to candidates we like or dislike? Or does this happen below our level of awareness?

It’s a mix of both. What we’re seeing now is how someone judges Trump’s or Clinton’s transgressions is modified by what team they’re playing for. Republicans see violations at the Clinton Foundation worse than those at the Trump Foundation, and vice versa.


David DeSteno. (Photo: Northeastern University)

I think some people strategically decide they’re going to vote for Trump no matter what. But other people want to vote for people of good character. It’s not that they’re consciously trying to whitewash away (the bad behavior of their own candidates). How they interpret what are often ambiguous findings, such as the recent Federal Bureau of Investigation letter about Clinton’s e-mails, is affected by group solidarity. It affects what information we choose to pick up on and pay attention to.

In other words, there’s a strong psychological pull to support our party’s nominee, and it’s not hard to rationalize that decision.

Our brains are very good at that. Some people who work hard to be objective might be immune to this, but, for 90 percent of us, our own moral scales can be fluid, depending on who we are evaluating. If we aren’t willing to recognize that, we can’t correct for it.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.