Framing 101: Some brains you just can't change

Examining a failed effort to reduce conservative support for Trump

Framing 101: Some brains you just can't change
“When the facts don’t fit the frames, the frames are kept and the facts ignored.”— “Don’t Think of An Elephant: Know Your Values and Frame the Debate,” 2004

Understanding this point is key to understanding politics. It’s Framing 101.

Ideas don’t just float in the air. They exist, physically, in the brain. These physical structures are called frames and they are created in the brain’s neural circuitry. The more certain ideas get activated in your brain, the stronger they become — physically.

FrameLab is a reader-supported publication. To receive new posts and support my work, consider becoming a free or paid subscriber.

Framing is literally the art of changing minds — that is, changing brains. But once certain issues have been framed in the brain, they can become impossible to change. This is especially the case with anything related to a person’s worldview, morality and identity.

Case in point: a certain twice-impeached former president currently facing multiple criminal indictments. As the New York Times reports, a multimillion dollar ad campaign to turn Trump supporters against Trump has failed to yield any positive results.

From the NYT:

A well-funded group of anti-Trump conservatives has sent its donors a remarkably candid memo that reveals how resilient former President Donald J. Trump has been against millions of dollars of negative ads the group deployed against him in two early-voting states.

The political action committee, called Win It Back, has close ties to the influential fiscally conservative group Club for Growth. It has already spent more than $4 million trying to lower Mr. Trump’s support among Republican voters in Iowa and nearly $2 million more trying to damage him in South Carolina.

Despite a concerted effort to find a message that could peel off Trump supporters, the group found that nothing works. “[A]ll attempts to undermine his conservative credentials on specific issues were ineffective,” said the group in a memo.

This was a noble but unfortunate waste of money that could have been averted with some cursory knowledge of cognitive science. Again: When the facts don’t fit the frames, the frames are kept and the fact is ignored or ridiculed.

We often hear the question: What’s a way to convince Trump supporters to stop supporting Trump? The answer is: There isn’t a way.

Sure, there may be a very slim percentage of his supporters who decide to stop supporting him for various reasons. For the most part, however, anyone still supporting Trump is locked into the position. (And attacking Trump only solidifies their support for him.)

This is because supporting Trump has become an important part of their identity and worldview. In order to turn against Trump, they would have to turn against their own selves. People tend to avoid doing this.

For these people, who compose the Republican Party’s base, Trump has become the prototypical Republican. He now best fits the new Republican frame, which has become overtly authoritarian.

Anti-Trump Republicans don’t fit the frame as well. They are seen as corrupt and weak traitors to the Trump cause. They do not support Trump because of ideas or his policies. Trumpism — an authoritarian cult based on his persona — IS both the idea and the policy for these people.

This is explains why the Republican base’s support for the disgraced former president has only increased in proportion with the number of indictments he faces.

One of the things cognitive science teaches us is that when people define their very identity by a worldview, or a narrative, or a mode of thought, they are unlikely to change-for the simple reason that it is physically part of their brain, and so many other aspects of their brain structure would also have to change; that change is highly unlikely. — “The Political Mind: A Cognitive Scientist’s Guide to Your Brain and Its Politics.”

Does this mean all is hopeless? No. Fortunately, saving American democracy from the threat of authoritarianism does not require us to do the impossible. We don’t need to change the minds of Trump’s supporters, the vast majority of whom are far beyond the reach of logic, persuasion or rationality. We don’t need pursue, as Hillary Clinton recently suggested, a “formal deprogramming.”

Instead, efforts must be focused on swing voters — biconceptuals — who may lean Republican but still believe American democracy is more important than Trump.

Deep down, these swing voters still can’t fit Trump into their moral framework. He violates every tenet of what it means to be a good, moral person — yet their conservative beliefs make it hard for them to embrace the Democratic candidate. These are the people with conservative beliefs who are potentially reachable — with messages framed from a moral perspective. And their votes may prove crucial in 2024.

Of course, Democrats must motivate their base and increase voter turnout, which is an important part of any campaign. But there’s no use in wasting money or effort trying to convert Trump cult members back to reality. Sadly, that’s generally not how brains work. It’s Framing 101.

More information:

blue and green peacock feather
Photo by Milad Fakurian on Unsplash

FrameLab is a reader-supported publication. To receive new posts and support my work, consider becoming a free or paid subscriber.

Great! You’ve successfully signed up.

Welcome back! You've successfully signed in.

You've successfully subscribed to George Lakoff and Gil Duran: FrameLab.

Success! Check your email for magic link to sign-in.

Success! Your billing info has been updated.

Your billing was not updated.