The study comes from Dartmouth’s Brendan Nyhan and Jason Riefler of the University of Exeter, who have been behind some of the most important work on the impact of corrections and fact-checking in recent years, as well as definite-article enthusiasts Ethan Porter of the George Washington University and Thomas J. Wood of the Ohio State University.
The quartet looked at a pair of claims that Trump made while he was the GOP nominee for president in 2016. In one case, during the Republican National Convention in Cleveland, he claimed that crime was up sharply, which was false. In another, during the first presidential debate, he insisted that Ohio and Michigan were hemorrhaging jobs, when in fact both states had unemployment levels below the national average.
Previous research from Nyhan and Riefler has found that corrections can sometimes actually have a “backfire effect”: When confronted with contrary information, ideologically motivated respondents sometimes simply dig in further on the initial, incorrect view of a fact. One might assume, then, that Trump supporters who were faced with Trump’s untruths would reject the correction. But that’s not what happened. They conceded the factual discrepancy, but continued to support Trump anyway.
“Though partisan loyalties are often inflamed during campaigns, corrections can still bring people’s beliefs more in line with the facts, even if they support the candidate being corrected or the correction is disparaged by a co-partisan,” the authors write.
As the authors note, the study is limited in scope, but it’s still a useful aid to thinking about Trump and his dissembling. The fact that he is able to “get away” with such frequent dishonesty has perplexed many observers. (“Getting away” is in the eye of the beholder; Trump’s presidency has encountered a variety of self-constructed obstacles.) Some uncharitable observers have attributed this to naive unsophistication among Trump voters brainwashed by media outlets and incapable of telling fact from fiction; other, more complex interpretations have situated Trump as an improbable apotheosis of the post-modern critique of empirical fact.
If this study is right, though, neither of those views is accurate. Trump supporters can assess the evidence, and they haven’t thrown out truth. It’s just not the operative factor in their choice.
The question is whether Trump is unusual in this regard. All politicians bend the truth sometimes. But some politicians build their careers on technocracy, detail, and competency. Take Hillary Clinton, for example, who presented herself not as a transformative leader but as a manager. Clinton’s defenders complained bitterly that she suffered while Trump got away with repeated untruths. Politifact’s files show that, in fact, Trump is unusually untruthful, with 69 percent of his ranked statements judged to be mostly false, false, or “pants on fire.” A full half of Clinton’s statements, in contrast, were rated true or mostly true.