The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Why do smart Republicans say stupid things?

Virginia “Ginni” Thomas, wife of Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas, at the 2017 Conservative Political Action Conference. (Susan Walsh/AP)
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The Ginni Thomas text messages revive a question that has been nagging me since the dawn of the Trump era: What makes smart people say truly stupid things?

Thomas, wife of the longest-serving current Supreme Court justice, is no dope. She has a law degree, worked for House Majority Leader Dick Armey, served as the Heritage Foundation’s liaison to the George W. Bush White House and became an entrepreneur in right-wing advocacy. Yet in text messages to the White House chief of staff, she told him to “release the Kraken,” echoed a bonkers QAnon canard about ballot watermarks, and asserted the lunacy that “Biden crime family & ballot fraud co-conspirators” were being arrested “& will be living in barges off GITMO to face military tribunals for sedition.”

Surely a well-informed, well-educated person such as Thomas couldn’t actually believe the nutty ideas her thumbs texted?

But here’s the truly crazy thing: She probably does. Recent advances in cognitive science suggest that highly intelligent people are more susceptible to “identity-protective cognition,” an unconscious process in which they use their intellect to justify rejecting facts inconsistent with their partisan identity.

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“The really upsetting finding is that the better you are at particular types of cognitive tests … the better you are at manipulating the facts to reflect your prior beliefs, the more able you are to cognitively shape the world so it fits with your values,” says David Hoffman, a University of Pennsylvania law professor who studies cultural cognition. “You are able to take whatever unambiguous facts that exist in the world and run them through your own sausage-making mill to make it fit what you want.”

We all slip into such “motivated reasoning” to some degree, but it has been a particular problem on the right in recent years, where a combination of the Fox News effect and the weaponization of disinformation by Republican leaders has left a large chunk of the population disbelieving the effectiveness of coronavirus vaccines and the reality of climate change but thinking that former president Barack Obama was born in Kenya and the 2020 election was stolen.

I had long assumed that Republican elites were opportunistically supporting beliefs they knew to be false because it furthered their personal ambitions or partisan advantage. I assumed Patrick Philbin, whom I knew as a member of the center-right “Tory Party” at Yale in the 1980s, didn’t really believe his cockamamie defenses of Trump during his first impeachment. I assumed Princeton’s Ted Cruz, whom I met as a nakedly ambitious staffer on the Bush campaign in 2000, became an extremist out of political expediency, not heartfelt belief.

But another conservative I knew at Yale, Jonathan Adler, now a Case Western law professor, pointed me to a more disturbing explanation. “I know a distressing number of people whom I used to consider ideological allies who have convinced themselves to burrow deeper and deeper into conspiratorial rabbit holes or have found ways to rationalize the abandonment of conservative principles,” says Adler, who hasn’t joined them in the fever swamps.

They aren’t just deceiving others; they’re deceiving themselves.

A highly regarded study by Yale Law School’s Dan Kahan and others explains how this happened. It tested people with math problems related to the effectiveness of gun bans in reducing crime. Those with higher numeracy skills were more likely to reach the correct answer — but only if it was “congenial to the subjects’ political outlooks.” They were, in other words, using their intellects selectively, skipping the calculation when it appeared the answer would contradict their “cultural affiliation,” explained Paul Slovic, a University of Oregon psychology professor who worked on the study.

Humans probably have always had this tendency. What’s exacerbating it now is hardening political attitudes, social media and outlets such as Fox News that keep people immersed in their partisan identity full time, filtering out contrary facts. “You can reject virtually any kind of evidence if you work hard enough at it,” explains Kathleen Hall Jamieson, a University of Pennsylvania communications professor. “Highly intelligent people whose core identity is a partisan identity will parse the world and the evidence in it through that identity.”

This is what happened years ago when Vice President Dick Cheney created a “partisan cultural commitment” supporting torture of terrorism detainees, Case Western law professor Cassandra Robertson argues. Highly credentialed lawyers in the George W. Bush administration filtered out the overwhelming legal consensus in drafting the infamous “torture memos.”

Fifteen years later, President Donald Trump successfully created a Republican “cultural commitment” to overturn the election. Trump’s lawyers lost some 60 court cases in which they attempted to prove election fraud, but Ginni Thomas, like so many others who should have known better, used her prodigious intellect to disregard that mountain of contrary evidence.

Release the Kraken, she said. But the monster of intellectual corruption had already consumed her.