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Why Trump’s rigged-election claim is likely to backfire

Republican U.S. presidential nominee Donald Trump listens as Democratic U.S. presidential nominee Hillary Clinton speaks during their third and final 2016 presidential campaign debate at UNLV in Las Vegas, Nevada, U.S., October 19, 2016.
Reuters
Republican U.S. presidential nominee Donald Trump listens as Democratic U.S. presidential nominee Hillary Clinton speaks during their third and final 2016 presidential campaign debate at UNLV in Las Vegas, Nevada, U.S., October 19, 2016.

The news cycle has been largely dominated by Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump's assertion that the election process is rigged against him.

Trump has repeatedly made this claim since mid-summer, and it was an important topic at the last presidential debate. But will this help his public standing or create ill-will? I've studied and written about excuses and blame, and we know a fair amount about when excuses work and when they will likely backfire.

Making excuses is part of human nature. People tend to care deeply about what others think of them, and excuses are a way of managing others' opinions.

The "rigged election" claim is a particular type of excuse called self-handicapping. Excuses are generally offered after a problem occurs. In contrast, self-handicaps are excuses offered before an event. The idea is that by shaping expectations, one will be held less accountable in the event that things go poorly. An example is a student telling her mother "Hey, don't expect me to do well on the test today. The teacher is terrible, he hasn't done a good job explaining the material." If the student does poorly on the test, she has deflected blame away from herself and on the teacher and hopefully mom won't be as angry because of the pre-emptive strike.

There is another potential benefit to self-handicapping. If one offers a self-handicap and succeeds in spite of the impediment, heroes are born. Think of the famous Michael Jordan flu game in the 1997 NBA finals. Everybody knew that Jordan was very ill and that the chances of a typical Jordan performance were slim because of his health. If he had a bad game, nobody would have changed their opinion of him because after all, he was really sick. But Jordan overcame his illness and had one of his most memorable games, scoring 38 points and cementing his legend.

Donald Trump's rigged-election claim is classic self-handicapping. However, it's important to note that successfully self-handicapping hinges on credibility and believability.

People will evaluate the sincerity of the person delivering the excuse and the plausibility of the excuse itself. People are uncomfortable when they believe that someone is trying to manipulate them. And, if someone has a pattern of making excuses rather than accepting responsibility, it is more difficult to believe the most recent explanation.

Think back to Trump's explanations for his performance in the earlier debates. He blamed his performance at the Sept. 26 debate in part on a bad microphone that was not noticed by anyone other than the candidate. The Oct. 9 debate included several complaints about biased moderators, including remarking that it was one on three.

The credibility of the messenger and the message, based in part on the frequency of the rigged-election claim and past excuses, should be concerns for the Trump camp in predicting public reaction to the rigged-election claims.

Many have grown weary of the tone of the campaign rhetoric, which will affect how voters interpret future remarks from both major-party candidates. Trump's core followers will no doubt accept the rigged election claim as gospel, believing that if he loses, it is because of an unfair process and therefore not Trump's fault. And if he wins, then he is a hero for overcoming the bias.

However, issues with the credibility and frequency of the claims, along with what some may interpret as their self-serving nature, will likely backfire with many voters. It doesn't appear that these remarks are designed to spur a change in the election process as much as to protect future reputation. Self-handicapping can be an effective impression-management strategy, but may also have unintended repercussions.

The rigged-election claim was intended to diminish personal blame if he loses the election. Instead, he likely will alienate more voters because they don't like being manipulated.


Commentary by J. Michael Crant is Professor of Management and Organization in the University of Notre Dame's Mendoza College of Business.

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