Trump found guilty in hush money trial, but will it hurt him in the polls? Here’s why voters often overlook the ethical failings of politicians


The jury in Donald Trump’s hush-money payments trial has found the former U.S. president guilty of falsifying business records in relation to payments made to adult film star Stormy Daniels. The guilty verdict marks the first felony conviction of a U.S. president.

Speaking to reporters after the verdict, Trump called the trial a “rigged decision, right from Day 1.” He is likely to appeal the verdict.

Trump had been facing 34 felony charges stemming from his conduct in the lead up to the 2016 United States presidential election. He faces three other criminal indictments that won’t likely go to trial before this year’s election. And in 2023, he was found liable for sexual abuse in a civil suit involving writer E. Jean Carroll.

Despite these legal troubles, many Republicans still support Trump and would vote for him as president, even while acknowledging Trump’s faults outside public office or the courtroom. In fact, 56 per cent of Republicans say Trump’s sexual misconduct should not disqualify him

Moral decoupling

Republicans typically offer various reasons for supporting Trump, even while recognizing his sexual harassment against women. For example, some suggest that Trump is the victim of a political witch-hunt, while others claim Trump’s current many trials and charges are a form of election interference.

Why do many Americans continue to support Trump? And are there psychological reasons that explain why people remain supportive of politicians despite their moral or political failings?

Moral decoupling” is a cognitive process that can explain why some people continue to support leaders in politics, media and sports even when they believe these leaders have significant moral failings outside of their professional vocation.

Moral decoupling is the ability to separate one’s judgments of a person’s moral character from their judgments of that person’s performance or abilities in the public office. In simpler terms, it’s the mental process of saying, “I don’t agree with their actions, but I still think they’re effective at their job.”

Moral decoupling can explain why, for example, Woody Allen continues to have a dedicated fan base and receives support within the film industry despite facing allegations of sexual misconduct. Many fans and professionals separate their appreciation for Allen’s movies, such as Annie Hall and Midnight in Paris, from his personal controversies, allowing them to continue supporting and valuing his work while disregarding the allegations against him.

There is some reason to believe that conservatives might be more likely to morally decouple than liberals. People who identify as conservatives tend to think in more narrow terms. That is, conservatives tend to focus on particular issues, seeing them as separate from others and see them as distinct from other issues, not being representative of “who” the person is. Separating issues fulfills a psychological need to see the world in a more clear-cut and orderly manner.

Meanwhile, liberals tend to look at “the big picture.” This explains why, for example, conservatives support politicians like Ron DeSantis who focuses on specific policies like education and handling of COVID-19, while more liberal people support politicians like Bernie Sanders who strive for systematic change.

Implications for the future of democratic politics

Moral decoupling poses challenges for the future of democratic politics. As voters increasingly separate their judgments of personal morality from political leaders’ effectiveness in office, this trend could normalize misconduct from public officials.

Electors may increasingly justify such misconduct by elected officials, with supporters focusing on the candidate’s stance of a particular issue rather than their ethical values or fitness to hold office. It also reduces the need to hold public officials to be accountable not just to their office but to the public they serve. Indeed, effective political leaders are ethical leaders.

To address these challenges, it is crucial for members in all societies to foster a political culture that values both effectiveness as well as ethical conduct. Encouraging transparency, accountability, and open dialogue about the moral implications of political actions can help mitigate the negative effects of moral decoupling. Given the cognitive bases for moral decoupling, one way is to promote a more holistic approach to evaluating political leaders, thereby voters can ensure that ethical considerations remain an integral part of the democratic process.

While moral decoupling helps explain why voters continue to support leaders despite their moral failings, it also highlights the need for a balanced approach to political judgment. As democracies evolve, it is essential to recognize the complexities of moral decoupling and work towards a political environment where both ethical integrity and effective leadership are equally valued.

Author Bios: Eugene Y. Chan is Associate Professor of Marketing at the Toronto Metropolitan University and Ali Gohary is a Lecturer (Assistant Professor Equivalent) of Marketing at La Trobe University