Mendoza School of Business

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

Published: October 21, 2016 / Author: J. Michael Crant

J. Michael Crant

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.

Read the entire story on the CNBC website.