Donald Trump’s loyal voters share something with the jurors in the O.J. Simpson trial: a predisposition to ignore disturbing, hard facts while buying into a narrative that absolves their celebrity hero, acknowledges their own grievances and reinforces their perception of how the world works.
With lifetimes of negative experiences that made them suspicious of the Los Angeles Police Department, the African American jurors who formed the majority on the Simpson trial jury were inclined from the start to distrust cops and look kindly on the defendant who was such a shining example of success in their community. O.J.’s high-powered lawyers — a “dream team” that only a rich man could buy — knew the only path to an acquittal for their client would be to cast doubt, however preposterous, on every piece of damning evidence and spin for the jurors an alternative narrative they would eagerly choose to believe because of the predispositions they brought into the courtroom.
The concocted story that racist cops had planted evidence to frame a black superstar for the double homicide urged the jurors to strike a blow on behalf of all the African Americans who had suffered unfairly from racism and police brutality. The “not guilty” verdict was a stunning example of how human beings find a way to believe what they want to believe, despite compelling facts to the contrary — in this case, DNA evidence that left no reasonable doubt about who did the killings and a timeline that left no conceivable opportunity for the police to pull together a conspiracy.
O.J.’s “trial of the century” was so filled with outlandish personalities, bizarre events, weird twists and burning issues — racism, sexism, celebrity culture, media frenzy — that it took over television back in 1995. The presidential election campaign of 2016 has all those elements too. Unsurprisingly, it has also become a TV news obsession.
The two topics came together Tuesday night when Fox News personality Megyn Kelly talked with both Trump and Simpson’s attorney, Robert Shapiro, on her new interview show. Shapiro declined to tell Kelly whether “moral justice” was achieved by the jury’s verdict while Kelly’s much-hyped chat with Trump turned into a cozy counseling session aimed at ending the spat between the host and the candidate that began with Kelly’s tough questioning of Trump during the first Republican debate last summer. Meanwhile, over on MSNBC, veteran Republican operative Mike Murphy was explaining why he can never bring himself to vote for his party’s new standard bearer. Murphy called Trump “an ignoramus” with “a chimpanzee’s understanding of foreign policy.”
The judgments of media stars such as Kelly or political pros such as Murphy are just background noise to Trump loyalists though. Like the O.J. jury, Trump fans perceive the world through their own set of grievances. In the case of the O.J. jurors, it was the racist cop Mark Fuhrman, the LAPD and a pernicious history of discrimination that drove their decision. In the case of the Trump voters, it is dislike of Hillary Clinton, disdain of Barack Obama, mistrust of political elites, antipathy to illegal immigrants, fear of Muslims, disgust with political correctness and unease about an economy that has left working-class families out in the cold.
Those concerns override any expert’s assertion that Trump is disturbingly unsuited for the presidency. Their steadfastness does not really hinge on the facts about Trump. He is the avatar of their fears and resentments and that is all that matters.