Photo credit: Jason Blackeye

Piggybacking off Martin’s post from yesterday, I have to admit I was utterly perplexed by what the Republican Party is trying to accomplish by propping up Donald Trump during the COVID-19 crisis—especially now that the virus is starting to hit red states, something that the ghouls on Fox News still seem to think is unpossible.

But I think I’ve figured it out: it’s the sunk costs fallacy in action.

“The sunk cost effect is the general tendency for people to continue an endeavor, or continue consuming or pursuing an option, if they’ve invested time or money or some resource in it,” says Christopher Olivola, an assistant professor of marketing at Carnegie Mellon’s Tepper School of Business and the author of a new paper on the topic published in the journal Psychological Science. “That effect becomes a fallacy if it’s pushing you to do things that are making you unhappy or worse off.”

This idea often applies to money, but invested time, energy or pain can also influence behavior. “Romantic relationships are a classic one,” Olivola says. “The longer you’ve been together, the harder it is to break up.”

Sound familiar?

I wrote off the rotted brains on House Republicans a long time ago, but I always assumed that Senate Republicans had some grasp on self-preservation, if not reality. Already, this virus has sent several of them into self-quarantine (cutting McConnell’s vaunted majority down to size).

The economy—the only thing the GOP had to offer—is destroyed for the immediate and long term. Their president is likely to lose, and lose badly in November. He will probably have pretty long coattails when he does.

Not only that, Dr. Trump’s medical advice snake oil prescriptions are actually killing their own voters who are much less likely to believe coronavirus is a real threat.

As Martin wrote yesterday, “The only solution, and it’s glaringly obvious, is to remove Trump from office now and put our faith in Mike Pence to at least follow the direction of the experts he’s ostensibly organizing.”

Sane party leaders might look at the piles of dead bodies, the smoldering wreckage of the economy, and their own tenuous hold on power and say “let’s remove Trump before one of us dies, ride out the next few months with Pence, and just dump this mess in the Democrats’ lap.” They’ve already stacked the courts so high that any truly progressive legislation is likely to be stymied for years. Furthermore—as has been noted many times—the GOP does better as an opposition party, jeering from the sidelines instead of governing.

[I]t has now been more than twenty years since the Gingrich Revolution and the Republicans seem to be moving in the opposite direction in every respect. They just lost Speaker John Boehner and Minority Leader Eric Cantor because the simple act of trying to pass a budget and pay our bills on time was too unpopular with their base. Rather than becoming skilled legislators, they’re always on the brink of shutting down the government or causing a national default.
The Republicans have had tremendous success with what they know best, which is being a very good minority party. They can counter-message and use procedural tools in obnoxiously innovative ways to obstruct. They can simply refuse to even hold hearings for presidential nominees or insist that those positions don’t even need to be filled. They excel at this stuff, but they do not excel at legislating or doing oversight of the federal government and its agencies.

Why are they not making what seems to be a rational choice? Is it the sunk costs fallacy?

Olivola says it’s not totally clear why we feel so compelled to honor others’ investments about as much as we honor our own, even when they work against us. But people should try to overcome both versions of the sunk cost fallacy, he says.

“What’s done is done,” Olivola says. “There’s nothing you can do to regain money that’s lost — and pursuing something that makes you unhappy not only isn’t going to get your money back, but it’s also going to make you worse off. You’re just digging a deeper hole.”

I don’t know who said it first, but “the first step in solving a problem is recognizing there is one.” At some point—and hopefully it is sooner rather than later—Republicans need to admit they have a problem and cut their losses before they wind up dancing on a Viking funeral pyre.

It shouldn’t have to require the mass culling of their own base or watching one of their colleagues die from coronavirus—but that is what it will probably take.

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