Death and the Donald

This was published on Huffington Post.


Death and The Donald


“Washer-Dryer Taken; Man Suspects ISIS.”


That was one of the headlines on the front page of the Times Argus about a month ago. The headline would be funny if it weren’t so sad. It demonstrates the increasing depth of paranoia in the minds of some Vermonters. Now Donald Trump is coming to Burlington on Thursday to fulminate his paranoid fantasies, and lots of angry white people will be going to listen to him.


Many years ago, the great Richard Hofstadter demonstrated in a famous article called “The Paranoid Style in American Politics,” that paranoia is part of America’s cultural DNA. His observations still hold true. Currently that fearful streak, particularly on the right, seems to be widening into something even more malevolent than the old Red Scare stuff of the 1950s and 60’s.


I recently asked a Trump supporter “What are you so afraid of?” His list of answers ranged from the general (government; climate scientists; “feminazis”; immigrants; the media) to the small and specific (his black neighbor, the lady in the hijab on the bus). But naming all of these various targets of fear doesn’t get at the deepest heart of his darkness. He’s afraid of something much more threatening that he doesn’t want to talk about.


Fundamentally, he’s afraid of death. That’s simply human, no politics about it. But neuroscience has shown that conservatives tend to be more fear-driven and more stimulated by death anxiety overall. And in America, conservatives spend a whole lot of time worrying about both literal death by the hands of other people (terrorists, bad guys with guns), and symbolic death (the end of their privileged way of life).


I began to better understand the connection between the deep-rooted fear of death and the paranoid streak in American politics by working on a book three social psychologists (Sheldon Solomon, Jeff Greenberg and Tom Pyszczynski). In their book The Worm at the Core: The Role of Death in Life, they explain that because we human beings are the only creatures on earth that know for sure that we’re going to die, we have to rely on two basic psychological defenses: 1) we shore up our personal self-esteem by doing thing that make us feel more important (say, buying fancy cars and a bunch of guns) and 2) we adhere to our cultural worldviews (cleaving to our political party, organized religion and other entities that we believe will endure after we die).


In one experiment, the authors asked subjects to consider three different types of leaders – specifically, a “charismatic” leader who forcefully says, “You are a part of a special nation!”; a “task-oriented” leader who unambiguously promises to fix your specific problems; and a “relationship-oriented” leader who wants you to be part of movement. The participants had to choose the statement with which they most identified. Before being reminded of death, only 4 out of 95 chose the charismatic leader’s statement. But afterwards, there was an 800% increase in favor of the charismatic leader’s.

All of this this goes a long way toward explaining the appeal of right-wing extremists like Donald Trump. We’re reminded of our morality every time we read, watch or listen to the news, and our terrors get reinforced by right-wing pundits who use fear to their advantage. The Nazis were fond of this hat-trick: keep people afraid, and you have them in your power. “All you have to do is to tell them they are being attacked,” said Hermann Goering at the Nuremburg trials, “and denounce the pacificists for lack of patriotism, and exposing the country to greater danger.” Trump (who has reportedly enjoyed reading Hitler’s speeches) is using the same kind of demagoguery that Goering did.


So it’s no surprise that people are attracted to charismatic goons like Trump who promise psychological security and promise to eradicate “evil.” He and other right-wing leaders have always understood that fear, defensiveness, and perception of being persecuted are exquisitely potent political tools.


Meanwhile, Americans are surrounded by death reminders, thanks to sensationalist, “if it bleeds, it leads” media. Stressed-out people don’t understand how politicians use mortal terror, or what to do with the anxiety they feeling after watching death play out day after day on TV screens. That anxiety has to go somewhere, and people express it in all kinds of ways. If they’re relatively psychologically healthy, they can shake it off with sports or exercise, and gather with friends to talk and comfort one another. If they’re not, they might grab a gun and shoot someone, and in so doing both shore up their personal self esteem and demonstrate their allegiance to their cultural worldviews.


Is there a better way to deal with all this anxiety? I’m not a psychologist, but I’d say that first, we have to name it. If I’m in a conversation with my right-wing uncle, I might ask, with compassion, “What are you really afraid of?” and invite him put down his gun and spill his guts. And maybe, maybe, by showing some love, he might open up. Maybe he could understand how living in fear is not serving him or anyone else, and that there is more to life than paranoia. He might disagree and want to lash out, but the conversation might help to lower his psychological temperature.




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