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Using Fear In Politics Isn't New...And Will Continue Using Fear In Politics Isn't New...And Will Continue
by George Cassidy Payne
2019-10-22 08:50:15
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The world certainly does not need one more psychoanalysis of Donald J. Trump. There have been plenty of those already and everyone already has their mind made up about who he is and what he stands for.

But sometimes an intellectual of such immense caliber as Supreme Court Associate Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg says something so misleading that it must be challenged. 

fear01_400Now don't get me wrong. I believe that Ginsburg is one of the towering figures of jurisprudence and an inimical civil rights icon. I care profoundly about her opinions. That is precisely why I feel compelled to respond to a statement that she made at a recent university talk. When asked what historians will see when they look back on this period in US history, she offered up a simple, two-word answer.

“An aberration.”

That is a very dangerous way of viewing Donald Trump. What's going on is clearly understood by looking at the psychology of the Trump supporter and the mind-set of a charismatic leader who knows how to manipulate those feelings. 

According to cognitive neurologist Dr. Bobby Azarian, "Science has unequivocally shown that the conservative brain has an exaggerated fear response when faced with stimuli that may be perceived as threatening. A 2008 study in the journal Science found that conservatives have a stronger physiological reaction to startling noises and graphic images compared to liberals. A brain-imaging study published in Current Biology revealed that those who lean right politically tend to have a larger amygdala — a structure that is electrically active during states of fear and anxiety. And a 2014 fMRI study found that it is possible to predict whether someone is a liberal or conservative simply by looking at their brain activity while they view threatening or disgusting images, such as mutilated bodies. Specifically, the brains of self-identified conservatives generated more activity overall in response to the disturbing images."

Furthermore, Azarian points out that "According to a recent study that monitored brain activity while participants watched 40 minutes of political ads and debate clips from the presidential candidates, Donald Trump is unique in his ability to keep the brain engaged. While Hillary Clinton could only hold attention for so long, Trump kept both attention and emotional arousal high throughout the viewing session. This pattern of activity was seen even when Trump made remarks that individuals didn’t necessarily agree with. His showmanship and simple messages clearly resonate at a visceral level."

To treat Donald Trump as an aberration is to dismiss the way that tens of millions of Americans think. Lest we forget that Trump was elected, to view his rise to power as an aberration is to pretend that there is not something elemental about fear and showmanship that attracts so many people to his policies or at least help them to look the other way when they do not agree with him. 

Azarian also observes that Terror Management Theory is at work: “The theory is based on the fact that humans have a unique awareness of their own mortality. The inevitability of one’s death creates existential terror and anxiety that is always residing below the surface. In order to manage this terror, humans adopt cultural worldviews — like religions, political ideologies, and national identities — that act as a buffer by instilling life with meaning and value." 

Essentially he is saying that "when people are reminded of their own mortality, which happens with fear-mongering, they will more strongly defend those who share their worldviews and national or ethnic identity and act out more aggressively towards those who do not."

With all due respect to Supreme Justice Ginsburg, this is not what I would call an aberration. What we are dealing with is deep-seated, deep-rooted, and deeply entrenched psychological conditions; the very ones that enabled Donald Trump to ascend to power in the first place, and the ones which continue to prevail in so many sectors of society today. Calling what is happing an aberration neither deals with the symptoms of the illness nor prescribes any helpful remedy; all it does is pass the problem off as a cureless illusion that will soon fade away with time.

But if Azarian is right, as long as this nation is dominated by fear, terror, and a need for saviour figures, Trump's legacy will breed an ever replenishing class of demagogues. Hardly what I would call an aberration. 


George Cassidy Payne is a SUNY Adjunct Professor of Philosophy and a social worker. He lives in Rochester, NY. 

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