Political Fear Factor: Why Anger Wins At The Polls

Pictures of Angry Trump and Angry Hitler, Flickr with permission to use under Creative Commons.
Digital Painting of Trump by David Lacasse and "Hitler is back" by jRa7 Qatar, both from Flickr with permission to use under Creative Commons.

Why Is Everyone So Angry?

There’s one question which makes this election different from previous ones; why is everyone so angry? The answer to that is explained by neuroscience. A widespread fear of terrorism is gripping our nation, but we have been subjected to grave threats before. After Pearl Harbor came the Cold War era with the atomic bomb threat, but R. Douglas Fields, international authority on brain development, points out that today’s terror is coming to us personally. Maniacs with shotguns come blasting into our schools, shopping malls, and office buildings. This fear of a personal confrontation with a killer strikes deep within us. And this is where neuroscience comes in. Fields explained to the The Daily Beast:

“The circuitry for threat detection, fear, and violence is centered deep in the brain in what scientists call the hypothalamic attack area. Excluding mental illness or criminality, only a few specific provocations will trigger the rage circuit in our brain to launch us into violent action. The most obvious one: self-defense. The bombing of Pearl Harbor and the destruction of the World Trade Center provoked an immediate strong commitment of men and women to join the armed forces.”

Republican candidates, and one in particular, are tapping in to our brain’s limbic system, which can be described as the fear center:

“The word “kill” was said 53 times in the Dec. 15, 2015, Republican presidential primary debate. […] By contrast, the word “kill” was never used in the 1960 Nixon-Kennedy presidential debate, despite the era’s dire threat of global nuclear annihilation. The “K” word was not spoken by any of 2000’s Republican candidates—George W. Bush, Alan Keys, or John McCain—in their final debate on March 2 of that year; nor was it uttered in the Jan. 30, 2008, final GOP debate among candidates Huckabee, McCain, Ron Paul, and Mitt Romney.”


The Biological Reflex For Violent Aggression

Unfortunately, the biological reflex for violent aggression does not reside in the cerebral cortex, where consciousness arises. This is why people in dangerous situations snap, and only afterwards realize the consequences of their actions. It works the same way for heroic deeds, when someone is risking their life to save another in an emergency situation, only to understand later the danger they were in.

The GOP’s violent rhetoric is triggering something deep and dangerous in voters’ rage circuits, and neuroscience explains how they’re exploiting our primal fears. Fields states that out of nine triggers of rage, the arguments in the Republican debates and campaign ads press forcefully on eight of them, which explains all the talk of killing.

And we are extra vulnerable to exploitation at this time, according to Fields, because of prolonged stress since the 9/11 terror attacks. Chronic stress puts the brain on a heightened state of alert, in which we are much more likely to snap violently. It makes us override rational thought and unleash violence in response to slight provocations. The chronic stress we’ve suffered since the 9/11 terror attacks makes us jumpy and easy to manipulate.

Historic Exploitation Of Our Primal Fears

Historically, political leaders have often exploited the brain’s triggers of rage to incite the populace to engage in violence and war. A recent U.S. example is the former Republican Secretary of State, Colin Powell’s role, in persuading the United Nations to invade Iraq. The alleged reason was to eliminate weapons of mass destruction that posed an imminent threat to the United States. According to New York Times, he later felt terrible upon learning that he had been misled about the accuracy of facts on which he relied, but not regretting the war itself. And the manipulation worked, our hypothalamic attack areas were triggered, and mission accomplished. Some historians have even charged that President Franklin D. Roosevelt ignored the flotilla of Japanese warships steaming toward Pearl Harbor, so that their sneak attack would enrage the American public and incite a declaration of war, according to Fields.

Mobilizing forces to against a common enemy is strengthening the national spirit and can help making us feel in charge again, instead of feeling powerless in an insecure world. An additional way to unite people and keep them alert, is finding an enemy within. The most obvious and horrific sample of this is the 6 million Jews killed in World War II, along with homosexuals, Romanies and other groups of people deemed inferior by the Germans. Starting to see a connection to what’s happening today?

Donald Trump And The Fear Factor

Today’s recession, maniac shootings, surprise terrorist attacks, refugee situation and on top of all that, climate threats and dwindling natural resources, does make the world feel like a very insecure place. We’re longing for someone to take charge, protect us, and make us feel safe. We want a leader to make America great again!

Enters the scene; Donald Trump, a successful businessman, a go-getter, someone who doesn’t take no for an answer, who claims to say things the way they are, someone who has his own life under control, and who promises to do the same for us. .Trump will keep us safe by prohibiting Mexican rapists and criminals from entering the country, and, well, keep us safe from anything foreign by implying danger. US Magazine quoted Trump saying:

“People are flowing through the borders and we have no idea who they are, where they’re coming from. They’re not only coming from Mexico, they’re coming from all over South America and the world.”

The enemy is among us, keeping us in a heightened state of alert. Feeling the hypothalamic attack area calling? Field describes Trump supporters screaming “Light the motherfucker on fire!,” “Shoot him!,” and “Kick his ass!” at demonstrators at Trump rallies, and warns that urgent public calls for killing are as dangerous and irresponsible as screaming “fire” in a crowded movie theater.

Recently, the terror grip has tightened, because now Trump warns that the enemy isn’t just from foreign countries, enemies we can identify by their foreign passports or accents, but anyone of the Muslim faith, including U.S. citizens born and raised here. But don’t fret; Trump promises to protect us from terror by entering all U.S. Muslims into a giant database, so we can keep track of them. The obvious parallel to Nazi Germany hasn’t gone unnoticed, and NBC quoted Rabbi Jack Moline protesting that his father fought in World War II to preserve America from what the Nazi’s where doing. Even fellow Republican Jed Bush felt Trump had taken the fear factor too far and was quoted in the same article saying:

“You talk about internment, you talk about closing mosques, you talk about registering people. That’s just wrong. […] It’s not a question of toughness. It’s to manipulate people’s angst and their fears. That’s not strength, that’s weakness.”

Unfortunately, as previously noted, our reaction to fear does not reside in the cerebral cortex, where consciousness arises. If we stop to consider the facts, we would realize that in the 14 years since al Qaeda carried out attacks on New York and the Pentagon, extremists have killed 74 people in domestic terrorism in the United States, but the majority of those, 48 victims, were killed by non-Muslim extremists. As noted by New York Times; the biggest threat in domestic terrorism comes from internal anti-government extremists (74 percent).

Where Are We Heading?

The threats Americans feel, ignited by Trump rhetoric, are by no means solely a U.S. phenomena. Europe is facing the same problems on an even closer hand, with more refugees and a terrible economy (in the south). Extreme right wing parties, promising to close the boarders, or even revoke citizenships and send recent immigrants back to where they came from, to keep the native citizens safe, are rapidly attracting voters.

Who could have predicted that Germany, a country with one of the most successfully integrated Jewish population, would create The Holocaust? Who would have predicted Afghanistan, with such encouragement of women’s education and being part of the workforce, would revert to the opposite? Who would have expected half of Syria’s entire population would become refugees? Today, we are standing on the doorstep of closing mosques and registering Muslims. The Republican contenders say kill, kill, kill. Will we let our fear get the best of us and follow through? Or take a step back and look at the facts in their proper context. To end with a final plea from Fields:

“In acting together in public discourse or alone when we enter the voting booth, we should use the most astonishing bit of matter the Earth has ever known: the human cerebral cortex and not the limbic system.”

Featured Image is a composite of “Donald Trump – Angry Oompa Loompa” by David Lacasse via Flickr, available under a Creative Commons license and “Hitler is back” by jRa7 Qatar, via Flickr, available under a Creative Commons license.


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