THE BLOG
12/09/2015 10:20 am ET Updated Dec 09, 2016

Death and The Donald

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"Washer-Dryer Taken; Man Suspects ISIS".

That was one of the recent headlines in our small local paper in Montpelier, Vermont. The headline would be funny if it weren't so sad. It demonstrates the increasing depth of paranoia in the minds of some people -- even here, in the capitol of the dark-blue state Bernie Sanders calls home.

Many years ago, the historian Richard Hofstadter demonstrated 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 60s.

So, let's say you sit down with your Fox News-addicted uncle over a holiday dinner and ask him "What are you so afraid of?" His list of answers might range from the general (government; climate scientists; "feminazis"; immigrants; Muslims; the media) to the small and specific (the liberal New York Times-reading neighbor; the Mexican gardener; the lady in the hajib). 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, your uncle - like all of us -- is 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 from 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 things 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).

The authors show how even the most neutral of people became more conservative and harsher when reminded of their own mortality. For example, a group of court judges was asked to complete a questionnaire about how they felt about their own deaths, right before deciding on a sentence for a fictional prostitute. They punished the woman many times more strongly than they would usually have done.

In other experiments, 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 percent 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 and his ilk. 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 and politicians 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 to eradicate perceived "evil." He and other right-wing leaders have always understood that fear, defensiveness, and perception of being persecuted are exquisitely potent political tools.

Meanwhile, back at the ranch, Americans are constantly surrounded by death reminders, thanks to sensationalist, "if it bleeds, it leads" media. Stressed-out people don't understand how politicians deploy mortal terror to their own advantage, or what to do with the anxiety they feel 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.

It's really no wonder that some paranoid people with twitchy trigger fingers want to take out anything that threatens their self-esteem. In Biloxi, Mississipi, a guy shot a waitress in the head when she asked him not to smoke in the restaurant. In New Mexico, a four-year old was killed in a road-rage incident when a driver fired into another car. In 2015, we've already seen more mass shootings in the U.S. than there are days so far the year. The response? People cowering in fear go out and buy more guns, abetted by the NRA and right-wing media, in a vicious cycle of violence. The day after Thanksgiving, Black Friday, was a huge day for gun sales - up 15% over last year. Over at the NRA, Wayne LaPierre must be giggling with delight while he writes out another fat check to Mitch McConnell.

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 a bit.