Fear is a primary human motivator. It is a vitally important emotion that keeps creatures alive; our species is no exception. Fear gets our attention, and terrorists know this. An act of violence or the threat of violence always gets a response, and the act itself is rarely ignored. Most often it is a fight, fright, or freeze response, and not always predictable. For example, the bombing of Hanoi during the Vietnam War, meant to weaken North Vietnamese resolve, may have had the opposite effect. The Trump administration’s intent to frighten refugees and immigrants crossing the southern border by separating them from their children may also have an unintended consequence.
In the case of the recent incident involving pipe bombs (or non-functional bombs – the intent to cause actual harm is uncertain) sent to various Democrat politicians and Trump critics, the perpetrator probably intended fear as a response. Luckily no one was injured when none of the bombs exploded. It may have been attempted murder. The intent may also have been to frighten the targets into silence. It may have been to show Trump opposition that resistance is futile. It may have been intended to frighten voters to stay home on Election Day, suppressing voter turnout more than it has already been suppressed by various states. It obviously was not, as right wing pundits and crazies have attested, to have been a “false flag” conspiracy perpetrated by Democrats. Whatever the actual intent, the act grabbed attention, and the nation responded. No one except a radical terrorist wants to be blown up, and everyone is filled with fear in the moment of that initial announcement about the bombs.
The recent shootings at the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh and the Kroger Supermarket in Jeffersontown, Kentucky are being investigated as hate crimes. In each case the shooter appears to have been motivated by bigotry; the murders are also fear producing, whether that was their intent or not.
Fearmongering is a more subtle variation of the same tactic. “Fearmongering or scaremongering is the spreading of frightening and exaggerated rumors of an impending danger or the habit or tactic of purposely and needlessly arousing public fear about an issue.” (Wikipedia) Fearmongering plays on people’s imaginations leaving them with residual death anxiety that produces a response, again not always the intended one, but a verifiable reaction to the words of the speaker. Donald Trump’s incessant diatribe about the so-called caravan and ginned up invasion by immigrant criminals is classic fearmongering.
In each case, whether an actual killing, the threat of killing, or exaggerated warnings of danger, the fear within the community or society as a whole eventually subsides, and what remains is anxiety that sometimes expresses itself as anger, and frustration.
Terror management theory (TMT) is a social psychology theory developed by Jeff Greenberg, Sheldon Solomon, and Tom Pyszczynski and explained in their books The Worm at the Core: On the Role of Death in Life and In the Wake of 9/11: The Psychology of Terror. The Terror Management Theorists are a group of social scientists who have studied the effects of death awareness in thousands of studies around the world. They have determined that when reminded of one’s inevitable death, and given a few moments for the initial emotional response to pass, the subject’s unconscious mind enters a state the researchers call “mortality salience.” I argue that our nation has experienced and continues to experience a state of mortality salience following the shootings, bomb threats, and daily fearmongering from the president.
TMT proposes that mortality salience causes existential anxiety that may be buffered by an individual’s cultural worldview and/or sense of self-esteem. Mortality salience manipulation is usually performed in laboratory experiments, but is most likely the intended result of fearmongering and terrorist acts. Arousing people’s existential fears by deliberately invoking threats, real or imagined, can yield desired outcomes. The latent fear response increases an individual’s need for symbolic defenses against death anxiety often contained in defense of one’s self-esteem and cultural worldview.
Terror Management research has shown that mortality salience results in preferences for the traditions of one’s culture, e.g., symbols for American values like the flag, the anthem, and the pledge of allegiance. For example, immediately after 9/11 America was gripped in an outpouring of patriotic displays such as displays of the flag at every turn and singing “God Bless America” at baseball games – a custom we still maintain. Mortality salience does not always, however, trigger predictable responses, because it tends to heighten pre-existing beliefs and attitudes. For example, reactions to Muslims after 9/11 were mixed. People who subscribed to the American tradition of tolerance expressed more tolerance for Muslim Americans after 9/11, while people who harbored common intolerance became more intolerant.
Studies have also shown that mortality salience increases the appeal for charismatic leaders and incumbent politicians. Studies conducted during the elections of 2004 and 2016 both showed that control groups favored the Democrat candidates, and mortality salient groups preferred the Republican candidates. According to Tom Ridge, former Homeland Security secretary, the Bush administration’s raising the nation’s terror alert level days before the 2004 election was designed to boost support for President Bush. One can argue this was manipulation of mortality salience for political purposes.
Mortality salience can also be engendered through a phenomenon called death thought accessibility (DTA). Various reminders of death threatening situations, imagined threats, or mortality-related concerns such as immigrants moving next door, or a mosque being built in one’s neighborhood post-9/11 are instances of DTA. Examples of defenses of one’s self-esteem and worldview, which can be defenses against death anxiety, include nationalism, increased prejudice, and risky sexual behavior.
Other DTA effects that can affect individuals and groups include increased prejudice against minorities by members of the majority, negative reactions to challengers of their worldview, negative reactions to critics of their iconic leader, and rejection of negative reports against their leader, political party, and affiliations. Going beyond the science for a moment, I speculate that if nationalism is a result of DTA, as is attraction to iconic leadership, then a charismatic leader espousing to be a nationalist would reinforce the effect. Donald Trump continues to consciously or unconsciously manipulate fear, mortality salience, and death thought accessibility with references to a border crisis and keeping America safe. At the same time, anyone criticizing Donald Trump’s description of himself as a nationalist may produce a feedback loop of resentment, anxiety, increased nationalism, and increased support for Mr. Trump.
Self-esteem has been shown to be a vitally important defense against death anxiety. If I voted for Trump and can’t admit to being wrong about him without damaging my self-esteem, I may tend to “double down” on my initial support, despite Mr. Trump’s ceaseless lies and obvious personality issues.
Similarly, if I opposed Mr. Trump, I might find it difficult to admit that his call for unity was presidential and the right thing to do without damaging my self-esteem. We saw this as pundits on cable news rushed to point out that Trump’s statements didn’t go far enough, and that he hasn’t called all of the intended mail bomb victims on the phone to wish them well. Former CIA director John Brennan said Trump should look in the mirror. Perhaps we all should.
The country is woefully divided as this rant from a pro-Trump organization exemplifies:
“Democrats are so enraged at Trump reversing their march to transform America into their socialist dictatorship that they are slandering him as a racist, the Republican Party as Nazis, and Christians as the evil in the world. . . . Democrats could go beyond Antifa riots and BLM assassinations to usurp the presidency and initiate open warfare against the American republic once again. This time it will be the Democrats of the North and the West Coast that will wage war on the southern and western Republican states that refuse to submit to their rule.”[i]
Is this a reaction to real or imagined threats, or an attempt to create fear? Either way, the idea of open warfare is very disturbing.
Democrat politicians and pundits on cable TV have charged that Trump’s rhetoric directly or indirectly radicalized suspects Cesar Sayoc, Gregory Bush, and Robert Bowers, leading to the bomb attempts and shootings. The responses by the president, Republican politicians and spokespeople, as well as the conservative media have been to deny the possibility. They denounce all accusations of Trump culpability. One could argue that the criticism of Trump plays into his hands by getting his supporters, who are in a state of mortality salience, more engaged and defensive of their cultural worldview and self-esteem buffers.
Human beings live by stories, myths of right and wrong, of heroes and villains, not facts and data. We are rational when we need to be, but non-rational most of the time. Our fears are easily aroused and manipulated. Most leaders know this and recognize the danger in playing this card too often. A frightened populace is less easy to control and govern. Bombings, shootings, and violent backlashes can be the result. An ignorant self-absorbed leader like Mr. Trump may not know or care about outcomes beyond his personal approval ratings and political power.
The other response to mortality salience is rejection of “the Other.” There is a deeply rooted xenophobic fear among white Americans of the “browning of America.” The change in demographics, and shift in political power, is a trend that unnerves traditional white America. There are presently 190 million white vs 140 million brown Americans. For the first time since 1790 the Census Bureau annual statistics show an absolute decline in the nation’s white non-Hispanic population. There were 9,000 fewer whites in 2015-2016, and 31,000 fewer whites in 2016-2017. The latest data show that for the first time there are more children, age zero to nine, who are minorities than who are white. This means we are on the cusp of seeing the first minority white generation born in 2007.[ii]
The aging and decline of the white majority, along with population growth among young minorities, results in anxiety for Americans with a white supremacy worldview in a period of economic uncertainty.
We are possibly in a rightwing revolution that is obscured by Donald Trump’s personality disorder and erratic behavior. Take Trump out of the equation and you have a nation severely, dangerously divided by class, race, geography, and tribal loyalty, suffering from skyrocketing economic inequality. The economic collapse in 2008 was a tipping point, and the response by the Obama administration, which improved the overall economy, did little or nothing for the heartland tribe. The response has been fear. Looking for relief, millions of Americans have embraced destructive explanations that now threaten the nation, and minuscule improvements in the economy as a promise for a better future.
Trump gave the homeland tribe a reason to stay the course and not revolt against a corrupt, broken economic-political system. Trump gave them hope, possibly false hope, but an essential component to living nonetheless. Attacking that hope, albeit with good intentions, can produce more unintended consequences. Manipulating mortality salience while playing to the lowest common denominator has stirred up fears and the worst inclinations we all share, like racism, xenophobia, and antipathy to opposing groups. In this way Trump instinctively stumbled or purposely drove into a way to seize and maintain power, but has opened a Pandora’s Box of the darkest of human tendencies that mortality salience arouses. Malignant Narcissist that he is, Trump simultaneously manipulates and exploits the deepening divisions within the country for his own political and economic benefit. The fear that the recent incidents and Trump rhetoric have produced may be taking us as a nation into darker and darker places as our divisions widen.
Trump is a self-absorbed game show host con man who brilliantly bamboozled his way into power. But what does that say about our system of government? The election of Trump is not only about his nonsense. It is not about 63 million Americans all being idiots. Most of them know Trump is an ass; they are not deaf, dumb, and blind. They voted out of fear, pain, and desperation that five presidents in a row, both Democrat and Republican, had not addressed or attempted to fix. The Trump voters rejected more of the same, who happened to be Hilary Clinton, and chose a bizarre outlier. That’s the real story, one that Democrats fail to share responsibility for. This is a revolution, not a fluke.
Our plutocratic system is broken. The result might be violence on a scale we haven’t seen in our lifetimes. It is up to reasonable people to try to make sense of it all. We as responsible, concerned citizens have to find a way out of this mess that includes reforming the economic-political system. We also need to focus on the issues, like decades of growing economic inequality that have brought us to this point.
At the same time, let’s keep in mind the fear and pain that is underneath Trump’s support. We can’t ignore Trump’s lies and personal flaws, or the destructive policies he and the Congress have enacted. But random Trump bashing, in my opinion, is not the way out. Finding common ground with his supporters may be. We need to focus on the frustration of our fellow Americans who elected and continue to support the president. Confronting our own fears and the fears of the others is one possible solution. The president has called for unity. We can’t be naïve about this boilerplate teleprompter speech, but why not take him up on it in a genuine, non-cynical attempt to unite the country in a time of crisis?
At the same time, the only real solution is at the ballot box. Impeaching Trump will probably backfire. Impeaching him and removing him from office will make him a martyr and his name, a battle cry. Impeaching him and failing to remove him will raise him up as a hero who defied the deep state and corrupt establishment. Left wing violence and calls for violence worsen the situation. The best short term solution is voting Trump’s Republican congressional support out of office on Nov. 6 and then voting out his administration in two years. Assuming he will not challenge these losses as hoaxes and fake news, his supporters will have to accept the results, and hopefully return to sanity. But the loyal opposition has to address the real problem of growing economic inequality or we will only exacerbate the nation’s division.
While everyone needs to call on Mr. Trump to stop lying and tone down the rhetoric, we must continue to look for a way out that won’t bring on a civil war.
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Stephen James is a member of The Writers Collective. He is the award winning author of American Stew: Hope in a Toxic Culture, is the president of Contemporary Heroism Initiative, Executive Director of the Humanist Society of Metropolitan New York, and is a member of the Ernest Becker Foundation and the New York Society for Ethical Culture. He is a producer of communications media in the New York area.
[ii] Brookings Institute, “US white population declines and Generation ‘Z-Plus’ is minority white, census shows,” https://www.brookings.edu/blog/the-avenue/2018/06/21/us-white-population-declines-and-generation-z-plus-is-minority-white-census-shows/?gclid=Cj0KCQjwguDeBRDCARIsAGxuU8bepb3xDOycJ84ej-ua-W-uNuqkarbfCuAfcgqOLTsh2oE3gf7GdvgaAowkEALw_wcB