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The Brain-Based Truth of Donald Trump’s Social Dominance

Snowy Sunset

Although everyone is arguing with everyone else about everything—especially everything involving presidential politics, no one argues about whether Donald Trump can work a room, work up an audience, and dominate a news cycle. Love or hate him, Trump has a special talent.

But what is that talent? How can it be that despite clear evidence of Trump lying at unprecedented rates, despite the small blue wave that swept the House of Representatives this past November, and despite substantial evidence that his policies are not benefiting rural Americans, Trump’s approval ratings continue to hover at around 40%. Given his flirtation with the Russians, his legal problems with the Department of Justice and in the Southern District of New York, and his incessant outrageous and vulgar tweeting, why don’t his approval ratings dip even lower?

Perhaps even more puzzling is the apparent inability or unwillingness of previously powerful republicans to push back on Trump’s wanton disregard for family values and morality. Many of Trumps tweets are, at best, rated PG-13. The fact that Googling “bullshit” and “circle jerk” takes us to commentaries about Trump’s tweets is a testimony to his ubiquitous disrespect for whatever moral codes republicans have retreated behind.

Never mind the well-documented porn star payments, “shithole” references, and stories about bullets dipped in pig’s blood. Unless they’re still commenting on Obama, the Clintons, or other targets designed to distract from rational argument, the collective chorus of outrage among republican politicians is no louder than you’d expect from a band of Buddhists practicing mindful acceptance at a silent retreat.

Sure, Mitt Romney and a few others have occasionally (and carefully) expressed their sickened feelings. And although Bill Kristol and other #neverTrumpers have held forth—even purchasing political advertisings to counter Trump rhetoric—to date, no current republican office-holder has publicly confronted Trump and provided an alternative leadership narrative. What’s up with the formerly assertive republican leaders? Whether we’re watching blank looks from Chris Christie, John Kelly, or Rod Rosenstein, republican power brokers appear frightened, intimidated, and only a meek shadow of their former selves.

What’s the best explanation for Trump’s stable approval ratings and the continued shriveling of republican leadership? You might be inclined to consider favorable economic indicators, or the Fox News phenomenon, or some other rational explanation. But I’m leaning a different direction—toward a theory to explain the irrational.

Like all dangerous populist politicians, Trump is a master manipulator. He can bend minds like psychics bend spoons. Although many—including my father—refer to him as a run-of-the-mill con man, Trump is much more than that. Trump is no expert on the art of the deal; but he’s a wizard at the art of mass hypnosis.

Among others, two Canadian academics, Drs. Erik Woody and Henry Szechtman, have written about how mass hypnosis works. They say it involves the activation of a particular evolutionarily-important part of the brain. They’ve labeled this neural network in the brain as the “security motivation system.” Essentially, the security motivation system is an ancient part of the brain that scans for “hints, inklings, whiffs, and foreshadowings” of danger. The problem, as Woody and Szechtman put it, is that contemporary human brains are now connected to the internet, and the internet is filled with perpetual news, Facebook forwards, Russian bot activity, and political messages. Much of this instant information has hints and whiffs of danger and those hints and whiffs activate the security motivation system. The louder the call of dark, scary, danger, the more activated our collective security motivation systems become. And what do our collectively activated security motivational systems want? Action! Specifically, action leading to safety. All this can direct us to embrace politicians who offer big actions that will hypothetically protect us from danger. Woody and Szectman wrote: “. . . support for politicians promoting bold action [like building a big, impenetrable border wall] is itself an action . . . which may help” de-activate our heightened security motivation.

In contrast to Reagan’s message of the late 1970s and early 1980s, Trump’s message has been consistently about doom, gloom, and danger. His speech at the 2016 Republican National Convention was a bleak frightening portrait of America. But, in contrast to Trump’s portrait of America as under attack from Mexican rapists, Muslim terrorists, and international commerce, he simultaneously promised (and continues to promise) to make America great again with big, albeit unrealistic and unfounded, actions.

For a substantial minority of Americans, Trump is a charismatic speaker. He ramps up crowds to an emotional fever-pitch. He combines extremes. On the one hand, America is under attack from Mexicans, Muslims, and Democrats. On the other hand, he—and only he—can offer a future filled with beauty, safety, and financial success. As he speaks, he sometimes riffs like a hypnotist employing a specific hypnotic induction procedure called the “confusion technique.” When he employs this strategy, Trump’s words barely make sense. He offers a rhythmic narrative absent any real content. Take this example from the 2016 campaign trail:

You are going to be so proud of your country. Because we’re gonna turn it around, and we’re gonna start winning again! We’re gonna win so much! We’re going to win at every level. We’re going to win economically. We’re going to win with the economy. We’re gonna win with military. We’re gonna win with healthcare and for our veterans. We’re gonna win every single facet.

We’re gonna win so much, you may even get tired of winning. And you’ll say, “Please, please. It’s too much winning. We can’t take it anymore. Mr. President, it’s too much.” And I’ll say, “No, it isn’t!”

We have to keep winning. We have to win more! We’re gonna win more. We’re gonna win so much.

Ashley Feinberg of Gawker, described this verbal dispatch from Trump as: “His best Howard Dean impression if Howard Dean had been given a whole lot of cocaine and also a thesaurus with just the word “winning” followed by the word “winning” again in progressively larger fonts.” Not surprisingly, Woody and Szechtman described it differently, noting nuanced differences between the oral and written word:

Through repetition, this type of communication stays “on message,” almost to the point of caricature. More importantly, it presents no line of argument or supporting material whatever that would call for higher thought. Such communication, which can be effective in person, is similarly effective when replayed on media as video [or audio]. By contrast, it becomes ineffective in print, where its paucity of intellectual content is painfully obvious. (p. 14)

Most observers agree, Trump is best when on the stump. When it comes to governing or foreign policy or role-modeling moral behavior, Trump is less effective. On the stump Trump uses other hypnotic methods, beyond the previously mentioned confusion technique. He continually pounds away messages about current dissatisfaction, combined with an orientation to the future. Under him, future life will always be better, more beautiful, a Shangri-La for the masses. He uses the words “believe me” and “trust me” like a mantra. Even though nearly every rational person in the U.S. knows they should quickly run away whenever a salesperson (or con-man) says “trust me” Trump’s hypnotic reverie has weakened the rational mind to the point where the words believe me and trust me actually work. As Roger Cohen opined in the New York Times,

Tolstoy wrote of “epidemic suggestion” to describe those moments when humanity seems to be gripped by a mass hypnosis that no force can counter. . . . We find ourselves in such a moment.

But there is a countering force. There always has been. And there always will be.

Let’s go back to Woody and Szechtman, and their ideas about the brain’s security motivation system.

When activated, the security motivation system directs humans toward actions that enhance safety. When looking for safety, nearly always, humans follow their evolutionary noses. And where do their evolutionary noses point . . . toward the person with the most social dominance.

Think about it. Who can keep us safe? Then, think about Trump’s hulking figure looming in the background as Hillary Clinton speaks in one of the televised debates. Then, think of what he has (wealth and property) and think of what he offers in his hollow narratives (winning, beauty, and safety, so much winning).

Republican politicians are cowed like never before. They can’t match Trump’s verbal skills and hypnotic persona. They can’t match his wealth and connections. And republicans have historically been motivated by fear. Trump’s presence activates their security motivation systems. On their own, most White, male republicans fear immigration. On their own, most White, male republicans are drawn to wealth and power. For them, Trump stokes their fears and activates their security motivation system in a way that goes back to primitive human thinking: “Save yourself” . . . is the irresistible unconscious motive that weakens republicans. Open conflict with Trump is too dangerous. Alone, individual republicans don’t have the verbal or financial prowess to compete with Trump. So, they slink into the background and do what frightened people have done since the beginning of time—they follow a socially dominant and powerful leader.

The answer to the problem of Trump is simple, but not easy.

There are two roads to countering a socially dominant, hypnotically adept bully. Both roads necessarily include an alternative socially dominant discourse. How to get there? Republicans, if they can find their courage, might band together to push back against Trump. This would be risky. And the outcome is dicey.

The other road is to latch our trailer to an alternative socially dominant political figure. The hazard here is we could end up jumping from the socially dominant frying pan into the socially dominant fire. Consequently, we need to be very careful when selecting the socially forceful leader who can take on Trump and win. Perhaps of greatest importance, along with powerful messaging, to ensure safety of all Americans, our new leader needs to have two characteristics that Trump lacks and that make Trump dangerous. We need a leader who can be a team player (and not just deputize family members) and we need a leader who is able to experience and express compassion.

Methods for resisting and awakening from a hypnotic trance exist. They begin as all things begin, with awareness. Now is the time to wake up. Listen closely as I count backward from five to one. When I get to the number one, you’ll awaken, you’ll stretch, look around, and realize that finding an alternative socially dominant and yet compassionate leader is urgent.

5

4

3

2

1

You can wake up now. If you stay asleep, you face a greater danger. If you stay asleep, you may act in ways that are incompatible with your deep values. If you stay asleep, you may need forgiveness, because although you will act, you . . . will . . . know . . . not . . . what . . . you . . . do.