An awful lot of ink has been spilled trying to understand the Trump, Carson, Cruz phenomena going on right now in the Republican primary. But there’s a reason why it all sounds pretty reminiscent of the same attempts 5-6 years ago to understand the development of the Tea Party. That’s because both are animated by the same group of people.
The question becomes, what spurred the breakout of this angry extremist activism on the right? I’m going to step back just a bit and look at our recent history to suggest that we’ve experienced some major trauma in this country over the last 15 years. And the reaction to that trauma has been particularly dysfunctional for a certain segment of the population.
As a prelude to all that, take a look at what Jessica Stern wrote in an article titled: How Terror Hardens Us.
As I have written elsewhere, the experimental psychologists Tom Pyszczynski, Sheldon Solomon and Jeff Greenberg are known for having developed what’s called terror management theory, which suggests that much of human behavior is motivated by an unconscious terror of death. What saves us from this terror is culture. Cultures provide ways to view the world that “solve” the existential crisis engendered by the awareness of death.
The theory says that when people are reminded of their mortality — especially if the reminder doesn’t register consciously, as happens after a brutal act of terror — they will more readily enforce their cultural worldviews. If our cultural worldview is xenophobic, nationalistic or moralistic, we are prone to become more so. Hundreds of experiments, all over the world, have confirmed these findings.
I would expand that “terror management theory” and suggest that any trauma leads us to enforce our own world views. In the last 15 years, we’ve experienced two traumatic events and one slowly developing change that causes trauma for people on the right.
The Death of Invulnerability
The attacks on 9/11 punctured America’s feeling of invulnerability. But instead of dealing with that, our leadership sought revenge and wound up invading a country that wasn’t involved. We became mired in an unnecessary war and saw our country basically abandon the Geneva Conventions in an attempt to justify the use of torture and the establishment of a prison at Guantanamo Bay. Not only did those things fail to address our sense of vulnerability, they made the whole situation in the Middle East worse…much worse. Those with a xenophobic nationalistic world view now find themselves in the ever-reinforcing feedback loop of calling for more actions that result in further trauma, which hardens their xenophobic nationalism.
The Death of the Dream
In 2008/09, the American economy suffered the greatest recession since the Great Depression in the 1930’s. People lost their livelihoods and their homes. But as Paul Krugman wrote in reaction to a study on the growing mortality of white people, they lost something on a much deeper level.
In a recent interview Mr. Deaton suggested that middle-aged whites have “lost the narrative of their lives.” That is, their economic setbacks have hit hard because they expected better. Or to put it a bit differently, we’re looking at people who were raised to believe in the American Dream, and are coping badly with its failure to come true.
Here is how John Blake described that from an interview with Tim Wise.
Wise says the recession hit blue-collar, white Americans hard, financially and psychologically.
Many white Americans have lived under the assumption that if they worked hard, they would be rewarded. Now more white Americans are sharing unemployment lines with “those people” — black and brown, Wise says.
“For the first time since the Great Depression, white Americans have been confronted with a level of economic insecurity that we’re not used to,” he says. “It’s not so new for black and brown folks, but for white folks, this is something we haven’t seen since the Depression.”
The Death of Normal
In the midst of all that, this country elected our first African American president…and then re-elected him. That is what led David Simon to declare the “death of normal.”
This election marks a moment in which the racial and social hierarchy of America is upended forever. No longer will it mean more politically to be a white male than to be anything else. Evolve, or don’t. Swallow your resentments, or don’t. But the votes are going to be counted, more of them with each election…
Regardless of what happens with his second term, Barack Obama’s great victory has already been won: We are all the other now, in some sense. Special interests? That term has no more meaning in the New America. We are all — all of us, every last American, even the whitest of white guys — special interests. And now, normal isn’t white or straight or Christian. There is no normal. That word, too, means less with every moment. And those who continue to argue for such retrograde notions as a political reality will become less germane and more ridiculous with every passing year.
Any one of these traumas might have led to more extremist views by those who are unprepared to deal with them. But together, they are taking a terrible toll on those who refuse to adapt to the reality in which we are currently living.
I don’t say any of this to excuse the people who are drilling down into extremism as a way to cope with trauma. We need merely to understand it as best we can in order to find ways to both challenge and mitigate the effects. The worst possible reaction to someone who is acting out as a result of trauma is to panic.