How the Terror Management Theory Helps Explain the Current Political Circus

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[sgmb id=”2″] One reason why the current presidential election campaigning has brought out the worst in American politics and journalism and focused extreme attention on the deficiencies of the nation’s justice and economic systems, is certainly due to the rise of the Tea Party, the 2007 recession, Congressional ineptitude and the reality that Americans now get the best government money can buy.

But there is also a little-known psychological theory that does a good job of explaining the rise of nationalism and American jingoism that is hard-wired into our individual cognitive abilities and intelligence. This process is common to all humans and is based on the looming and terrifying awareness that we will all die someday. 

Awareness of our mortality and physical limitations has led to conscious ability to contemplate our own deaths.  This terrifying and existential awareness is often too much for people to comprehend, so we have developed elaborate coping mechanisms to deal with the inevitability of death and the unanswerable questions dealing with an afterlife.  

Monkey from 2001

The Terror Management Theory (TMT) was developed by cultural anthropologist Ernest Becker to help explain issues dealing with what happens when our own self-awareness is confronted with the inevitability of our own mortality and vulnerabilities.  TMT develops unconsciously and works at a number of different psychological levels. However, in a society when the level of uncertainty and fear become very great, people tend to look for collective psychological protection by adhering to a shared cultural view of beliefs shared by individuals and groups.

With this as a backdrop to explaining the current scary political environment, TMT produces some outcomes that are especially relevant to the contemporary scene.

As quoted in The Other Side of Sadness, by George A. Bonanno, a professor of clinical psychology, these outcomes emerge in the “belief that individual rights are more important than any other ethical concern, or that our country and political system are better than any other country and political system.” 

Bonanno says people adopt these prejudiced beliefs since they provide meaning, value and order in an uncertain changing world.  This gives believers comfort since they are now part of a larger group that shares those same values.  Being part of a larger group or cultural system also fosters the belief that the values and beliefs of its members will live on long after they have passed away. 

Trump says: “Make America Great Again,” but his supporters hear: “Make Me Great Again”

In an interesting 2008 interview in Scientific American, Sheldon Solomon, a professor of psychology at Skidmore College, cited Max Weber’s study of charismatic leadership, that “proposed that in times of crisis, when fears of death are aroused, people are more likely to embrace leaders who provide psychological security by making their citizens feel like they are valued contributors to a great mission to eradicate evil.”

Trump Rally violenceSolomon also said when citizens are publicly reminded of their own deaths and vulnerability, they will more readily follow a leader who offers a clear direction, even it is for a confused cause.  This helps explain George Bush’s great popularity following the September 11 attacks on the World Trade Center when he said the U.S. was going on a “crusade” to “rid the world of evildoers.”

Of course, not all of these messages have to be articulated to members of the group, but being in a group produces a certain welcoming familiarity that allows its members to speak in a form of code.  When others see a car with a Trump bumper sticker, for instance, it conveys meaning to others that might share those same political beliefs. As simple as it seems, “this feeling, in turn, gives us a sense of being immortal.”

Make America Great Again = Make Me Great Again

An example of this projected good feeling comes directly from Trump’s signature campaign slogan.  The “Make America Great Again” is a pitch for nostalgia from some past decade (never specified) when America was “great,” according to Trump’s view of history.  But since the 1970’s, starting with the Ronald Reagan presidency, wages have begun to stagnate, public facilities began to be privatized, pensions were looted to fund corporate takeovers, and neo-liberalism began to erode the common space.

For many of Trump’s followers, this was the beginning of the slow decline of the middle class as new trade deals (NAFTA) exported good-paying manufacturing jobs, followed by the 2008 recession which wiped out trillions in home equity and destroyed the credit for millions of Americans.

Faced with this huge wealth loss, a stagnant job and wage market, many Americans, including many who became Trump followers, began to distrust the political and  corporate capitalist system.  And while it was largely not articulated, people began to look for something optimistic that would restore their wealth, future economic prospects and make them feel empowered.  In short, they wanted someone to make them feel good again about themselves and their futures.

This should have led many of these people to follow Bernie Sanders, who as a political outsider, has the best program for restoring jobs and reigning in the criminal behavior of Wall Street.  But Trump appealed to their basest instincts by saying immigrants had stolen their jobs, people in government were inept, American world dominance was threatened and that he had some as yet undisclosed plan to bring jobs (all non-union, low-paying and without benefits and Obamacare) back to the U.S.

The reality is that the old jobs will not return.  If they did, they would be highly automated and Trump’s blue collar followers would have to be retrained to repair and operate robots.  Gone forever are the old manufacturing jobs and union-influenced high wages that made it possible for a single wage earner to support a family that was common in the Fifties and Sixties.

This is why Trump’s slogan of “Make America Great Again” is heard by his followers as “Help Make Me Great Again,” a nostalgia that he can never fulfill.

TMT also posits that people who share these common beliefs also believe those same values are shared by others.  Of course, this is false assumption, known by psychologists as a “false consensus,” and it could be used to explain why there is violence at some political rallies when one group realizes that an opposing group is not part of their clan.

While this is only one aspect of a complex theory, TMT has not been mentioned in the political reporting surrounding the current presidential campaigning, but it should be cited as a deep, almost primordial product of our evolutionary consciousness and intelligence that is still spilling out into the streets today.

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