As Americans head for the polls to decide whether rampant Trumpism will at least be somewhat contained, we should probably acknowledge the real significance of the votes Americans will cast tomorrow.
We love to proclaim that America “is number one!” We love to believe that we have a democratic system–that whether you label it a republic or a democracy, it is an exercise in self-government. If we are honest, however, and at all informed, we have to admit that such an assertion has become dangerously close to a lie.
The United States, by many measures, appears to be a sick society. It has one of the highest rates of wealth and income inequality in the world. Despite being one of the richest countries on the planet it has some of the highest rates of infant mortality. Poverty among the elderly is also increasing. As a whole, the country’s health care system is inadequate; life expectancy is declining. The United States has the highest rate of mass murder by gun in the world and the highest rate of incarceration.
American infrastructure is failing. There is a deep crisis of faith in the country’s political and social institutions. The environment is being despoiled by large corporations who increasingly act with impunity. Loneliness and suicide are at epidemic levels. Consumerism has supplanted democracy and meaningful engaged citizenship. White hate groups and other right-wing domestic terrorist organizations have killed and injured hundreds of people during the last few decades. America’s elites are wholly out of touch with the people and largely indifferent to their demands.
It is impossible for any intellectually honest person to deny the accuracy of that analysis. Let’s also concede that Donald Trump is the beneficiary–not the cause–of democratic dysfunction.
That said, if the America we thought we lived in is to be saved, it is absolutely critical that we contain–and ultimately defeat–Trump and the authoritarian bigots to whom he appeals.
In a column for the New York Times, a psychiatrist recently explained how the President’s rhetoric triggers and facilitates violence and hatred. I encourage you to click through and read the column in its entirety, but here are some of his important insights:
You don’t need to be a psychiatrist to understand that the kind of hate and fear-mongering that is the stock-in-trade of Mr. Trump and his enablers can goad deranged people to action. But psychology and neuroscience can give us some important insights into the power of powerful people’s words.
We know that repeated exposure to hate speech can increase prejudice, as a series of Polish studies confirmed last year. It can also desensitize individuals to verbal aggression, in part because it normalizes what is usually socially condemned behavior….politicians like Mr. Trump who stoke anger and fear in their supporters provoke a surge of stress hormones, like cortisol and norepinephrine, and engage the amygdala, the brain center for threat. One study, for example, that focused on “the processing of danger” showed that threatening language can directly activate the amygdala. This makes it hard for people to dial down their emotions and think before they act….
Susan Fiske, a psychologist at Princeton, and colleagues have shown that distrust of a out-group is linked to anger and impulses toward violence. This is particularly true when a society faces economic hardship and people are led to see outsiders as competitors for their jobs….
There is something else that Mr. Trump does to facilitate violence against those he dislikes: He dehumanizes them. “These aren’t people,” he once said about undocumented immigrants suspected of gang ties. “These are animals.”
Research by Dr. Cikara and others shows that when one group feels threatened, it makes it much easier to think about people in another group as less than human and to have little empathy for them — two psychological conditions that are conducive to violence….
Using brain M.R.I., researchers showed that images of members of dehumanized groups failed to activate brain regions implicated in normal social cognition and instead activated the subjects’ insula, a region implicated in feelings of disgust.
As Dr. Fiske has written, “Both science and history suggest that people will nurture and act on their prejudices in the worst ways when these people are put under stress, pressured by peers, or receive approval from authority figures to do so.” (my emphasis.)