The Past Isn’t Past

For the past couple of years, I’ve been reading books on American history–some general, several by scholars focused on slavery and Jim Crow, and still others exploring specific movements–for women’s suffrage, for civil rights, for LGBTQ acceptance. I’ve come away from these descriptions of times past with the realization that in far too many ways, the past really isn’t past–that world-views that were powerful “back then” are far more present than I’ve wanted to believe.

 I recently finished a book titled Marse, written by a forensic psychiatrist named Kirkpatrick, who’d discovered–relatively late in his life–that the great-great grandfather for whom he was named had been a slave owner. In high-school, he and a Black acquaintance with the same last name had jokingly called each other “cuz.” When the two of them reconnected, some forty years later, the classmate shared his ancestry research, which had uncovered the fact that his forebears had been owned by the author’s ancestors–hence the same name. 

Kirkpatrick was stunned–that bit of history hadn’t been part of his family’s lore.

“Marse” is an old Southern word meaning “master,” and Kirkpatrick chose it as the (somewhat awkward) title of the book. Given his professional background, he fashioned his research as a “psychological autopsy” into the minds and behaviors of the Southern planters who believed themselves entitled to own other human beings.

Kirkpatrick’s description of the psychological effects of the “peculiar institution” on  slaveholders was instructive. He delved into the psychological mechanisms with which Marse justified the ownership of other human beings — the personality distortions, defense mechanisms, and psycho-pathologies that were an arguably inevitable effect of owning human “property.”

What was especially fascinating to me was the extent to which all White Southerners, those who owned slaves and those who didn’t, believed that Christianity and the Bible affirmatively promoted slavery as a positive good. Kirkpatrick devotes an entire chapter to  Evangelical pastors’ arguments justifying White dominance, arguments that Blacks were little more than animals who didn’t have souls, insisting that God had decreed the propriety/necessity of slavery, and arguments emphasizing that Jesus never spoke out against enslavement.

Southern Evangelicals, having cited chapter and verse, successfully enlisted the Bible to justify the overwhelming majority of slaveholders and non-slaveholders in defense of slavery as ordained by God.

The parallels between the psychology of antebellum slaveholding and today’s racists are unmistakable. The poor Whites who formed the bulk of the Confederate army identified with the slaveholders; they hated Black enslaved people and believed them to be inferior.

As Kirkpatrick writes, it would be naive to think that the psychological pathologies that enabled slavery didn’t continue to shape the nation’s economic, social and political systems over the century and a half that followed the Civil War.

In his final chapter, Kirkpatrick draws a compelling parallel between today’s Trump supporters and the Southern Whites who fought for slavery and for White Christian social dominance. He compares the South’s belief in the “Lost Cause”–the revisionist belief that the South’s losses in battle were the result of chicanery–that the South had been the victim of “Yankee vandals” engaged in an immoral and political power grab– to Trump’s Big Lie that his election had been stolen through fraud and theft.

Kirkpatrick draws a straight line between today’s MAGA movement and those “Lost Cause” Southerners. Like “Lost Cause” believers, Trump supporters feel  cheated and victimized–and are consumed with resentment and rage, “denying to themselves just how fearful they are about the changes taking place in the social and political fabric of our nation.”

The fact that the rioters who stormed the Capitol constituted a lynch mob dramatically links the events of January 6, 2021 back to the racist white supremacy of American slavery and post-Reconstruction violence of the Jim Crow era in American history.

The chapter traces what Kirkpatrick calls the “through line” of racist White supremacy and the psychology of those pre-Civil War slaveholders to  today’s MAGA GOP and Trump.

I don’t want to suggest that today’s White Christian ideology comes solely from “Lost Cause” Southerners;  this video (sent by a reader) of 22,000 American Nazis gathered in Madison Square Garden before WWII demonstrates that bigotry didn’t come only from the South.

Americans are just now coming to terms with the realities of the nation’s past. Much of that past is immensely positive–but making continued progress will requires us to grapple with the other parts, the parts that were wrongheaded, savage, and shameful.

We will never understand where we are if we don’t know where we’ve been, and we won’t defeat the MAGA throwbacks unless we understand the complicated and ugly roots of their hatreds.

Accurate history matters.


Psychology And Trump Support

I have had real trouble getting my head around the fact that somewhere between 35 and 40 percent of Americans actually support Donald Trump. Here is a man who demonstrates hourly that he is boorish and crude, none-too-bright, embarrassingly and painfully ignorant, and bereft of anything resembling a coherent policy agenda (or, for that matter, a coherent anything).He routinely embarrasses us on the world stage, his cabinet is a cesspool, and his crazy tariffs are threatening the economy. And that’s just for starters.

What accounts for the support?

I’m clearly not the only person who struggles with this question. What do his rabid supporters in the GOP see in this man who repulses rational, thoughtful people around the world?

Psychology Today had an article attempting to answer that question; it rounded up all of the psychological theories about Trump’s appeal.

Some of the explanations come from a 2017 review paper published in the Journal of Social and Political Psychology by the psychologist and UC Santa Cruz professor Thomas Pettigrew. Others have been put forth as far back as 2016, by me, in various articles and blog posts for publications like Psychology Today. A number of these were inspired by insights from psychologists like Sheldon Solomon, who laid the groundwork for the influential Terror Management Theory, and David Dunning, who did the same for the Dunning-Kruger effect.

This list will begin with the more benign reasons for Trump’s intransigent support. As the list goes on, the explanations become increasingly worrisome, and toward the end, border on the pathological. It should be strongly emphasized that not all Trump supporters are racist, mentally vulnerable, or fundamentally bad people. It can be detrimental to society when those with degrees and platforms try to demonize their political opponents or paint them as mentally ill when they are not. That being said, it is just as harmful to pretend that there are not clear psychological and neural factors that underlie much of Trump supporters’ unbridled allegiance.

So what were the theories? The “benign” ones ranged from rich people being willing to support him because they’re making money, to the theory that “showmanship and simple language” engage the brains of some people, to America’s addiction to celebrity.

These are “benign”?

The list also referenced research showing conservatives more responsive to threat: fear, in this theory, keeps his followers energized. And it included the the Dunning-Kruger Effect (Trump followers aren’t simply misinformed;  they’re completely unaware that they are misinformed.) Authoritarian personality disorder was another.

And of course, a significant number of recent studies have correlated support for Trump with “racial anxiety,” a polite word for racism. (This one has been my “go to” explanation; they support Trump because he hates the same people they do.)

I’m no psychologist, and I don’t play one on TV, so I can’t evaluate the relative merits of these theories. But I want to add one. Bear with me…

Recently, I was listening to “Fiddler on the Roof.” Tevya was singing “If I were a rich man,” and I was struck by the passage where he sings that, if he were rich, all the men in town would come ask him difficult questions.  “And it wouldn’t matter if I answered right or wrong; when you’re rich, they think you really know.”

It was an “aha” moment. The line made me think of a Guardian report quoting Steve Bannon.

According to an upcoming book obtained by The Guardian, Bannon predicts Trump will be abandoned by his base following various investigations into his family’s secretive finances.

“This is where it isn’t a witch hunt — even for the hard core, this is where he turns into just a crooked business guy, and one worth $50 [million] instead of $10 [billion]. Not the billionaire he said he was, just another scumbag,” Bannon tells Michael Wolff in Siege: Trump Under Fire, according to an advance copy seen by The Guardian.

Is a significant portion of the American public really that superficial?

Maybe I should ask a Kardashian….


Philosophy? Or Fear?

What does fear have to do with political philosophy?

According to a fascinating article in Business Insider, a lot.

Academicians who study such things tell us that, in the wake of 9/11, many people who were politically liberal became less so–scientists documented a “very strong conservative shift” in the US after the attacks, with more liberals supporting George W. Bush and favoring increased military spending.

The hypothesis social scientists developed about this effect is perhaps best summed up in a 2003 review of research on the subject: “People embrace political conservatism (at least in part) because it serves to reduce fear, anxiety, and uncertainty; to avoid change, disruption, and ambiguity; and to explain, order, and justify inequality among groups and individuals,” it said.

Researchers have also found that people who self-identify as conservative have larger and more active right amygdalae. This is an area of the brain that has been associated with the expression and processing of fear. A 2011 study looked at MRI scans of conservative young adults and found they had more grey matter in their right amygdalae than their liberal counterparts. Interestingly, when researchers conducted experiments that were structured to make these conservatives feel safer, those conservatives who responded to the constructed environment, who did feel safer, became more liberal.

These results have been linked to evolution’s “fundamental drive for personal safety.” Other political consequences of our evolutionary past have been subjected to experimentation as well. For example, it seems that

washing hands with soap and water can make people less hostile to individuals who are different than they are. Bargh says that’s because to some extent, our modern prejudices are shaped by the way we’ve evolved to avoid unknown, foreign threats like disease.

These studies are interesting, and they have obvious relevance to the partisanship of our current era. That said, they raise thorny questions that have been the subject of philosophical dispute for eons: how much of human behavior is the result of conscious thought? Logical argumentation? Is there such a thing as free will, or are we human animals acting out a lifespan pre-programmed in our genes and modified–if at all–by our very gradual evolution?

Is my opposition to the GOP tax bill really grounded in my analysis of its provisions and my conclusion that it is morally and economically indefensible? Or did I just inherit less gray matter in my amygdala?

Is the revulsion I feel when I see Donald Trump on television a reaction to my conscious recognition that he is totally unfit for the Presidency, is pursuing ruinous policies, and poses a genuine threat to world peace? Or does he simply remind my genes of some primordial cockroach?

It’s a conundrum…



On the original Star Trek series, when Mr. Spock was confronted with a new and unexpected bit of information, he would raise one Vulcan eyebrow and intone “fascinating.”

I don’t have a Vulcan eyebrow, but “fascinating” was my reaction to a 2013 academic paper written by Johannas Haushofer and Jeremy Shapiro, with the not-very-sexy title “Household Response to Income Changes: Evidence from an Unconditional Cash Transfer Program in Kenya.”

Stop yawning, because this is important. And fascinating.

In the U.S., lawmakers (and not just right-wing ones) have long taken a punitive approach to the poor. Even self-labeled “compassionate conservatives” like former President George W. Bush have proposed programs that would “help welfare recipients develop middle-class values.” (Because clearly, if you are poor, you must be morally defective.)  American attitudes toward the needy have their roots in 15th Century English Poor Laws that prohibited “giving alms to the sturdy beggar.”

American social welfare programs built on that model have numerous, demeaning—and costly—restrictions on eligibility. After all, if “we” don’t watch “them,” they’ll cheat us hardworking taxpayers.

Most recently, a number of state legislators have piled on; convinced that any assistance allowing recipient discretion would “obviously’ lead to imprudent choices, they have even passed rules about what welfare recipients can buy at the grocery store with their food stamps.

Imagine what would happen if we simply sent poor people some cash! (Um…perhaps like Social Security…?)

Well, it turns out we don’t have to imagine it; an NGO called “GiveDirectly” has been doing just that in Kenya. GiveDirectly chooses beneficiaries at random; the only criteria is income below poverty level. The organization is rigorously evidence-based, and the paper I came across is one of several independent research projects examining the results.

So what happened?

Recipients spent more on health and education. Alcohol and tobacco expenditures did not increase. The researchers found

no evidence for an increase in tension within households, no significant spillover effects on non-recipient households, and no general equilibrium effects at the village level, with the single exception that we observe an increase in female empowerment at the village level. Together, these findings suggest that simple cash transfers may not have the perverse effects that some policymakers feel they would have, which has led for a clear policy preference for conditional cash transfers or in-kind transfers.

I came across this article because I have recently become aware of psychological studies connecting poverty with a host of deleterious psychological consequences, and I was exploring the literature reporting on those consequences for a book I’m writing. (I had previously understood the link between insecurities of various kinds and social unrest, but I was unaware of this particular line of research.)

As an article in New America Weekly reported, the human brain has specific reactions to any form of scarcity; it seems that cognitive capacity can only be stretched so far. This has been dubbed the “bandwidth tax,” shorthand for the proposition that scarcity inhibits the brain’s ability to focus on multiple tasks. This isn’t a big surprise to anyone who has agonized over whether to use her limited funds to buy baby formula or see the pediatrician.

Interestingly, the levels of stress associated with poverty can be assessed physically; people produce a “stress hormone” called cortisol, levels of which can be measured.

Haushofer and Shapiro measured them.

Transfer recipients experience large increases in psychological well-being, and several types of transfers lead to reductions in levels of the stress hormone cortisol.

Apparently, cash transfers to desperately poor people are followed by increased access to education and medical care, and lowered levels of a stress hormone that interferes with good decision-making.