This article was originally published on New Scientist.
TOXIC rhetoric is on the rise, with anti-establishment, anti-migrant, circle-the-wagons anger and insults escalating. Expect more of it from presumptive US presidential nominee Donald Trump at next week’s Republican party convention.
How is it possible that a self-absorbed, egotistical billionaire who criticises Muslims, Mexicans and women could win more primary votes than any Republican candidate in history?
One would hope that evidence and reasoned debate would rule. But reality doesn’t matter to the likes of Trump, who sees himself as more powerful than mere facts. Yale philosopher Jason Stanley says such figures ruthlessly prey on public fears to reconstruct reality to pander to them.
Many people feel beleaguered, notes psychologist Bryant Welch. Trying to keep pace with change places ever greater demands on the brain, and this combines with worries about immigration policy, the economy, unemployment, terrorism, climate change and security. Anxiety makes the crowd turn to a powerful commander.
The danger is that the more this happens, the weaker and less capable people become. Welch compares it to a heroin addict craving larger and larger doses to get the same high. People are mainlining the Trump drug, a cocktail of absolute certainty, strong opinion and talk of control.
Trump says his opponents are not just wrong, but idiots. When he demonises others, it can trigger a primal response, both calming fears and awakening tribal instincts.
Unhampered by facts and expert evidence, he promises: don’t worry about climate change, it’s not happening; don’t worry about terrorism, we can stop it with force; don’t worry about jobs, we can build a wall to protect yours; don’t fret about the economy, we can just rip up free-trade deals.
People turn to such versions of reality because it’s mentally more comfortable than dealing with uncertainty and anxiety. Trump is not trying to persuade but manipulating fear. After next week’s fireworks, the big question will be: will fear, insults and hate win the White House?
Image credit: Gage Skidmore