Saturday, October 29, 2016

Affixed in Their Minds

This has been a fascinating presidential election, if not way too much too long, by any measure. Both candidates have evidenced some major flaws, testing veracity and character – suggesting everything from simple narcissism to sociopathology. My own astonishment, shared by a majority of those on earth who are paying attention, is how the United States has elevated a third-world-like strongman with severe and obvious serious character flaws riding a wave of misinformation (the ratio of fact-checking “inaccuracies” show that 80% of those misstatements came from Donald Trump and 20% from Hillary Clinton) to be the top-of-the-ticket for one of the two biggest political parties in the United States. Donald J Trump, a man with zero government working experience.
Obviously, his populism resonates with blue collar workers whose jobs have been outsourced, automated or rendered obsolete/over-priced by a global marketplace. It reflects a growing paranoia at global terrorism and perceived economic imbalances blamed on undocumented immigration and “unfair” trade agreements. There is a fear of change of moral values from white Protestant rural values slowly being superseded by once-designated minorities who are rapidly becoming the new majority. The thought of liberal judges in the federal court system, sure to undermine those traditional values, is another hot button… and out-and-out hatred of Hillary Clinton.
That’s politics, even if the underlying assumptions are simply wrong. Assume environmental and safety regulations are vaporized. Does anyone really think that coal miners, whose jobs have been steadily dwindling since the 1920s, are suddenly going to convince the global markets to give up much cheaper and much cleaner natural gas and opt for costly coal as the fossil fuel of choice for power generation? Really believe that if we raise trade barriers, which will send consumer prices through the roof, we are going to make life better for most of us? Do we believe that if we get rid of undocumented workers doing those menial jobs at the bottom of the economic ladder, there were will more and better jobs for the rest of us and that consumer prices will stay the same? Think cutting taxes for the rich will create good jobs? Look at poor Kansas that tried this tact. Still, all political rhetoric.
But what really fascinates me is how folks with purportedly deep conservative Christian values or what we believe are reasonably-educated American citizens can maintain support for a candidate with the deepest character flaws reported in the history of American presidential election politics whose entire campaign is predicated on “facts” that really do not exist. How do we explain these anomalies?
Bobby Azarian, with a PhD in psychology, attempts to fill in the blanks in his September 13th article (The Psychology Behind Donald Trump's Unwavering Support) in Psychology Today. Here are some of his explanations:
1.    Some believe that many of those who support Donald Trump do so because of ignorance — basically they are under-informed or misinformed about the issues at hand. When Trump tells them that crime is skyrocketing in the United States, or that the economy is the worst it’s ever been, they simply take his word for it.
The seemingly obvious solution would be to try to reach those people through political ads, expert opinions, and logical arguments that educate with facts. Except none of those things seem to be swaying any Trump supporters from his side, despite great efforts to deliver this information to them directly.
The Dunning-Kruger effect [emphasis added] explains that the problem isn’t just that they are misinformed; it’s that they are completely unaware that they are misinformed. This creates a double burden.
Studies have shown that people who lack expertise in some area of knowledge often have a cognitive bias that prevents them from realizing that they lack expertise. As psychologist David Dunning puts it in an op-ed for Politico, “The knowledge and intelligence that are required to be good at a task are often the same qualities needed to recognize that one is not good at that task — and if one lacks such knowledge and intelligence, one remains ignorant that one is not good at the task. This includes political judgment.” Essentially, they’re not smart enough to realize they’re dumb.
And if one is under the illusion that they have sufficient or even superior knowledge, then they have no reason to defer to anyone else’s judgment. This helps explain why even nonpartisan experts — like military generals and Independent former Mayor of New York/billionaire CEO Michael Bloomberg — as well as some respected Republican politicians, don’t seem to be able to say anything that can change the minds of loyal Trump followers.
My little additional observation: “News” organizations, in a race for ratings and advertising/subscriber dollars, have capitalized on this phenomenon to reinforce the disinformation, reinforcing this race to ignorance. Left and right. With excessive volumes of information literally deluging the electorate, too many have elected to filter out any information that might be inconvenient or that corrects their belief platform. They can then point to these media sources as the justifiable basis for their beliefs.
2.    Science has unequivocally shown that the conservative brain has an exaggerated fear response when faced with stimuli that may be perceived as threatening. A 2008 study in the journal Science found that conservatives have a stronger physiological reaction to startling noises and graphic images compared to liberals. A brain-imaging study published in Current Biology revealed that those who lean right politically tend to have a larger amygdala — a structure that is electrically active during states of fear and anxiety….
So how does this help explain the unbridled loyalty of Trump supporters? These brain responses are automatic, and not influenced by logic or reason. As long as Trump continues his fear mongering by constantly portraying Muslims and Mexican immigrants as imminent dangers, many conservative brains will involuntarily light up like light bulbs being controlled by a switch. Fear keeps his followers energized and focused on safety. And when you think you’ve found your protector, you become less concerned with remarks that would normally be seen as highly offensive.   
3.    [Terror Management Theory] is based on the fact that humans have a unique awareness of their own mortality. The inevitably of one’s death creates existential terror and anxiety that is always residing below the surface. In order to manage this terror, humans adopt cultural worldviews — like religions, political ideologies, and national identities — that act as a buffer by instilling life with meaning and value.
[The theory] predicts that when people are reminded of their own mortality, which happens with fear mongering, they will more strongly defend those who share their worldviews and national or ethnic identity, and act out more aggressively towards those who do not. Hundreds of studies have confirmed this hypothesis, and some have specifically shown that triggering thoughts of death tends to shift people towards the right.
Not only do death reminders increase nationalism, they influence actual voting habits in favor of more conservative presidential candidates. And more disturbingly, in a study with American students, scientists found that making mortality salient increased support for extreme military interventions by American forces that could kill thousands of civilians overseas. Interestingly, the effect was present only in conservatives, which can likely be attributed to their heightened fear response.
By constantly emphasizing existential threat, Trump creates a psychological condition that makes the brain respond positively rather than negatively to bigoted statements and divisive rhetoric. Liberals and Independents who have been puzzled over why Trump hasn’t lost supporters after such highly offensive comments need look no further than Terror Management Theory.
4.    [Donald Trump’s ability to present his position in an entertaining manner while Hillary Clinton makes traditional and often boring political speeches.] According to a recent study that monitored brain activity while participants watched 40 minutes of political ads and debate clips from the presidential candidates, Donald Trump is unique in his ability to keep the brain engaged. While Hillary Clinton could only hold attention for so long, Trump kept both attention and emotional arousal high throughout the viewing session. This pattern of activity was seen even when Trump made remarks that individuals didn’t necessarily agree with. His showmanship and simple messages clearly resonate at a visceral level.  
Essentially, the loyalty of Trump supporters may in part be explained by America’s addiction with entertainment and reality TV. To some, it doesn’t matter what Trump actually says because he’s so amusing to watch. With Donald, you are always left wondering what outrageous thing he is going to say or do next. He keeps us on the edge of our seat, and for that reason, some Trump supporters will forgive anything he says. They are happy as long as they are kept entertained.  
Donald Trump is a highly effective speaker, gets those little hooks into his constituency that defy traditional political analysis, and reaches deeply into the psyche of those predisposed to his style of rhetoric. The problem, it seems, is that such a large number of Americans have come to accept this political populist style as the “new normal.” This is not likely a one-off shift in political campaigning, and we are going to have to explain to our own children why these patterns of lying, bullying, intolerance and personal assaults are okay in politics but unacceptable to the rest of us for a long, long time.
I’m Peter Dekom, and is this change in American “politics as usual” more of an existential threat to us than the real terrorists who want to destroy the West and its values?

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