The Neurological Reason Fearmongering Is Such a Powerful Political Tool

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Photo: Sarah Rice/Getty Images

Fear is the fuel to Donald Trump’s post-factual campaign. He can allege that immigrants are violent (when they commit way fewer crimes than native-born Americans) and “inner cities” are burning (when they’re thriving), and it doesn’t matter, from a certain rhetorical perspective — the point is to activate emotions, whether it’s to motivate the alt-right for the election or Trump TV ratings after the ballots have been cast.

What’s special about fear is that it’s such a powerful, pre-conscious, pre-rational emotion. It frames your thinking before you can even think about it, regardless of how intelligent you are. The father-daughter science duo Sara E. Gorman and Jack M. Gorman dive into this at length in their new book, Denying to the Grave: Why We Ignore the Facts That Will Save Us. In a new interview with The Atlantic’s Olga Khazan, the Gormans laid out how mongering fear exploits the very structure of the brain. Believing Trump’s claims may not be logical, but it’s certainly neurological, they explain.

“There are good data showing that the first thing that you hear makes the biggest impression — and that if it’s heard under emotional circumstances, that it’s always associated with that emotion,” Jack Gorman said. “If the first thing you hear about a topic is something that’s associated with fear, that will often suppress the rational part of the brain. It will be placed into long-term memory by this more primitive part of the brain, and it turns out to be very, very difficult to dislodge that.”

For example, Jack Gorman says, if you were to do fear conditioning to a rat, where whenever it heard a certain tone it would be given an electric shock, then it will have that pained response for the extent of its lifetime. Whenever it hears that tone, it’ll freeze, whether or not it’s actually being shocked. (In rats, as in humans, the shadow of trauma is long.) If the first thing people hear is that an outgroup — say, immigrants — are threatening them, then a Donald Trump or Marine Le Pen or a Nigel Farage can use that anxiety to hijack their higher faculties.

“Those fears that these charismatic leaders arouse are often committed to permanent indelible memory, and they become extremely hard to dislodge, and they are easy to evoke simply by making people scared again,” Jack Gorman says. “So all that Trump has to do is say ‘these immigrants are going to kill you,’ and his entire message about immigration becomes immediately recalled.” Therein lies the Make America Great Again rub: Truly, it’s about making Americans scared again. But according to the latest polls, it’s not exactly working.

Neuroscience of Fearmongering Is a Powerful Political Tool