Neuroscientist explains how fanatical Trump followers could lead us to societal collapse

It's okay to be a little alarmed — behind the scenes, this cult is being transformed into an army of soldiers

Published August 6, 2021 5:30AM (EDT)

Trump supporters near the U.S Capitol on Jan. 06, 2021 in Washington, DC. (Shay Horse/NurPhoto via Getty Images)
Trump supporters near the U.S Capitol on Jan. 06, 2021 in Washington, DC. (Shay Horse/NurPhoto via Getty Images)

This article originally appeared on Raw Story


Do not be alarmed, but consider this article a prediction and a warning. Actually, it's okay to be a little alarmed, because recent events—like the storming of the Capitol—are certainly cause for concern. Let's call it what it is; Donald Trump has created a cult and radicalized its members. QAnon also shares a large part of the responsibility, whoever they are. We may not be able to see it because Trump has been banned from Twitter and Q conversation cleaned from social media, but behind the scenes, this cult is being transformed into an army of soldiers.

How do we know that it is as serious as I say; that this is not just more fear mongering? Well, for one, people have died. Heather Heyer, a counterprotester protesting the Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville, was run over by a white supremacist, and 19 others were injured. Last year a man drew a hunting bow on protestors in Salt Lake City before being taken out by the crowd, a chilling moment that was captured on video. On the day of the Capitol riot, a pipe bomb was found a few blocks from the Capitol building. In addition to these troubling events, many others who will go unnamed have been the victims of hate crimes that can be traced to the alt-Right, pro-Trump movement.

But the causalities have not only been on one side. Capitol rioter Ashli Babbitt was fatally wounded by a cop as the mob tried to breach a door, another frightening moment caught on video. The point I'm making has nothing to do with whether or not the shooting was justified—though saying that level of force was necessary strikes me as uncomfortably close to Right-wing apologists who defend cops that shoot unarmed black men. The point is that the violence is escalating, and there's every reason to believe that escalation will continue. To use Newton's third law as a metaphor—for every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction. So, what does this mean for the future of America?

Since aggression provokes fear, and fear promotes aggression, a dangerous feedback loop has been established, dividing the nation to such a degree that something like civil war seems imminent. It may be a "cold civil war," but there will still be violence, destruction, and death. There will also be more gridlock in Washington, which makes any kind of progress impossible. It is hard to calculate the suffering that could have been avoided with a functional Congress, but we can be sure it is substantial. And if the division gets too severe, which is where we are headed, there will be a point of no return. Social chaos and economic collapse will follow, the United States will lose its status as a superpower, and life as we know it, will cease. If the pandemic showed us anything, it is that despite how advanced we are technologically, we are not protected from disaster, and our way of life can change overnight.

The good news is that this gloomy future is only inevitable should we choose not to intervene. But we do have to make a conscious effort to avoid catastrophe if we want any chance of being successful. I'm not talking about compromising, or forgiving, or forgetting—because we should do none of those things. I'm proposing something altogether new, something radical to stop Right-wing radicalism. But to understand the solution, and why it is necessary, we first have to get a clearer understanding of the problem, and of the predictive power of science.

The Predictive Power of Terror Management Theory

To those skeptics who consider a civil war of sorts an unlikely scenario, just ask yourself how likely any of the events mentioned above would have seemed in the pre-Trump era. Imagine taking a time machine back to 2014, and telling people that the reality show star Donald Trump would be our next president. That alone would sound ridiculous. Now imagine telling people that thousands of his supporters would storm the Capitol—many armed—in hopes of overturning the 2020 election. It would sound like some zany plot for an over-the-top comedy. Now imagine that after such event, and after trying to get his vice president killed, Trump would still own the Republican party and all of conservative media. On the surface, this outcome seems so improbable that it makes one doubt our ability to predict the future at all.

Despite how unlikely this general scenario might have seemed, I'm going to argue that it was in fact predictable with a high degree of statistical certainty, if one had the proper theoretical framework through which to understand those events as they were unfolding. That framework is called Terror Management Theory(TMT), and this paradigm from social psychology will be our sense-making lens in a time where nothing seems to make much sense.

Armed with the logic of Terror Management Theory, and an understanding of the relevant neuroscience, I was able to predict the rise of Trump, the white Nationalist movement that put him in office, the Q problem that led to the Capitol attack, and the refusal to accept the results of the election by Trump and his supporters—many months in advance. These predictions will be explained later in the article. No, I am not a psychic, but I did have a crystal ball called "science."

Karl Popper, the father of the philosophy of science, said the riskier the prediction made by a scientific theory, the more convincing it is when that prediction comes true. And you can be sure that when I was making such predictions, in articles for websites like Raw StoryDaily Beast, and Psychology Today, they seemed to describe highly unlikely outcomes. That is, if one were getting their analyses from mainstream news media and professional statisticians unfamiliar with the effects of "mortality salience"—in other words, making people think about death, or making them feel that there is a looming existential threat. I bring up these predictions not to say "I told you so" or for bragging rights; rather, it is a plea for the reader to take the predictions of the theory seriously.

To understand how Terror Management Theory can be used to predict the collective behavior of a society when existential threat looms—whether that threat is ISIS, Right-wing terror, or the pandemic—a brief introduction is in order. If you are already familiar with the theory and its relevance to Trump supporter psychology from past articles published at Raw Story, know that this piece presents new insights and ties up many seemingly unrelated features of cognition in a way that illuminates precisely why everything happened the way it did. The Trump loyalist is a mystery we are about to unravel, and in doing so, we come to see that the average MAGA maniac had little choice over their behavior.

Cultural Worldviews are Death-Anxiety Buffers

Terror Management Theory, which was based on a Pulitzer Prize-winning book from the 1970s called The Denial of Death, has been supported by hundreds of psychology and neuroscience studies. According to the theory, most of human behavior is driven by our subconscious fear of death. Unlike most if not all other animals, we have an awareness that one day we will inevitably die, for reasons that are beyond our control. This realization leads to an existential fear that is always bubbling beneath the surface. Without any way to cope with that cold hard fact of life—or fact of death, I should say—it can be difficult to get up in the morning, and to go on living, knowing it is all in futility.

How do we deal with our fear of death and unrelenting existential angst? Through cultural worldviews.

According to TMT, as a way of dealing with persistent death anxiety, humans created cultural worldviews—like religions, national identities, and political ideologies—to ease our fears and distract us from the fact that we will soon be gone, and probably forgotten. These worldviews make us feel safe and permanent by providing paths to immortality.

Through the concept of an afterlife, religions make literal immortality possible, while political ideologies and national identities give us symbolic immortality. In other words, they make us feel like we're part of a group and a movement that will outlive the individual. Worldviews also give life a meaning and a purpose. Whether we identify as Christian or Muslim or Buddhist, Democrat or Republican or Libertarian, we all belong to a tribe. Some tribes are just more ideologically extreme than others, and less accepting of outsiders. This applies even to atheists and anarchists, who are often just as ideological as the ideologies they are trying to escape.

So, worldviews are a double-edged sword: on one hand they give us direction and comfort, on the other they divide us into in-groups and out-groups, turning fellow humans into spiritual or political enemies. The unfortunate result is tribalism. Racism can be thought of as a specific type of tribalism, as tribalism proper would include other types of prejudice, like bias against people of other nationalities, religions, and political parties.

Tribalism, or loyalty to one's social group and aggression toward outsiders, is bad enough when times are good, but when there is an atmosphere of existential fear lingering over society for whatever reason—terror attacks, political incompetence, or a pandemic—tribal behavior gets turned up to eleven. In response to mortality salience, we double-down on our beliefs and try to force them on dissimilar others, and if they resist, we try to punish them. Whether the purpose of this punishment is to enforce fairness or to get revenge is largely in the eye of the beholder.

Understanding racism as emergent from tribalism can make sense of many confusing things. For example, during the Capitol riot, footage from Fox News showed more than a few black protestors in the audience. CNN cameras showed practically none, and we will probably never know whether Fox was selectively focusing on the minorities in the crowd, or if CNN was selecting them out of shot, though we can reasonably assume the truth is probably somewhere in between. While the minorities appeared to be safe in the crowd of QAnons and Trump soldiers, Nancy Pelosi would have undoubtedly gotten mauled by the mob. This of course does not mean that many of the Alt-Right rioters were not racist—it simply means they interpreted the minorities in the crowd to be tribe defectors, and as long as they show allegiance to the Nationalist movement or conspiracy theory mindset that signals they belong to the right tribe, the white tribe, they are accepted.

While the Alt-Right is mostly composed of Christians and Republicans, their Christian-American worldview has evolved into the more-extreme philosophical framework outlined by the tribe leaders—Donald Trump, Q, and conservative talk show hosts looking to boost ratings. At the same time, these influencers are monitoring social media and gauging sentiment on the ground, so the views of the tribe members and leaders evolve together, and this coevolution is guided largely by the atmosphere of existential fear, which is enhanced by the fear mongering coming from the top. And then, Trump's reassuring words, and Q's perceived righteousness, provide scared and confused human beings with a philosophy that gives them comfort and purpose. It is difficult if not impossible to reach these people with reason alone, as reason is not going to make them feel safe or comforted or inspired. And if the reasoning is perceived as being based on principles from an opposing tribe's worldview, they will flat out reject that logic on principle alone. That is not to say these people are completely unreachable—it's just going to take a lot more than reasoning with them.

Predictions Come True

What were the sources of existential threat that created the conditions that would put an opportunist like Trump in the most powerful position in the world?

In 2016, I wrote an article for the website Aeon titled How the Fear of Death Makes People More Right-Wing, which argued that the Brexit and Trump movements were catalyzed by existential fear created by the string of ISIS attacks that had recently rocked the world. Prior to that essay, in January—almost a year before the election—I wrote an article for Raw Story called Donald Trump Has a Mental Disorder That Makes Him a Dangerous World Leader, which over the course of his presidency would receive upwards of 30 million views, making it the website's most popular article ever published.

In July of 2016, when all the pundits and statisticians were predicting a blowout by Hillary Clinton, I published another article titled A Neuroscientist Explains Why Trump is Winning, and one month later another piece titled The More People Think About Death, the More They Think About Voting for Trump, which directly linked Terror Management Theory to Trump's rabid support. A 2016 Daily Beast article along the same lines, called Why Do Some People Respond to Trump? It's Biology 101, issued a warning for voters in its concluding paragraph:

"The rise of Trump has defied almost all logic. But he isn't appealing to logic. He is appealing to our most basic survival instincts. Those include fear and the natural tendency to thrive and conquer. This presidential election will be an important test for our nation. We will see if we are evolved enough for our logic to overcome our instincts."

Apparently we were not. Over the next few years, I would write more than a dozen articles on Trump-related psychology for Raw Story and Psychology Today that would receive millions of views, and land me offers of representation by fancy literary agencies, and media requests for appearances on popular web shows like the Young Turks' Damage Report and the David Pakman Show.

In these interviews I described how Trump would respond as he began to lose power, based on insights from Terror Management Theory and the neuroscience of narcissism. Again, I deserve no special credit for these predictions; had I not been introduced to Terror Management Theory by a colleague, I would have been just as clueless as the pundits and statisticians. However, Ernest Becker, the cultural anthropologist who wrote The Denial of Death, and Sheldon Solomon, the psychologist who turned Becker's idea into an actual testable theory, are prophets in my book. Prophets of death, I guess you'd call them.

A more recent article, posted in September of 2020 at Psychology Today, titled How Trump and Media Allies Target the Mentally Vulnerable, had another clear warning. The teaser text read, "We can expect that conspiracy theories will be weaponized this election (again)." In it I explain how Trump and Q targeted people with schizophrenia and related disorders, by exploiting their heightened sensitivity to patterns (which are often not actually there). In another article published around the same time, I warned that the division was getting so bad that we could expect the election results to be rejected by half of the country. Despite these dire predictions being widely broadcast, the future that the science was foreshadowing seemed to be unavoidable. Why? Because unless we can learn to mentally override our fears and biases, they will completely control us, and they will make us tribal. But we are not totally hopeless—if we understand the neuroscience underlying these phenomena, we can fight back.

The Prefrontal Cortex is the Source of "Free Will"

The kind of person who is likely to be a Trump extremist is also likely to have impaired or suboptimal brain function in an important region known as the prefrontal cortex. A healthily-functioning prefrontal cortex is what allows one to override their primitive instincts, to think rationally, and to respond to stressful events in a controlled manner, rather than being controlled by fear and reflexive behavior. It does this by arming the conscious agent with a higher form of self-regulation and control, known as cognitive control, executive control, or effortful control.

To be clear, impaired cognitive control is not just a problem we see with Right-wing radicals. It is connected to ideological extremism more generally, so poor prefrontal activation is a concern for Left and Right-wingers alike. In fact, this cognitive profile is also associated with stimulant and alcohol addiction, as well as mental illness, like schizophrenia. And in super stressful times, like during a pandemic, we all become mentally ill in some way (anxiety, depression, etc.), and therefore less in control of our biases and behavior, which limits our ability to act freely. Why? Because the cognitive mechanisms that normally allow us to do so dissolve, leaving us with only preprogrammed behavior.

While some people will claim that they have no racial biases, or any biases for that matter, a famous experiment called the implicit bias task reveals that almost all of us do, and there's plenty of data to prove it. This bias affects how we process information and perceive the social world around us. However, this bias is subconscious and not easily detected with the naked eye. This has the unfortunate result of making it easy to ignore. Whether or not our implicit racial bias leads to overtly racist attitudes and behavior depends on an interplay between different brain areas—specifically the amygdala, which lights up when we experience something we perceive to be threatening, and the prefrontal cortex, whose job it is to regulate and suppress that fear response and the associated behavior. But if the prefrontal cortex isn't working right, it can't do its job.

Brain imaging studies have shown that people who display a stronger implicit bias have a stronger electrical response to black or other-race faces in the amygdala. An exaggerated amygdala response is part of what creates the sudden sensation of feeling scared. In people with healthy functioning brains, the fast amygdala response activates the prefrontal cortex, which is slower and plays a regulatory role. When the fear system is triggered, prefrontral areas work to assess the situation rationally, calming the mind and curbing fear-evoked behavior. Thanks to specific neural regions like the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex, and the anterior cingulate cortex, the brain exercises cognitive control, suppressing the tendency toward tribalism.

The problem is, not everyone has a properly functioning prefrontal cortex, and these people are the ones whose biases control them. They cannot reason those fearful surges away because they lack the mechanisms that make that kind of high-level reasoning possible. Since alcohol and amphetamine addiction can exacerbate this problem, Fox News viewers with such vices will be more vulnerable to the effects of fear mongering, and if they are given a "call to action" by a tribe leader like Trump or Q, more likely to act aggressively in an effort to push their worldview on others. Most supporters will stay home, but with many millions of followers tuned in, it is not surprising that a few thousand showed up to storm the Capitol.

So now that we understand the root cause of it all, perhaps we should view Trump and Q followers differently. They are not normal supporters, but more akin to cult members who have been radicalized by fear, their fates determined due to a lack of free will—which refers to our ability to override our primitive programming and tribal instincts. They are, in a sense, victims. They have been duped and brainwashed by rigid ideologies almost from the time of birth, and those ideologies have been weaponized by divisive politicians like Donald Trump. Does it make more sense to want to punish or fight these people, or to recognize them as agents who've lost their autonomy and ability to reason effectively?

The enemies are the influencers intentionally deceiving these vulnerable people, stoking their fears and fueling their biases. You may say some were racist, crazy, or ignorant before Trump, but we now see how that got that way. Politicians create fear and hatred for votes, Alex Jones does it for clicks, Fox does it for ratings, and QAnon does it for…chaos, I suppose. These are the people we must not let win. The actual followers are pawns in their game.

So, what can we do to release these people from the grips of their psychological captors?

The Path to Deradicalization

The solution is multi-faceted, and change won't happen overnight. One major goal would be to alter the worldview and belief structure of the extremist, and another would be to strengthen their prefrontal cortex, so that the agent is in control, rather than being controlled by the primitive brain.

Fortunately, one fascinating feature of the brain is its plasticity—or ability to rewire itself in response to new information and experience throughout life. Through exposure to new stimuli, new synaptic connections can be formed, creating neural pathways that can promote a restructuring of old and rigid belief systems. To facilitate cognitive restructuring, meditation and attentional exercises can train the prefrontal cortex to attenuate a hyperactive amygdala and control those bad instincts. A campaign to make these kinds of practices commonplace should be a goal of scientists and educators. It is not easy, but it is certainly possible to reverse biased and even racist tendencies through cognitive interventionsCounterbias training has proven effective in making police officers more aware of their implicit biases, though enhanced awareness does not always immediately translate into changes in behavior.

That could require more extreme therapeutic measures, such as pharmacological treatments to reset the brain. Psilocybin, the ingredient in magic mushrooms, or LSD, supplemented with talk therapy could be an effective way to alter rigid worldviews and dissolve biases. In a 2016 article, I suggested LSD therapy for Donald Trump, and although the title may make one chuckle, I seriously believe it would be the most effective way to get Trump to understand the effects of the division he's sowed. Psychedelics work by relaxing belief structures, so that the agent can "achieve a healthy revision of pathological beliefs," to quote psychedelics researcher Robin Carhart-Harris. Unfortunately, this remedy would require that the extremist be open-minded enough to give such an experimental treatment a try. Given that the average Q follower is all about "waking up" and seeing reality as it is, it is not unreasonable to think that a psychedelics campaign could catch on in those communities. Studies have shown that the use of psychedelics is associated with a decrease in authoritarian political views and an increase in views associated with liberalism, like open-mindedness and empathy (though one could argue some "liberals" today have neither of these). These drugs work by dissolving the ego, making one feel more connected to nature and to others.

But the real problem is that our most popular worldviews—the major religions, political ideologies, and national identities—divide us into tribes, and emphasize our differences rather than our similarities and shared human interests. If Terror Management Theory is correct, then the obvious solution is a new cultural and political worldview that unites us all under a common existential goal: the continued survival, progress, and eventually, the outward expansion of humanity. This worldview is called the Cosmic Perspective, and I have outlined it in a Psychology Today blog post titled, Could a 'Cosmic Religion' Unite a Divided Nation? You can learn about how the Cosmic Perspective naturally emerges from Terror Management Theory in this YouTube video on my channel (Road to Omega), Trump Divided America—Here's How We Heal.

Part of being liberal means being compassionate, but this is just as much about practicality as it is empathy. There's really no other choice than trying to make things better. I'll be playing my part by creating more content aimed at coming together—call it propaganda for a psychedelic revolution. Coming together does not mean meeting in the middle—as extreme centrism can be just as counterproductive as any other kind of extremism. We need radical solutions that push us forward, and we cannot go forward if we're at war.

If you'd like to be part of the solution, subscribe to my Substack newsletter, Road to Omega, which is a project aimed at fighting misinformation, healing division, and redistributing wealth and power in America. The project will be tokenized with NFTs (non-fungible tokens), and token holders will benefit from the project's success, so there is value in participating.

Simply stated, Road to Omega is an effort to save the world with science and epistemology. The plan entails:

  • healing the division in America and abroad by fighting tribalism
  • fighting misinformation with a logical reasoning system
  • decentralizing wealth and power with blockchain technology
  • creating a new political party based on self-correction
  • unifying the sciences with a new kind of "Theory of Everything"
  • dissolving the boundary between science and spirituality
  • developing a "religion for robots" that provides a code of ethics for AIs

If you'd like to read more about Road to Omega before subscribing, check out the first Substack newsletter—a plan to save the world with science and epistemology—here. This post lays out the plan in detail and tells you how you can get involved. Alternatively, you can read the much shorter About page.Aside from the newsletter, I will be continuing to publish articles at Raw Story along the same lines, so stay tuned!

Bobby Azarian is a neuroscientist affiliated with George Mason University and a freelance journalist. His research has been published in journals such as Cognition & Emotion and Human Brain Mapping, and he has written for The New York Times, The Atlantic, Psychology Today, and Scientific American. Follow him on Twitter @BobbyAzarian.

By Bobby Azarian

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