What the Hell is wrong with you people?

A few weeks ago, I went down the rabbit hole of trying to understand why some people appear willing to follow Trump to the ends of the earth. My conclusion was that neurophysiology may make a significant contribution to their eagerness. Since writing that blog post, I’ve come across a recent article that suggests his followers are addicted to him. [1] I know, that’s a horrible thought. The author of the article summarizes the concept by writing:

“I am a violence researcher and study the role of grievances and retaliation in violent crime. Recently, I’ve been researching the way grievances affect the brain, and it turns out that your brain on grievance looks a lot like your brain on drugs. In fact, brain imaging studies show that harboring a grievance (a perceived wrong or injustice, real or imagined) activates the same neural reward circuitry as narcotics.”

Brains evolve slowly, and surely all the observations of differences between the brains of conservatives and liberals have existed for a very, very long time. It’s probably an overreach to say that the differences in neurophysiology caused the vitriolic polarization we’re witnessing in society. It’s a more complicated story than that and in a real sense, it’s something we’ve brought on ourselves.

Why Walter Cronkite?

Mr. Cronkite is emblematic of a bygone era when there were three channels in black and white and most news was in newspapers. If Cronkite were alive today and viewed society through the lens he used to produce his news broadcast, I can only imagine his sense of incredulity. As I noted in 2012, [2] in the days of Cronkite there was an inherent filtering of information that tended to weed out the loonies, their pathology, and their conspiracy theories. The fringe simply did not have a medium for their messages. They were geographically dispersed and the echo chambers that might have catalyzed and validated their particular flavor of delusion could not form, or certainly not form with the scale and speed that they do today.

In the black and white TV era, Trump would have been no more than a spoiled rich kid, losing his father’s money on bad real estate deals, evading taxes, and finding ways to nurture his narcissism without Twitter or Fox “news.” There would have been no virtual groups that convinced themselves that what Trump represented was the one and only truth. Simply put, without smartphones, high-speed internet, multitudinous cable TV channels, and streaming services, there would never have been a President Trump. Never.

The deleterious impact of social communication technology on society is an old and well-told story. The neuroscience of addiction may be too nascent to say people are actually addicted to Trump, but there’s little doubt in my mind that people are functionally addicted to their cell phones. There is no good end to this story. To get back to the sanity of the Cronkite days would require us, all of us, to drastically curtail the use of social technology. We would have to turn off the TV, put down the cell phones, and be present with those people physically near and dear to us. And let’s face it, the chances of that happening are exactly nil. We’ve crossed our technology Rubicon and as Caesar said upon crossing the real thing, “alea iacta est.” [3]

Short of a massive EMF event that wipes out electronic devices, I don’t think we’ll ever again see a time when we place people over cell phones, nor we will stop consuming only the news that supports our gut feelings. Day by day, the essence of what makes us human will diminish. I’ll bet you can see it coming, too. It’s important to accept that our devolution is not because of one orange narcissist – we’re all complicit in creating the environment that enables authoritarians to flourish. Without a tidal shift in our behaviors and our priorities, Trump will not be the last autocrat we see rise to power.

Trump is not the devil, he’s the canary in the coal mine.

[1] “What the Science of Addiction Tells Us About Trump” December 12, 2020, Politico: https://www.politico.com/news/magazine/2020/12/12/trump-grievance-addiction-444570

[2] “Not all information is equal” April 1, 2012, Confronting Mediocrity: https://confrontingmediocrity.net/2012/04/01/not-all-information-is-equal/

[3] When Julius Caesar crossed the Rubicon River in January, 49BC the stage was set for the Roman Civil War. Upon entering the river, Caesar is reported to have said “alea iacta est” – the die is cast.


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