Fear makes for bad decisions. So says a body of research in social psychology called terror management theory (TMT), which was brought to my attention by Sheldon Solomon at Skidmore University. Dr. Solomon and his co-authors theorize that the awareness of death and perceived threats to well-being create a need to reinforce self-esteem and social status. An “any port in a storm” effect takes over at moments of real or perceived threat in which critical thinking is suspended in favor of quick solutions that may be without merit.
When researchers show experimental subjects a photo or phrase that reminds them of terrorism, war or death, this triggering actually changes voting preferences and political opinions among the study participants, as confirmed in several experiments going back to the early 1970s. Specifically, research subjects preferred authoritarian figures over more knowledgeable or skilled politicians when they had previously been primed with visual or verbal cues (photos of bombings say, or World Trade Center or 9/11) related to violence or threat, whether the politicians were real-life political figures or invented ones. Solomon and his colleagues apply terror management theory in a forthcoming chapter in a book explaining the Trump election.
The Trump rally speeches go through a litany of perceived threats to the American worker: the immigrants taking “our” jobs, the terrorists who want to kill “us,” the media who want to silence “us." Trump is no social psychologist, but he has an instinctive sense for crowds: the purpose of this rhetoric is to tear down the listener to a point of malleability, at which point, he “alone” supplies the answer (as in his “I alone can fix it” speech at the Republican National Convention in the summer). Read full opinion post here