Fear is like a bucket of ice water unexpectedly dumbed on your head from behind. It makes you curl your shoulders inward and hunch down, all in an instinctual response to protect yourself. Fear is now a covert force running through our zeitgeist. At it’s more overt level, fear is also a primary emotion of those who support Trump.
Americans, by nature, are not a pessimistic bunch. But the possibility of threat now seems both part of our landscape and a bodily experience of those who otherwise, by way of the American founding political doctrine, were given the right to pursue happiness. In its present form, fear came to the fore in America on 9-11 with the tumbling down of the Twin Towers. Then Americans were hit again in 2008 by another structural collapse, this time, economic. These two events constituted a ride as if on a rollercoaster built on top of an earthquake.
Recently, more Americans are in a state of preparation to crouch down in a defensive posture from the real and imagined terror of Al’ qaeda and ISIS, coming to our shores. Likewise, some Americans and some Western Europeans are set back on their heels by the advent of untold numbers of immigrants – “THEM” — arriving in local neighborhoods.
Fear is the most base of all emotions. One reflection of fear, circa 2016, is the fear of humiliation. In the case of terrorism, humiliation stems from the sleight felt by those who perceive modernity as disqualifying their ancient, Muslim civilization. But the irony is ISIS and Trump both are charged up in their defense against feeling humiliated. Trump, the newly-minted politician, sees America as humiliated by foreign leaders who out-maneuver the US on issues of trade, immigration and foreign policy. For Trump this is a personal sensitivity as much as it is political. Trump feels humiliated even by being in proximity to people who are less than perfect – for example, those who are not beautiful by his standards. Trump also feels humiliated by strong, opinionated women and by the media. Trump only wants to hear nice things about himself, as he hears from Vladimir Putin. Otherwise Trump goes ballistic. And he could have his hands on the nuclear codes.
Fear and Humiliation Limit Cognitive Abilities
The difficulty with humiliation is it’s buried deep in the most ancient part of the brain — the “reptilian” brain. Seemingly, humiliation has no half-life, as we know from places like Kosovo.
In general, the difficulty with fear is it trumps reasoning. Cognitively speaking, fear wreaks havoc on mature thinking and language. Frightened people become like a komodo dragon whose main life project is to patrol the border of its territory and strike out at anything not a friend or a familiar. It’s a very primitive way of being.
The result is not just a simple dominance of emotion over reason, as some have posited to explain the success of Brexit. The worst consequence of fear is not that it obliterates the possibility of rationality or compromise. The capability that is most needed in today’s world is not that of finding a least common denominator.
What the world needs now is imagination. Fear foreshortens the time and motivation needed for the mind to integrate differences and think imaginatively.
Fear reels in our vision, literally and metaphorically. A frightened person loses sight of the forest, the bigger operative concept, the wider context. Each data point or thought becomes separated and isolated from all others. As a result, a frightened person lives a kind of frenetic, staccato ‘now.’ There is no time to ponder, to wonder or to think. There’s only room to act…defensively.
Fear deflates open minds into absolutist minds, parsing only in extreme binary terms. Are you like me, or not? Are you with me or against me? Subtlety and complexity are erased. All that is left is black or white, no greys.
Fear can make cynics of us all. Frightened, we come to expect the worst and if and when it happens we say, I told you so. A fearful attitude in everyday life produces an over-vigilance for threat, never for shared opportunity. The world is seen as a fixed pie. Someone’s loss is someone else’s gain. The only way I’m up is if ‘The Other’ is down.
It’s one thing, evolutionarily speaking, to err on the side of safety, as our distant ancestors sometimes needed to do when encountering a larger, faster and stronger predator on the savannah. But the modern context is different. We are not necessarily in a choice of hit-out or skedaddle.
Our habitat now is populated not by wooly mammoths, but by technology, the speed of change produced by technology, global competition and an enervating complexity. The necessary tools to deal with this complexity are not stones or other sharp objects. The required tools are cognitive in nature: Metaphorical thinking and the ability to conceive of higher order concepts that bring together seemingly opposable constructs.
It is Trump’s cognitive inclinations that disqualify him for the US presidency, even more than his temperament.
Americans Have a Choice To Make
We are all battered by life. That’s life. We all – each of us, no matter what our external station in life is – are fighting monsters. We now need to stand erect and get out of our crouched postures to get a firmer footing about what a life is and how to imagine a wider range of options than is usually considered. What is required to go beyond fear is a mature, cognitive audacity.
Does America – does the world — want the next US president to see everything as a reptile, as a high-noon shoot out? Fear versus Hope. That’s the choice American voters will soon make. Their task is difficult: To fit a square peg into an Oval Office.
By Dr. Bob Deutsch, Founder and President, Brain Sells.
This article originally appeared on the Huffington Post.