Post-Election Reflections on Humans as Humans

Forget Occupying Wall Street. Now it’s Displacing the Establishment.

For those who were against Donald Trump, venting one’s anger in protest is a true expression of American democracy. There are no tanks in our streets. But venting is not enough. We — all of us — need to understand why Trump, as president-elect, happened. Then we can move forward, strategically.

Donald Trump, the outsider, won the electoral college over Hillary Clinton, the insider. Why? To answer this question we have to proceed with clear eyes.

The typical answer we’ve already heard is many people wanted change. In campaign-language we heard this as “Drain the Swamp!” There was a subset of voters who even said they disagreed and disliked Trump, but voted for him, anyway. Any change will do. Washington gridlock is one reason. Deeper reasons need to be given voice.

Put succinctly, what has led to this startling election result is fear. Now in America, an underlying fear is felt even by many of those who voted for Hillary Clinton. Fear is a main current running through our zeitgeist.

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, when the Twin Towers and the Pentagon were punctured by hideous airplanes. 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.

More recently Americans are again in an implicit state of preparation to crouch down in a defensive posture from the real and imagined terror of ISIS, now coming into our neighborhoods. Likewise, many Americans and many Western Europeans are set back on their heels by the advent of untold numbers of immigrants, those ‘Others’ — “Them” — arriving at their shores and in their neighborhoods.

However, even before these sweeping, geopolitical forces seeped into our consciousness, many Americans began seeing their livelihoods being diminished. In particular, many white, non-college educated men were feeling impotent as their status as men drooped. Man, the Hunter, still wants to bring home the bacon. As a consequence, the democratic “Blue Wall” came tumbling down, its hinges rusted. Women in this category were also roused by fear. Relatedly, Bernie Sanders tapped into millennials who rightly feel they cannot rely on the societal structures that buoyed early generations. Hillary Clinton and her whole team missed this major dynamic presently in our culture.

This personal predicament of falling down the dominance hierarchy has deep, human — even neuro-physiological — ramifications that are biological, not only psychological. For example, when a tribal warrior in primitive, pre-literate cultures losses status and blood samples are drawn before and after such an occurrence, levels of serotonin fall precipitously. When another tribesman adorns himself with feathers from a bird thought to carry magical powers, his serotonin levels rise. In humans, there is an intimate connection between body and mind, and between mind and body.

A lot of what impacts on voting is deeper than the top-of-mind questions asked by pollsters. Media take heed. People exist on two-levels of experience, simultaneously: The mundane, where media operate, and the universal-biological-mythological-metaphoric that drives much of human behavior.

Fear and Cognition

Fear warps human cognitive capabilities.

Fear is the most base of all emotions. Fear can make people vote for a square peg like Donald Trump and put him into an Oval Office.

The difficulty with fear is it’s buried deep in the most ancient part of the brain — the “reptilian” brain. Fear 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 of fear 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 paradoxical differences and think imaginatively.

Fear reels in our vision, literally and metaphorically. We lose the forest, the bigger operative concept, the wider context. Each data point or thought becomes separated and isolated from all others. We then live 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.

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 common concerns and 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 African 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. Our necessary tools are not stones or other sharp objects. The required tools now are cognitive in nature: Metaphorical thinking and how to conceive of higher order concepts that bring together seemingly opposable constructs to create new ideas.

Blaming those ‘crazies’ and calling those who voted for Trump names will not solve the many significant problems America is presently facing, nor address the wide divide between various segments of American society. Fear can make any of us a bit “crazy,” cognitively speaking.

We can’t ignore America is a deeply-divided country, with many of its citizens angry, frustrated, resentful and frightened. We cannot shut our eyes to this and tell ourselves that it’s the “other” that’s the problem, because then, we will have learned nothing and it will only continue to get worse, and more dangerous.

We must identify the real causes of our current context, and be involved, and be more mindful of not perpetuating this feeling of anger and fear and discord.

Now Americans are in what can be called an “identity struggle,” wherein issues are quickly set aside and are immediately replaced by an argument about who’s good and who’s bad. This simply maintains the status quo. We must be better than this.
We must be wide-eyed and not live with eyes wide shut.

by Dr. Bob Deutsch

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