Why the deeply psychological war with Donald Trump has only just begun: neuroscientist

Why the deeply psychological war with Donald Trump has only just begun: neuroscientist
Image via Gage Skidmore.

Most of us are sick and tired of hearing about Donald Trump. We want him to go away, forever. But the unfortunate truth is that just isn’t happening—not any time soon, at least. Trump’s influence over the Republican party is as great as ever, and if we ignore that, it is like ignoring an infection. It will fester and spread and eat away at the flesh of America unless it is dealt with. But what is the antibiotic that stops the cultural disease that is Donald Trump?

First, we must realize that we are engaged in something like a game of chess. To defeat our opponent, we must be thinking many steps ahead, and we must try to anticipate what they are going to do. We must rely on our rational mind and our reactions must be mindful and strategic, rather than reflexive and impulsive. That may sound like obvious advice, but so far, the Left has been responding predictably, without foresight or strategy, and playing right into Trump’s hand as a result. The more CNN and MSNBC attack Trump and say he is the anti-Christ, the more he is loved by the Right. They think, “If he’s pissed them off that much, he must be doing something right!”

It’s time to acknowledge a failed strategy and try something new. If we don’t, nothing will change, and Trump will keep his influence over almost half the country. He may even get re-elected, as absurd as that sounds in light of the events that transpired on January 6th of last year. But if he does not—whether it’s because he loses or is not allowed to run—there will still be half of the nation following Trump and that influence will be felt in Congress and on the streets. So how can we start playing the game differently?

The intention of this warning is not to prepare us for war, but to avoid it. To prevent the outbreak of a physical war, we may have to engage in a psychological war. It’s the kind of war where no one dies, and our weapon is simply convincing content. But before we entertain some potential solutions and strategies, we should have a sense of how Trump is going to play the game, based on what we know about his psychology. In theory, if we can predict him, we can disarm him.

There’s Nothing More Dangerous Than a Man with Nothing to Lose

My first article about Donald Trump, published in January of 2016, described his narcissistic personality disorder and why it made him a dangerous world leader. According to Raw Story, it was their most popular article ever, receiving an estimated 30 million views over the years. I was not alone in this assessment—more than a few clinical psychologists have identified Trump as a “textbook narcissist.” Two years into his presidency, I wrote a similar piece that explored how Trump might respond to “narcissistic injury,” which occurs when a narcissist loses power and gets disgraced.

When Trump lost the presidency to Joe Biden, he became filled with rage and obsessed with revenge. The first thing he tried to do was overturn the election using an angry mob. Ever since his “fall from grace” (though technically there was no ‘grace’ to begin with), he has nothing to lose, and this makes him more dangerous than ever. His narcissistic injury has created narcissistic rage, and this rage means he will try to destroy all those he has a vendetta against. To achieve his goal, he will play dirty, gaslight, and intimidate at a level that would seem extreme even for him. Right now, he is doing everything in his power to systematically fill the Republican party with loyalists and sycophants who will do his bidding with no regard for laws or fairness. The question is, is there anything that can be done about it?

As long as Trump is the most popular figure with right-wing America, Republican politicians will be forced to fall in line. It would seem that what must be done is changing how Trump is perceived by his followers. To do that, we must understand the worldview of his supporters, and why they see Trump as their savior. If we can socially engineer a “fall from grace” with the majority of his supporters, then Republican politicians and Fox News pundits will all begin jumping ship. It briefly looked like that was going to happen when the Capitol Building was being stormed, but Trump cleverly strong-armed them all back into submission.

We are in a War of Worldviews

As a cognitive neuroscientist who has been analyzing Donald Trump and his supporters over the last six years—in dozens of articles for websites like Raw Story, The Daily Beast, and Psychology Today, and in interviews with progressive voices like The Young Turks and David Pakman—I have come to realize that the war with Trump is a war of worldviews. But it is not as simple as the Right versus the Left, and if we make the mistake of thinking it is, then we are missing a massive factor in his continued popularity and will remain clueless about how to combat it.

Yes, it’s true that Trump has become the messiah for conservative America, and that Christian fundamentalists make up a big chunk of his support. These people feel like the conservative worldview is dying and that their Christian values and customs will fade into oblivion if something drastic isn’t done to reverse the trend towards secularism. Fox News fuels these fears daily, and Trump saw an opportunity to exploit the existential terror. But make no mistake—Trump is not a religious man and at his core he is no conservative. It is commonly known but ignored that he used to be a Democrat and a good buddy of both Bill and Hillary Clinton, not to mention Jeffrey Epstein, whose sleazy values were anything but conservative.

Steve Bannon’s social engineering helped Trump win over conservative America, and similar information warfare could reverse that. A deep and thorough character study of Donald’s anti-conservative past, that forces his followers to see him as an opportunist and not one of them, could go a long way if it were presented by a source that the Right perceives to be a neutral party. His followers will not watch CNN or MSNBC, so the challenge would be to figure out how to deliver the story to them from a source they trust, or at least don’t despise. Truth be told, not all his conservative supporters are racist or bad people. Many just believe everything that Right-wing media feeds them and are convinced that the Left is the real danger to America. If these conservatives can be persuaded that the reality show star is not a true tribe member, it could hurt Trump’s dominance over the Republican party, and reveal to everyone that he’s not invincible. We should not expect this content to make them switch political sides, but if it can weaken Trump’s grip on America, the effort could be worth it.

Perhaps the most important thing to understand about what is happening in America is that people want change. Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders were the most popular presidential candidates because they were the ones promising to take on corruption in Washington and money in politics—even if one of them wanted to do none of those things in reality. People are angry at an economic situation that has led to the highest level of income inequality the nation’s ever seen. Billionaires and corporations on both sides have control over the stories media outlets run and influence the laws to work in their favor. What if we can offer something new to the rational people on the Left and the Right who want systemic change? What if it could be radically progressive—in the sense that the ideas are profoundly different—but in ways that appeal to people across the political spectrum? Is that even possible?

A New Political Party is the Way Forward

Former Democratic presidential candidate Andrew Yang and former New Jersey governor Christine Todd Whitman have founded a new party known as the Forward Party, and it has already announced candidates who will be running for office in the midterm elections.

The party is focused on depolarizing America and healing the division, but without proposing policies that are directly in the center, since they also do not move America “forward.” Because it is open to candidates who lean right and left, it is bipartisan, but it also the definition of progressive, because its platform consists of many radical new ideas—like Yang’s plan for universal basic income (UBI). It may sound like an oxymoron, but the Forward Party might just be America’s first “bipartisan progressive party.”

Could a third party be the thing that unites all rational Americans in a war against corruption, political extremism, and Trumpism? It is hard to say, since neither side seems to be too interested in compromise, and divisive issues like abortion and gun control make any kind of reconciliation difficult to imagine. And what new big ideas is the Forward Party offering that make it something radically different from the Democratic party?

I, for one, believe it is a step in the right direction, though I understand if some think the Forward Party is too young to stand a real chance in the next presidential election. However, if there was ever a time that a third party actually stood a chance, it is right now. If the Forward Party’s presidential candidate seems like the best choice for America, a reasonable strategy would be to support that candidate right up until the moment it seems like defeating Trump is no longer possible. At that point, the Forward Party candidate would urge their supporters to vote for the candidate who can ensure Trump never gets back into the oval office. But if the Forward Party’s pick is polling well and has a chance to win, then it would seem like the perfect opportunity to break America’s infamous two-party system. According to the Washington Post, a growing number of experts believe that the way to fix democracy is to move beyond the two-party system.

As a scientist, I believe that a scientific approach to improving society is what America needs. To be clear, that doesn’t mean looking to existing science for answers—most of our problems will not have obvious answers that can be found in any text book. I simply mean that we should always be experimenting with new ways of doing things and collecting data to see what is or is not working. That way we can collectively adapt and evolve and become an optimally-functional system. Evolutionary theory has shown us that organisms that can’t adapt to a changing world die out. Complex systems science says that social systems are similar to organisms in terms of their dynamics and structure. That means societies must also be able to adapt to a changing world. In other words, they have to be self-correcting. In his best-selling book The Beginning of Infinity, the theoretical physicist David Deutsch—father of quantum computing—explained how societies can be structured to be optimally self-correcting. This requires implementing mechanisms for error detection and correction. If the Forward Party wants to truly be forward-thinking, it must look at the strategies for optimizing systems discovered by nature and cataloged by science. This approach is known as “systems thinking,” and it is transforming how both scientists and citizens solve complex problems of all kinds.

In recent years, a growing number of scientists have recognized the societal significance of a statistical reasoning method known as Bayesian reasoning, which is a procedure for updating your theory, model, or belief-system in the face of new evidence. It involves a relatively complex mathematical formula but you don’t need to know any math to use informal Bayesian reasoning in everyday life—as philosopher Julia Galef explains in this short and accessible video. All you have to do is 1) consider all possible explanations for something, rather than relying purely on “gut instinct,” 2) rank and rate each theory according to how likely it is to be true based on all the known facts, 3) test each theory by using it to make future predictions, and 4) update how you ranked and rated the likelihood of each being true to reflect what you learned from the testing phase. Some of our most respected scientists, like cognitive psychologist Steven Pinker and theoretical physicist Sean Carroll, have identified Bayesian reasoning as a powerful tool in the war against irrationality, as it can combat misinformation and bogus conspiracy theories. At the same time, it can reveal real conspiracies should they exist, by demonstrating that a particular theory about a conspiracy explains the facts better than the alternatives, such as the mainstream narrative. What Bayesian reasoning provides in a nutshell is a universal approach to determining truth. Beliefs should not be believed blindly; they should be tested continually. This is another method for self-correction.

With these principles in mind, I created the Road to Omega Substack to sketch out how the sciences of complexity—like systems science, evolutionary theory, and statistical science—can reveal new ways to design optimally functional and resilient social, political, and economic systems. Not only that, collectively these sciences illuminate what could be called a “new cosmic narrative”—a picture of the universe as a creative system that inevitably generates complexity in the form of life, consciousness, and civilization. That means that we are not accidents of nature, we are actually the primary drivers of this complexity growth process. An awareness of this fact can instill within us a purpose, that purpose being to see that our civilization progresses into a more complex, integrated, and intelligent state of existence; one that acquires the ability to get off of the planet before our sun dies and takes all sentient life with it. I have described this new scientific paradigm, which creates a foundation for a unifying worldview, in my new book The Romance of Reality: How the Universe Organizes Itself to Create Life, Consciousness, and Cosmic Complexity.

If a progressive ideology is one that aims to bring about human progress, then it must view society as a whole as an adaptive system, and it must look to the new sciences of complexity to understand the evolutionary mechanisms that drive organisms toward higher organization and computational capacity. The Forward Party is a chance to build a political party that is self-correcting and constantly evolving, rather than dogmatic and rigid. It is young and therefore can be shaped and sculpted into a truly progressive party, one that is not under the influence of billionaires and corporations that don’t have the best interests of the people in mind. It is also a chance to weaken the grip that Donald Trump has on the nation, by offering a new political option that is uncorrupted by money and untainted by extremist elements. The country desperately needs radical change, but change that is rooted in logic and rationality. Those are the requirements for change that moves us forward and not backward; that is, for change to be progress.

Bobby Azarian is a cognitive neuroscientist, an author, and a Psychology Today blogger. Follow him on Twitter and Instagram @BobbyAzarian.

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