Threats of January 6-like violence could grow as Donald Trump’s 2024 campaign goes forward, one neuroscientist argues.
As the 2024 U.S. presidential election approaches we can expect tensions between the political left and right to intensify.
That being said, it’s essential to understand the psychological forces at play that may predict a rise not just in disagreement, but in violence. The social psychology theory known as terror management theory offers a powerful lens through which to view the growing polarity and potential hostility, and how that could manifest as violence depending on what happens with Donald Trump — legally and politically — in the coming year.
Terror management theory explains how existential terror — the fear provoked by anything seen as a threat to one’s existence — motivates us to adopt cultural worldviews. Examples of cultural worldviews are religions, national identities and political ideologies. To keep our fear in check, we often cling to philosophies that make us feel safe and give us a sense of purpose amid chaos and uncertainty.
Terror management theory
is particularly relevant to current political events because it provides a scientific explanation for tribalism. The theory suggests that in the face of threat or fear, we bolster our worldviews, and become more ideological. We also develop a stronger tribal identity, which strengthens our affinity for others who share our views and increases our propensity for aggressiveness against those who do not.
This is precisely what studies have shown.
A particularly amusing experiment demonstrated this by weaponizing hot sauce. Scientists divided students into two groups and tasked them with writing an essay — either about their own death or a neutral, non-threatening topic.
The students were then introduced to someone who either disparaged or respected their political views, and then asked to choose the amount of mouth-burning hot sauce this person would have to consume. Consistent with the hypothesis of terror management theory, participants induced with existential terror wanted to punish those with an opposing worldview with more hot sauce. The control group did not. While this study was designed to be completely safe, the results suggest that, in real life, the same psychological effect could lead to actual violence, and likely does all the time.
A more disturbing terror management theory study conducted with Iranian and U.S. college students found similar results. One group was instructed to ponder their physical death and describe the ensuing emotions, while the control group was given analogous questions related to dental pain.
The results were revealing: Iranian students contemplating death were more supportive of martyrdom attacks against the U.S., while those in the control group opposed them. Similarly, existential fear led U.S. conservative students to endorse severe military attacks on foreign nations that would kill large numbers of civilians.
Through these studies, one can clearly see how fear and polarization can strengthen nationalism, exacerbate bias against other groups and fuel hostile behavior.
Not only does existential fear increase tribalism and aggression, we also know that it can directly increase support for Trump, who is again seeking the Republican presidential nomination after losing the presidency in 2020.
In order to conduct a research at the College of Staten Island 152 students were split into two groups. Similar to the previous example, one group was exposed to exercises triggering thoughts about death, while the other underwent similar exercises about pain. The next questions focused on the views of both groups and their intentions to vote for Trump in the upcoming election. The results were telling: the group primed with death-related thoughts showed increased support for Trump, irrespective of their initial political leanings.
This suggests that an atmosphere of existential fear would simultaneously promote aggression while strengthening support for Trump, who regularly projects a “strongman” image and suggests violence as a remedy to political matters.
This is a very scary combination of psychological effects. For this reason we must be aware of this problem which will become increasingly salient as the 2024 presidential election begins to heat up.
How do we know that the threat is real that this is not just more fear mongering?
I would argue that we have already seen the dynamic that terror management theory describes in action. Heather Heyer a counter protester protesting the Unite the Right rally held in Charlottesville in 2018 was run over by a white supremacist and 19 others were injured. In 2020, a man drew a hunting bow on protestors in Salt Lake City before being taken out by the crowd, a chilling moment that was captured on video. And on the day of the Capitol riot — a collective display of Trump-inspired aggression — a pipe bomb was found a few blocks from the Capitol building. Earlier this month, purported Ku Klux Klan members threatened LGBTQ activists with guns at a peaceful rally in Kentucky.
Now that the election is on the horizon we can expect similar events to transpire.
For example, what will the response from Trump supporters be if their political messiah is found guilty on a charge that warrants prison time? What if Democrats attempt to ban Trump from running for president over his legal issues? What if he is allowed to run again but loses? What might we expect if Trump rallies his loyal troops and commands them to retaliate? Is another Jan. 6 attack inevitable? Is one that’s even more destructive possible?
It’s not just the cult of Trump we have to worry about, though. The left is not immune to the effects of existential fear, and there is no doubt that we are seeing increased tribalistic behavior among liberals, too. This means that conscious effort must be taken to keep cool, calm and collected as our fear centers are activated and we inevitably become prone to aggression, be it written, verbal or physical.
To use Newton’s third law as a metaphor — for every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction. Since aggression from one side provokes fear and aggression among the other side, a dangerous feedback loop gets created, which will continue to divide the nation to such a degree that something like a civil war emerges. It may be a “cold civil war,” but such a development would almost assuredly result in violence, destruction and death.
Understanding and educating the public about the psychological processes operating at the individual and communal levels is vital as we move into an uncertain future. A keen awareness of the cognitive factors contributing to our emotional and tribal responses can cultivate more conscious decision-making and potentially diffuse the threat of aggression and violence.
So we must be empathetic during these times but we must also be vigilant. If we stay on the current trajectory of increasing polarization we can almost be certain that a whole new level of unrest is headed our way. The issue now is whether we can utilize this information to stop the impending train accident. But I’m an optimist and I think if we can predict something ahead of time we can figure out how to prevent it. That is precisely why science has been such a powerful force for human civilization, and it’s time we start applying that knowledge to solving the existential threat that is the culture war in America.