Trump & Mortality

Ned Resnikoff has a good piece on how fear of death may help Donald Trump. You should check it out. When I read it, it reminded me that a few days before the 2014 election I wrote a piece on this phenomenon–the social science theory is called “terror management theory”–for a now-defunct media outlet which ended up not running it. Rather than let it die on my hard drive, I figured I might as well post the piece here. I didn’t include the introductory sections, about the context of the 2014 elections. 

ISIS and ebola are scary. And Republicans are using them—even combining them—to criticize Democrats, especially by linking them to Obama, who they imply is failing to keep America safe.

After 9/11, the American Psychological Association asked researchers Sheldon Solomon, Jeff Greenberg, and Tom Pyszczynski to write a book on how Americans would respond to the attacks. Beginning in the 1980’s, the three conducted experiments that became the basis of what they named terror management theory (TMT). Reminding people of their mortality often makes them consciously anxious. That anxiety eventually fades, sometimes in as little as a second or two. But, according to TMT, a subconscious awareness of mortality lingers longer, and a person’s psychological response is to reinforce their worldview. They will think more favorably toward those with whom they share their traits and values, and less favorably toward those they perceive as outsiders. Hundreds of experiments in several countries have produced results that support the theory. Interventions as subtle as interviewing subjects outside a funeral home have produced significant results.

For their post-9/11 research the Solomon team used TMT to examine political behavior. In one experiment, subjects were presented three statements by hypothetical candidates running for governor. Compared with the group that was not primed to be aware of their mortality, those made aware of death were much more likely to favor a swaggering , charismatic appeal to shared values than appeals that were pragmatic and task-oriented, or about relationships and respect for all. Later experiments showed stronger support for Bush when subjects were reminded of their mortality. Solomon believes that the 2004 election was influenced by factors such as terror alerts, the Osama Bin Laden video, and the Bush campaign’s focus on terrorism.

It is not clear, however, that reminders of mortality remain long after the exposure, and how much, if any, they effect voting behavior. TMT also does not account for the ranking of priorities in how people vote. African Americans, for instance, may be as susceptible as caucasians to a TMT effect, but it may do little or nothing to override their strong allegiance to the Democratic party. And appeals to charisma do not work only with conservatives. TMT research shows that people who lean liberal, when made aware of their mortality, will rally as strongly to a charismatic liberal leader as the experiment subjects rallied to Bush. Fear may rally both parties’ bases and offset the effects. Even a small fear effect could be the insufficient but necessary factor that decides an election. But there are structural and ideological reasons that fear may not deliver Republicans their senate majority.

Bush was an executive, whereas the Republicans are tying to use fear for legislative offices. People yearning for a strong leader aren’t inspired by “elect me to the Senate where I will issue strongly worded statements objecting to Obama’s failure to implement a travel ban between West Africa and the U.S.” And with Bush in the White House, conservatives could champion military action, robust surveillance, and favoring government coercion over civil liberties. But most conservatives do not trust any of those powers in the hands of a man many see as subverting American power and values.

Even if Republicans held the White House, bombing would not stave off ebola. To prevent an ebola epidemic we need experts, and bureaucrats, and properly-funded government agencies that can force people to do things they prefer not to do. Even ISIS is not entirely a military conflict; for instance, the Treasury Department is trying to choke off their revenue from oil smuggling. Government solutions are a problem for Republicans, because for forty years Republicans have told Americans to fear the government itself.

This may be why Republican attacks on the competence of the Federal government appear to have failed to keep ebola fear at fever pitch. Focus groups with mothers in Louisiana and North Carolina have find women feeling “the world continues to be sad and dangerous.” And there is evidence that with small but important slivers of the electorate that problems such as the surge of children at the border and the events in Ferguson MO may have hurt Democrats. But Americans who believe Ebola is a threat to the US are unlikely to believe it is a threat to their own community or family, and recent polls show fear of ebola subsiding and trust in the federal government’s ability to handle ebola growing.

Democrats may do poorly on Tuesday if enough voters have an unusually heightened sense of their mortality. But they may hold on to the Senate if Republican message on the government is ineffective, and if voters aren’t scared, but just angry. And sad.


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