A neuroscientist explains how Trump's rhetoric can warp a person's brain into thinking domestic terrorism is justifiable
Cesar Sayoc at a Trump rally (Twitter)

It’s no secret that Donald Trump’s political tactic of choice is fear mongering. Muslims are terrorists, and those who aren’t hate America. Hispanic immigrants are murderers and rapists. The migrant caravan headed toward the southern border is full of criminals.

There is no doubt this strategy is effective, especially among his supporters, but as we have seen over the last few weeks, it can also be deadly. Why? Because Trump frames these minority groups as being an existential threat to Americans. And when unstable people feel that their life is being threatened, or that the existence of their “ingroup” — those who share their cultural worldview and national or ethnic identity — is at risk, they will resort to the most extreme measures to “protect” themselves and their loved ones. The psychology underlying this phenomenon can be understood by considering a well-established psychology theory, known as Terror Management Theory (TMT).

In the animal kingdom, humans have a unique awareness of their own mortality. Our intelligence and self-awareness allow us recognize that death is not only inevitable, but can occur at any time for reasons that cannot be controlled or predicted in advance. To manage this profound terror, TMT says humans create cultural worldviews — like religions, political ideologies, and national identities — that instill life with meaning and value, which distracts from and eases the fear of death. Cultural worldviews also diminish death anxiety by offering paths to immortality. While religions offer a road to literal immortality through the concept of an afterlife, political ideologies and national identities offer paths to symbolic immortality. Symbolic immortality refers to being part of something larger that will outlive the physical self, and people strive to achieve this through leaving a legacy, or doing something that will get one remembered by society long after death.

TMT predicts that when thoughts about death are triggered, people will do all they can to preserve and strengthen their cultural worldviews, since it is those worldviews that act as a death anxiety-buffer. This means clinging to those worldviews more strongly, as well as defending those who share those worldviews and aggressively opposing those who do not. They may also seek paths to symbolic immortality, committing acts that they will be remembered for.

The bombing attempt and synagogue mass shooting represent extreme responses to perceived existential threat, induced by President Trump’s heated and divisive rhetoric. Immigrants and Muslims, as well as those who support them — liberal politicians and citizens — are seen as a direct threat to “true Americans,” as well as the overall American or Christian worldview. The intense aggression toward minorities — outgroup members — is predicted by Terror Management Theory, as are the acts of terror. These heinous crimes are attempts by the terrorist to achieve symbolic immortality. They are efforts to be remembered forever by their cultural group, as a savior, or a martyr. But in reality, the perpetrators are neither of those things. They are psychopaths and murderers.

According to Terror Management Theory, reducing the aggression toward outgroup members, as well as the terror attacks or attempts, should be easy — at least in theory. All the president has to do is tone down the rhetoric, and quit presenting minorities as an existential threat to Americans and America. However, actually getting Trump to do this is not an easy task, as he knows that the fear mongering stokes existential terror, and that is the primary thing keeping him popular with his base. Without the fear, Trump isn’t as attractive. So he will likely continue with the dangerous rhetoric, and as long as it continues, the reign of terror will continue as well.

Bobby Azarian is a neuroscientist affiliated with George Mason University and a freelance journalist. His research has been published in journals such as Cognition & Emotion and Human Brain Mapping, and he has written for The New York Times, The Atlantic, Psychology Today, and Scientific American. Follow him @BobbyAzarian.