Rhetoric in this year’s election is triggering something deep and dangerous in voters’ rage circuits—and neuroscience shows how they’re exploiting our primal fears.
Bloodthirsty rage appears to have swept up the American people, like mass hysteria boiling up in an angry mob. Discussions of deadly violence have become central to this presidential election season, with calls for killing in political ads and debates not just the ravings of a single fringe candidate. Gone are the intellectual arguments that have dominated our presidential debates for two centuries—this time it is the brain’s limbic system “fear center,” not the cerebral cortex, that candidates are tapping to drive public discourse.
The word “kill” was said 53 times in the Dec. 15, 2015, Republican presidential primary debate. Here’s a sampling. Ted Cruz: “… we will hunt down and kill the terrorists.” Donald Trump: “These are people that want to kill us…” Trump also advocates killing family members of ISIS terrorists. Lindsay Graham: “They’re trying to come here to kill us all…” Mike Huckabee: “We have to kill some terrorists and kill every one of them….”
By contrast, the word “kill” was never used in the 1960 Nixon-Kennedy presidential debate, despite the era’s dire threat of global nuclear annihilation. The “K” word was not spoken by any of 2000’s Republican candidates—George W. Bush, Alan Keys, or John McCain—in their final debate on March 2 of that year; nor was it uttered in the Jan. 30, 2008, final GOP debate among candidates Huckabee, McCain, Ron Paul, and Mitt Romney.
Clearly, these urgent calls for killing are a reaction to the widespread fear of terrorism gripping our nation. But when we operate out of fear, we are prone to making mistakes. This is not a matter of policy—it’s physiology. Republican or Democrat, hawk or dove, how our brain responds at times of perceived danger and how our cognitive function and behavioral reactions are overwhelmed by fear must be fully recognized.
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Photo credit: By Charles Levy from one of the B-29 Superfortresses used in the attack. – http://www.archives.gov/research/military/ww2/photos/images/ww2-163.jpg National Archives image (208-N-43888), Public Domain.