Talking Across Tribal Terror

November 3, 2018

We’re all getting an education in communication across boundaries, see yesterday’s post.

Journalists are now starting to learn, as a matter of survival, those things that climate scientists and communicators have been figuring out for the last decade.


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.


It is not until the day after my week of Trump rallies ends in North Carolina that the consequences become fully apparent of a nation whose civilian population owns vastly more guns than any other being led by a man who whips up racial fears and mocks national unity. On Saturday 27 October, two hours after he had posted a rant against “invaders that kill our people”, Robert Bowers enters a synagogue in Pittsburgh, pulls out an AR-15 style assault rifle and at least three handguns, and kills 11 Jewish worshippers.

Within a few hours of the Pittsburgh attack Trump is back at his next rally in Illinois promising “strong borders, no crime, and no caravans”. Within 48 hours of the attack he has renewed his unfounded claims that “very bad people” are mixed in with the caravan and that the “fake news media” is the “enemy of the people”.

But those events still lie in the future. Tonight in Wisconsin, the crowd are focused on only one thing – hearing their leader. It includes Steve Spaeth (no relation), 40, who runs a home exteriors company in West Bend. I ask him who he regards as his political enemies, and whether “hate” is too strong a word.

“Not at all,” he says. “I have a deep and absolute disgust for these human beings.”

Which ones?

He rattles off CNN, Soros, Clinton, Waters, Booker, “Pocahontas” AKA Elizabeth Warren, and others.

Why do you hate them?

“They want to turn America into a socialistic country. It’s disgusting.”

I ask Spaeth how far he is prepared to take his hatred. In reply, he tells a story. The other day he talked to his sister, who is liberal and votes Democratic. He said to her: “If there is a civil war in this country and you were on the wrong side, I would have no problem shooting you in the face.”

You must be joking, I say.

“No I am not. I love my sister, we get on great. But she has to know how passionate I am about our president.”

4 Responses to “Talking Across Tribal Terror”

  1. sailrick Says:

    This is a national emergency.
    Truth be told, the media they hate so much, has actually pussyfooted around the extremism of what used to be the Republican party. They constantly speak of gridlock and lack if bipartisanship, with the implication that both parties are equally to blame. But only one of them has gone batshit crazy, which anyone with an iota of awareness, knows.

    The GOP is off the rails bonkers, a party of conspiracy theory nuts, and worse. Its adherents live in an alternate reality, where up is down, hot is cold, Obama ruined the economy but Trump’s saving it, the entire world’s climate scientists are perpetrating a hoax. Democrats are all socialists, or communists, and supposedly religious people embrace vulgar Donald Trump, and advocate political policies that are all the exact opposite of what Jesus taught.
    Many of the GOP politicians are trying to turn the country into a theocracy, Pence, Sessions, Cruz, Devos, and many more, in direct contradiction to what the Founding Fathers adamantly envisioned for America.

    Vote BLUE

    • sailrick Says:

      I’m sure most readers here know of this quote, but it has never been more appropriate

      “Mark my word, if and when these preachers get control of the [Republican] party, and they’re sure trying to do so, it’s going to be a terrible damn problem. Frankly, these people frighten me. Politics and governing demand compromise. But these Christians believe they are acting in the name of God, so they can’t and won’t compromise. I know, I’ve tried to deal with them.”

      – Republican Senator Barry Goldwater

  2. neilrieck Says:

    No one is saying that Trump = Hitler and yet both of these politicians created internal damage in their respective countries by demagoguing.

    demagog: a person, especially an orator or political leader, who gains power and popularity by arousing the emotions, passions, and prejudices of the people.

    Now I must point out that “fire is fire” and it doesn’t matter if it was set accidentally or on purpose. So if this is the end of civil discourse in the west then god help us all. I am certain that America’s founding fathers never would have approved of political rallies that appeared no different than WWE wrestling programs on TV.

    • dumboldguy Says:

      WHOA!—-some people ARE saying that Trump is at least a shadow of Hitler and is taking the USA down the same path that led to Nazi Germany. Remember the Nuremberg rallies? And don’t forget Mussolini talking to the crowds from the balcony of Palazzo Venezia in Rome.

      Yes, Trump is an ignorant and narcissistic performer, not a president, (and HAS “performed” on WWE), but you trivialize his behavior and his impact here by not comparing it instead to what took place in the 1930’s.

      Chaplin got it right, though:

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