“We Are All Going to Die — Someday” Transcript
Guest: Dr. Sheldon Solomon
Sheldon Solomon: You know, he’s a vulgar, sadistic, vindictive, pathologically narcissistic, sociopathic, misogynistic, racist, xenophobic, functionally illiterate, Twittering, Mussolini Cheez Doodle impersonator.
Michael Epstein: Welcome to our maiden episode of Mind of State. I’m Michael Epstein.
Betty Teng: And I’m Betty Teng. And together, we are your hosts. Here at Mind of State, we don’t so much discuss the news as we psychoanalyze it by talking to some of the smartest, most interesting minds in the social sciences.
Michael: We like to say that we put Trump and Trumpism on the couch in order to make America sane again, a daunting task, maybe, but we think we’re up to the challenge. Hi, Betty.
Betty: Hi, Michael.
Michael: How are you?
Betty: I’m good.
Michael: So I’m really thrilled today. It is our first episode. So that’s exciting, but I’m even more excited by who we have on for our first episode, Dr. Sheldon Solomon. Sheldon is a professor of psychology at Skidmore College and the coauthor of In the Wake of 9/11: The Psychology of Terror and more recently, The Worm at the Core: On the Role of Death in Life. Light reading. Must be a lot of fun at parties. Sheldon is an American Psychological Society fellow and a recipient of an American Psychological Association presidential citation. He is also the co-creator of Terror Management Theory, a fascinating social and psychological application of the work of cultural anthropologist Ernest Becker. And as I said, terror management theory is really the reason why we have Sheldon with us today. Well, you know, when Betty and I first embarked on Mind of State all of ten minutes ago.
Betty: That was ground zero.
Michael: Remember the old days? Remember when we started out?
Betty: That’s vintage in this day and age.
Michael: Sheldon, you genuinely, meaningfully were at the very, very top of my wishlist for guests I’d like to have on. And I say that because for me, your work helped me understand probably more than anything else I had read the 2016 presidential election and all of the turmoil and the chaos of the Trump presidency. The last two years hasn’t really. The election is, I like to say, you know, the courtship is the marriage. So the election campaign really did predict the kind of president we got. People had thought, oh well, he’ll elevate in the office and
Michael: He’ll pivot. No pivot, no elevation. And your insights genuinely gave me an intellectual framework to see what was going on in the media and with Trump himself and with Trump’s supporters and in particular, I think the angry, the ugly, and the incredibly divisive debate that we’re having right now as a country over immigration. And with that in mind, I’d like to welcome Sheldon Solomon.
Sheldon: Well, thank you, Michael and thank you, Betty. It’s a great honor to be here.
Michael: An honor.
Sheldon: And a delight.
Michael: There you go. Okay. Buttering us up. You’re our best guest we’ve ever had, Sheldon.
Sheldon: There you go.
Michael: Right out of the gate let me just say.
Sheldon: Always good to get in early.
Michael: Okay. So let’s start sunny and happy and then we can move to the Trump stuff, right. So death, right. Your work is a death focused, death, I mean, you know, your mother might say death obsessed.
Michael: So what is it about death that is so difficult for us as human beings? I mean, this is not a new idea. We all know we’re going to die, right. We are aware all over the place. Characters die in books.
Michael: So it’s not you know, I read I was like, you know, what’s the big revelation here? Why haven’t we gotten past it by now? Why are we unable to accept the finite nature of a life?
Sheldon: Yeah. A great question. And I think that’s where Ernest Becker comes in. In 1973, he wins a Pulitzer Prize. Ironically, a few weeks after he died, for the book The Denial of Death. And Becker argued that this is the central, kind of, cog in human kind psychological apparatus, and that if we’re genuinely interested in understanding, as he put it, why do people do what they’re doing? And he’s like, well, we need to understand two things. One is that in many ways, we’re not any different than all other living creatures. We’re the products of evolution and we’re exquisitely designed over billions of years to persist at all costs. So fundamental to Darwin’s ideas are that all living things share a basic biological predisposition towards self-preservation.
Michael: We want to survive.
Sheldon: We want to survive. Living things like to stay alive. And I like that because in most places that’s a relatively non-controversial assumption.
Michael: Fight or flight.
Michael: Right, all of these biological things that we understand, you know, if a lion is going to attack the wildebeest, the wildebeest is going to run or is that gazelle or whatever it is, you know. And same thing with us.
Sheldon: Absolutely. And so, but then that raises the question of how are we distinctly and uniquely different? And Becker points out that we’re smarter. Although let me put that in quotes. And let me note that intelligence is vastly overrated unless it’s complemented by a host of moral and ethical sensibilities that we seem to be lacking at or in, rather, at times. But his point is, is we’ve got this ginormous forebrain. And it gives us the capacity to think abstractly and symbolically to the point where we could literally imagine things that don’t yet exist and then have the audacity to take our dreams and render them in reality.
Michael: So if I can. So, like, if in just the notion of, again, the lion, right. We have the ability, first of all, to communicate complex ideas.
Michael: Take these symbols. So I could say, hey, you know, Sheldon, I was down at the river this morning and I saw a lion. Don’t go there cause you’re going to die.
Sheldon: Absolutely. It is profoundly adaptive to be able to speak symbolically, to be able to reflect on past events and help us anticipate the future. And all of this for Becker is bound up with the fact that we’re so smart, as Kierkegaard noticed, that we actually realize that we exist and–
Michael: We value that we exist.
Sheldon: That’s correct. And a lot of people are like, well duh, obviously we know that we’re here. But Kierkegaard’s point is that we take self-awareness for granted because that’s our default cognitive apparatus. You know, you wake up in the morning, you’re like, I woke up, you know, you’re walking to work. You say, here I am walking to work.
Michael: Well, worse, you’re thinking about, you know, your awful boss. You’re thinking about getting your kids to school. You’re thinking about, you know, how you want to stay in and sleep or how cold and awful. I mean–
Sheldon: There you go.
Michael: You’re thinking about everything else but your existence.
Sheldon: Well, that’s quite correct. And Kierkegaard’s point was very simply, it takes a ridiculously sophisticated cognitive apparatus to make yourself the object of your own subjective inquiry. All right. English translation: rose bushes are here, but they don’t know it.
Michael: My dog, Ah can I just say I heard you talk, let me say to people listening for a second, we I promise you, I know we’re on Kirkegaard, but we will get to Trump and the wall. Don’t–
Sheldon: Oh absolutely.
Michael: Hold on. Stay with us.
Sheldon: We’ll get there pretty soon. So the rosebush is here but doesn’t know it, right.
Michael: So I heard you speak a couple of times and I could tell already that, like, there’s a there must be at every talk you do somebody in the audience who stands up and said, well, what about my dog?
Michael: Because you you’re like, don’t talk to me about the dogs. Well, because, you know, my dog has emotion.
Michael: I love Molly. I’ve a Fields Springer, an English Field Springer. She’s 12, right. She has attachment. She has rhythms. She has a personality.
Sheldon: Yeah. The dogs are unique and we may have to come back and do another session just on them. But basically a savvy wolf a couple hundred thousand years ago was like, God, I’m cold.
Michael: And hungry.
Sheldon: I’m gonna hang out with these primates and hope that they’ll give me a bone. Dogs in the wild, I would insist, have no idea of their own existence. Be that as it may be.
Michael: But Molly doesn’t know, my dog, doesn’t know she’s going to die.
Sheldon: That’s correct. At least in circumstances where she’s not directly threatened.
Michael: Right, that’s an instinctive thing.
Michael: Right, every animal has that under attack fight or flight whatever it is, I’m going to run or I’m going to push back.
Sheldon: There you go. A cockroach, a fly. So, you know, the question is, so what? And Kierkegaard says, look, if you’re smart enough to know that you’re here, that’s both exhilarating and terrifying. You know, it’s exhilarating to be alive and to know it. And, you know, I try to emphasize all the time, in part to remind myself how grateful we are in our finest moments, to just kind of wallow in the spontaneous exuberance of life itself. It’s art.
Michael: So to this point, what I find, and I keep relating it to my dog because she’s 12. My wife, who loves her way more than me for good reason, is already mourning her death. Now she’s perfectly healthy. She’s vibrant. She jumps. She could be six, right. But my wife is already anticipating mourning. She can make herself depressed by thinking about our dog’s mortality.
Sheldon: That’s it. Psychologically, that’s the crux of the matter. Because it’s not only that we realize we will someday die. You realize that you can die at any time for reasons that you can’t anticipate or control.
Betty: And what Jen is doing is protecting herself by inserting herself into the imaginary future of your dog’s inevitable demise. By saying that I’m gonna start now to protect myself, to galvanize myself by mourning her now, even though it’s obliterating her enjoyment of Molly’s existence at present. And that is what Sheldon seems to be also, what you’re talking about that we, by fearing the inevitable, truncate our present or do whatever we do in the present to protect ourselves against this terror of nonexistence. Gets back to Kierkegaard.
Sheldon: Yeah sure does.
Michael: And culture then we create
Sheldon: That would be Becker’s point and where our work takes off because the argument is that we would all literally be paralyzed with a debilitating existential terror. If that’s all you thought about. I’m going to die. I could walk outside and get hit by a comet. You know, I’m a breathing piece of defecating meat. I’m a cold cup with an attitude. You’d just be cowering under the table, you know, a twitching blob of biological protoplasm yearning for large sedatives. But most of us are able to stand up and walk around every day. And the answer is culture. What Becker hypothesizes is that what our ancestors did very cleverly, although quite unconsciously, is to develop views of the world, cultural world views that are beliefs about the nature of reality that we share with people in our group and this reduces death anxiety by giving us each a sense that life has meaning and that we have value. And this in turn gives us a gateway to immortality, either literally through the heavens and after lives of the world’s great religions, or symbolically, as the ancient Greeks told us, you may know you’re not going to be here forever, but you’re comforted by the prospect that some aspect of you will persist nonetheless. Maybe from having kids, maybe from writing a book, maybe from doing a great podcast and back.
Michael: It’s like the old Woody Allen joke, right. That’s I don’t want to live on through my work.
Sheldon: Yeah, I want to live on by not dying, right. So obviously the preferred form of immortality would be to not die in the first place. But the critical point here is that, according to Becker, what humans do to manage the existential terror that’s engendered by the uniquely human awareness of death is to envelop ourselves, to embrace cultural worldviews that tell us what life means, what we’re supposed to do while we’re here, and enable us to feel good about ourselves by meeting or exceeding the standards of value associated with the social roles that we inhabit.
Michael: All right. So let me shift gears a little bit. So we’ve now established, at least in these writings, the notion that we are aware of our death, that it does certain things to us. And as a response, we create all manner of cultures. Now that culture can be Christianity, can be Islam, it can be Hinduism, Judaism, it can be nationhood, right?
Sheldon: Absolutely right.
Michael: It does not need to be religion. It can be anything that makes sense of the universe and gives you a place in it. So it can be nationalism.
Michael: And often is in the modern world.
Michael: How do you then, because this is where I found your work fascinating and spot on and interesting, what happens to us and how do you measure what you call mortality salience, right? And what is, I mean, that’s a techie term maybe for a podcast, but what is mortality salience and what happens to us when we’re reminded of our death?
Sheldon: Yeah, great question. So just to backup for second. Becker wins a Pulitzer Prize and he couldn’t get a job as an academic. People just said, you’re an amusing clown. You’re an entertaining lecturer. These ideas are just speculative nonsense.
Michael: They’re soft.
Sheldon: They’re soft. They come from existential philosophy and psychoanalysis. There’s no evidence for them, nor can there be. And here’s where we come in, where egghead experimental social psychologists. We wrote a paper about Becker. We were like, hey, these ideas are important, sent it to the American Psychologist. It was rejected. One line review. I have no doubt that these ideas are of no interest whatsoever to any psychologists, alive or dead. Now we’re like, wow.
Michael: Wow. How old are you when you get that?
Sheldon: Unequivocal. We were in our early thirties. But being brash, we went to the editor at a conference. You know, I had a drink with one of those little umbrellas in it. Braced by ethanol infused beverages and I was like, dude, you know, you should publish our paper. And he’s like, that’s doctor dude to you. Show some respect. And he’s like you guys should get some evidence. He granted, to his credit, he’s like, look, these are interesting ideas, but no academic psychologist in North America or Europe will take you seriously until you can, quote, prove it in the traditional sense of the word. And so what we did was we came up with a very simple paradigm. And unfortunately, this is a discredit to the profession of psychology, but you have to have jargon for everything. So what we thought was, okay, let’s see if Becker’s right. If his argument that your beliefs about reality serve to minimize death anxiety has merit, then let’s see what happens if we bring people into the lab and we remind some of them that they’re going to die and others let’s remind them of something unpleasant but not fatal. You know, you have your leg cut off and an accident. You root canal on your teeth. You failed an exam.
Michael: You have to do a podcast.
Sheldon: That’s right. I have to do a podcast. Any of those things. So our view is Okay, Becker’s right. When you’re reminded that you’re going to die, you should cling more tenaciously to your cultural belief system. And we should be able to detect that by measuring your reactions either to people who share or support your beliefs or people who are opposed to them or merely different from them.
Michael: If you’re confronted with your death.
Sheldon: That’s right.
Michael: Then you will respond to someone outside your group differently than you will to someone within your cultural group.
Sheldon: Better. I like how you put it. You will like and support people in the ingroup and you will hate and harm people in the outgroup.
Betty: Under threat of existential death.
Sheldon: That’s correct. When existential threats are aroused. So now the question is all right, now how do we do that? So then we have jargon, okay, we’re gonna call that mortality salience. That’s just a fancy word for reminding you that you’re going to die. Sometimes we do it in a pretty straightforward fashion. Bring people into the lab. Give them a little questionnaire. And one of the questions is write down your thoughts and feelings about your own death or write down your thoughts and feelings about being in pain. At other times, we go outside the lab. We stop some people in front of a funeral parlor and other people we stop 100 yards to either side. Again, the logic is, well, if you’re in front of a funeral parlor, death might be on your mind. But you might not even know it. And then the most subtle paradigm that we use is subliminal death primes. You can come to my office at Skidmore and read your email. And while you’re doing that, we flash the word death for 48 milliseconds, so fast that you don’t even know that death is on your mind. And all of the things we’re going to talk about happen no matter how people are reminded.
Michael: So just standing in front of a funeral parlor is enough.
Sheldon: That’s correct. So these effects are incredibly subtle. And you need not know that death is on your mind for them to happen. All right, so one of the very first studies that we did was in Arizona. We had Christian participants. They were either reminded that they were going to die or about something unpleasant. And then we just asked them to rate other students in the room and some identified as coming from Christian families and some identified as coming from Jewish families. So all we wanted to see is whether or not their impressions of people varied as a function of their religion, depending upon if death was on their mind. All right first, the good news. In the control condition, the Christian participants rated the Jewish and Christian students equally, thus restoring my faith in humanity momentarily. On the other hand, when they were reminded of their mortality, they liked fellow Christians a lot more and they hated the Jews. And this has nothing to do with Christianity. To be silly, the five Jewish people who live in Arizona were busy that day, so we couldn’t do that experiment. But over in Israel, if you remind Jewish people they’re going to die, they love Jewish people and they hate Arabs and Christians and so on.
Betty: So in some senses, the more extreme the situation, meaning your death is imminent. Your death is here. You’re going to become very polarized.
Sheldon: That’s correct. And it will have innumerable potential reactions. So it’s not only about attitudes like when German people are reminded that they’re going to die, they sit closer to people who look like they’re German and they sit further away from people who look like they’re immigrants. When Iranians are reminded that they’re going to die, they become more supportive of suicide bombers and more willing to become one. Americans.
Michael: That’s amazing.
Sheldon: It is amazing. Americans are more pragmatic. We’re not going to blow ourselves up, but we’re happy to blow up other people. So when we remind Americans that their mortality, they become more supportive of the preemptive use of nuclear, biological, and chemical weapons.
Michael: But the interesting thing also, reading some of your work, was it’s not just the kind of really ugly, pernicious feelings. You did it with judges.
Sheldon: That’s correct.
Michael: And that one blew my mind.
Sheldon: It should. Astonishing. So this was actually the first study, Michael. We had municipal court judges reminded of their mortality. And then we asked them to set a bond for an alleged prostitute. And in the control condition, the bond was fifty dollars, which was the typical bond at the time. After being reminded of death, the judges set an average bond of over four hundred and fifty dollars. And why this is striking is that judges are trained to administer the law in a fair and dispassionate way. When we told the judges what we had done, they’re like, no way your stupid questionnaire could have influenced my judgment. I will tear your heart out of your chest and show it to you while it’s still beating.
Michael: Because I’m a rational person.
Sheldon: Because I’m a rational person.
Betty: This is also where the legal system, and the rest of us, take for granted the prefrontal cortex, the thinking brain as a powerful operating system above the evolutionary brain, or the midbrain. And I don’t think any of us really understand how powerful the evolutionary brain or the primal brain is.
Sheldon: Well put, Betty. And of course, Daniel Kahneman, the great Nobel Prize winning psychologist at Princeton, makes this point. You know, he posits that there’s two systems. And one is a kind of rational, reflective, I’m going to step back and think about things. But that’s not our default mental state. We occasionally lapse into rationality and coherence, but for the most part, we are quite driven by limbic and midbrain processes function.
Michael: And the thing is, it’s not an intellectual, it’s an emotional.
Michael: Right, it’s not that you’re sort of sitting here like we are with headsets and microphones and having this nice intellectual chat about it. You experience it as literally a, not an existence, but a physical thing.
Sheldon: Oh, absolutely. When I was here in Manhattan on September 11th, 2001, and I was at Brooklyn College at the time and saw the Twin Towers go down, I’m like, somebody’s got to die. And, you know, so even those of us who purport to be dispassionate scientists trying to figure out the so-called truth, but when push comes to shove, as Nietzsche put it, we’re all too human.
Michael: So this has all been fascinating. You could theoretically stop here, but you feel that these ideas, the terror management theory, the notion of our mortality and what it does to us has direct relation to understanding Donald Trump, Trumpism, the moment we live in right now. And I have to say, when we were preparing to launch Mind of State, it was during the midterm elections, we were starting to think about what, you know, what did we want to be, we’re going to do this in 2019. And everywhere it was the caravan. And I just kept thinking, oh, look what they’re doing. They’re doing terror management theory. With the caravan.
Sheldon: What they’re doing today.
Michael: Right. How does all of this explain, for you, Trump?
Sheldon: All right. So Trump comes down the elevator in 2015 with all the rental humans supposedly cheering him on, declares immigrants, specifically Mexicans and Muslims, to be drug dealers and rapists. And this doesn’t make me a savant, but I turned to my family and I said he’s gonna win.
Michael: Why? Everyone, you know, at that point, Huffington Post was saying, oh, we’re not going to cover him because he’s a joke.
Sheldon: Everyone. Because that was the same thing that people said about Hitler. You know, then people got to know Trump a little better. And you know we’re in New York now, so most people in New York, they’re like, wow, you know, he’s a vulgar, sadistic, vindictive, pathologically narcissistic, sociopathic, misogynistic, racist, xenophobia, functionally illiterate, Twittering Mussolini Cheez Doodle impersonator. And there’s no ambiguity about that.
Michael: Well, I remember Spy Magazine.
Sheldon: Exactly. So the little finger.
Michael: Queens. The small fingered vulgarian from Queen.
Sheldon: There you go. And so to many of us we’re like, wow, you know, this guy is appalling. It is grotesquely ignorant.
Michael: And who in their right mind, who in their right mind is going to fall for it?
Sheldon: That’s right. And with no disrespect to the people who did fall, because we’re all human, they’re not in their right minds as it were.
Betty: Thinking minds.
Sheldon: That’s correct.
Michael: Right. And we should pause for a sec because we don’t want to be seen, which we maybe are, as elitists lauding over, passing judgment.
Betty: Giving more respect to the evolutionary rank.
Sheldon: That’s correct. And so I think Clinton, Hillary Clinton, was unfortunate when she said these folks are deplorable. They’re wrong. But they are lamentable in some ways in that I now hold them more accountable than others for our current malaise. But all right so, 2016. Not the same as 2001 because nobody had literally attacked us. But what Trump did masterfully is to create threats that, or to magnify them. So he’s like, oh, there’s immigrants that are storming the southern border. There’s Islamic terrorists, they’re going to parachute into Buffalo and rape our daughters and eat our chicken wings. There’s China that is raping us. And his point
Michael: We’re weak.
Sheldon: We’re weak. He’s also appealing to a segment of the American population no longer able to subscribe to the American dream. So back to your point earlier, Michael, about you know, we all need a compelling narrative and for a large chunk of Americans, white guys after World War Two. What a great country.
Michael: Well, we have a common enemy to bind us together.
Sheldon: That’s right.
Betty: And a system that supports us with jobs.
Sheldon: That’s correct. And so these were the golden days. If you had a high school education, you could have a well-paying job. Your kids could go to college. You could have a boat and a car and so on. And life is good.
Michael: And the culture reinforces in the Cold War and in the arms race. Notion of your threat. Your real, meaningful, existential and physical threat.
Sheldon: That’s right.
Michael: And in the midst of all of that, there is a narrative nationalism, America, God and country.
Sheldon: There you go. I’m going to make America great again. And so what Trump did was to, and this is true of all populist leaders, is you have to take, you have to have a way of turning existential fear into rage. And you have to direct it towards an external enemy. Immigrants, Muslims, Chinese people. And having defined the threat externally, you then come back and say, I am the only one who can keep you safe.
Michael: All right, listen, I’m going to play a speech that Donald Trump, and it’s about two minutes.
Sheldon: Yeah let’s do it.
Michael: This is just raw speech. During the 2016 campaign and it’s his speech, I think, in Ohio about terrorism.
Donald Trump: It’s great to be with you this afternoon. And today we begin a conversation about how to make America safe again. In the 20th century, the United States has defeated fascism, Nazism, and communism. Now a different threat challenges our world. Radical Islamic terrorism. This summer, there’s been an ISIS attack launched outside the war zones of the Middle East. Hard to believe every eighty four hours. Here in America, we have seen one brutal attack after another. Thirteen were murdered and 38 wounded in the assault on Fort Hood. The Boston Marathon bombing wounded and maimed 264 people and ultimately left five dead, including two of our great police officers. In Chattanooga, Tennessee, five unarmed marines, unbelievable people, by the way, were shot and killed at a military recruiting center. Last December, fourteen innocent Americans were gunned down at an office party in San Bernardino. Another 22 were very gravely injured. In June, forty nine Americans were executed at the Pulse nightclub in Orlando. Another fifty three were badly injured. It was the worst mass shooting in our history. And the attack by far the worst on the LGBTQ community. And I’ll tell you what. We can never, ever allow this to happen again.
Michael: So he’s going to go on. He had a hard time getting LGBTQ out. But and he that’s just the beginning of the speech. It goes on for another five minutes. A long laundry list of attacks. So what’s the point of doing that?
Sheldon: Well, two points. One is that he’s exploiting a very common kind of mental bug, if you will. That Kahneman, Daniel Kahneman, identified. It’s called the availability heuristic. So basically, you’re like, oh yeah, remember when an Islamic terrorist did this? And of course, once you do that, you know, you bring that readily to mind. There’s also there’s two of these things. One is the availability heuristic, the other’s called the representativeness heuristic, doesn’t matter. What it is, is that the particular event, swaps baseline information. So now you’re like, oh, an immigrant or an Islamic person killed somebody, right. Well, that’s bad. But that fact can only be rationally interpreted relative to baseline information. English translation, it’s terrible when anybody gets killed. All right, but the most common way of dying in America is falling in your bathtub. And, of course, so if your real interest is in preventing tragedies, then we’d be having nonstick bottoms to our bathtub. I’m being silly, right.
Michael: Or gun control.
Sheldon: But not. And then what Trump does, and he does it every time, and he tried it the day or two ago when he made his also flat speech in the Oval Office. He’s like, oh, so and so killed somebody and decapitated them.
Michael: An immigrant killed this innocent person.
Sheldon: And therefore, all immigrants are killers.
Michael: And we see this. We read it. You. We experience it as racism. Right. I mean, that’s, I mean, just flat out. He’s a racist. And the pushback is, well, look, you know, immigrant communities are less, far less, prone to violence. There’s all this statistics that people and, I am sure if you’re listening, there’s many places I don’t need to repeat all of them. But the fact checking Trump is both irrelevant and very easy to do. And I say irrelevant because that’s not how it’s being read. And why? Well, is it terror management theory?
Sheldon: Well, I think in part, on the political front, I mean Newt Gingrich said it perfectly during the Republican National Convention when Trump was nominated. So he was blabbering on national television saying, oh there’s rampant crime and Trump’s going to come in and make the world safer. And the narrator corrected him and said, no, wait a minute. Violent crime is actually down. And he’s like, no, it’s up in Chicago. And she’s like, yeah it’s up in some places, but it’s actually as low as it’s been in a long time. And then Newt said, well, you know, you liberals, you’re hung up on facts and we’re more concerned about how people are feeling. And I’m telling you that people are feeling threatened. And as a politician, I’ll take feelings over facts any time. And of course, he’s being cynical, but absolutely correct, except for not pointing out that they’re the ones creating the fear in the first place.
Michael: Right. So do you think that it’s manipulative?
Sheldon: Oh, it’s absolutely, in my estimation. Because, you know, back to Trump for a minute, we did the same studies in 2015 and sixteen that we did in 2003 and four with the same outcome. American respondents preferred Hillary Clinton to Donald Trump in a benign state of mind. But if they were reminded of their mortality first, then their affection for Trump and their stated intentions to vote for him, increased dramatically.
Michael: Hence, midterm elections and the caravan is coming to rape and pillage.
Sheldon: Absolutely. Because what we also found is that in other studies, we just asked people to imagine a mosque being built in their town or an immigrant moving into their neighborhood. And that brought death thoughts more readily to mind and that in turn, increased support for Trump. So think about this for a moment. Empirically, just being asked to think about immigrants coming to your neighborhood or a mosque being built in your town is sufficient to bump up support for President Trump.
Betty: Then what scares me about this and as I know you’ve been writing about this for a while, is that now as we head into 2020 with a year long election ramping up, two years, two year election ramping up. This is a recipe that works.
Sheldon: It does.
Betty: And how in as you were saying, you know, you can’t change, we can’t change the uncertainty of our times. Climate change, globalization, the Internet age. It’s a really, really complicated time. And jobs are going overseas. It’s too expensive to maintain the industry that we had. Keeping people employed in the Rust Belt. And there is the shadow of 9/11 upon us, which introduced an actual threat to our homeland. Homeland security was created then. And so how do you, how do we shift this or how do we recruit reality or how do we and not be labeled elitists or just people too focused on facts? Because obviously you can’t deny emotions. I mean, they do drive us.
Michael: Exactly. What’s the answer?
Sheldon: Yeah. Again, another one of these we’ll chuck them out of a coconut with Nobel Prizes when we have it. But I see no harm in at least delineating the scope of the problem. And this is where I think Eric Hoffer, who we were talking about earlier, who wrote a book called The True Believer in 1951, comes in because Hoffer says, look, once you have a group of people devoted to a populist leader, in his language, he says that puts up a fact proof screen between the supporters and their leader. And so if you think that you’re going to get anywhere by appealing to facts, you’re sadly mistaken. And so he says, look, if you have two politicians and one is a populist leader spewing slogans and the other is a thoughtful and able, effective leader who has actual policies, you’re doomed because you’re going to be putting out complex and sophisticated arguments and position papers and the populist is going to be lock her up, build a wall, make America great.
Michael: Right. To that end, when I started to think about this, the paradigm is Republicans stand up and say, you are special.
Sheldon: That’s right.
Michael: And the Democrats stand up and say, I am competent.
Sheldon: That’s correct.
Michael: And that is, as messaging, and we can talk about it in the purest sense, it’s a terrible message. Competence is never going to move you in the way of saying you are a special person and you’re under assault. And I am going to protect you and preserve your specialness. I mean, you wrote a line, if I can. Trumpism is a new world view and supporters’ self esteem is bolstered by belonging to it.
Michael: And supporting the sacred mission it promotes. Mr. Trump’s supporters now have something to live for. I’m going to read that again because I think it really is the most.
Betty: Well, it’s the meaning in the value.
Sheldon: I think it sums it up.
Michael: It sums it up. It really is. Trumpism is a new worldview and supporters’ self-esteem is bolstered by belonging to it and supporting the sacred mission it promotes. Mr. Trump’s supporters now have something to live for. It is why on the outside, people say, oh, it’s a cult. There is not, they’re not responding rationally to facts, right. Why don’t facts matter anymore? Well, facts never matter when you talk about religion.
Betty: And in this face of uncertain times where people feel really beleaguered and pressured by uncontrollable circumstances, which is real. That part is real. But then what? Then how do we marry or how does, do we stop superseding reality with these imagined non-factual slogans?
Sheldon: It’s going to take a lot.
Michael: Well it’s going to take a leader on the other side who posits a notion, a narrative, a story.
Sheldon: Precisely. And so we’re going to need a very special kind of human who, on the one hand, can’t step back and reflect on what’s happening. But it can’t be an academic egghead like me is not going to get up in front of a crowd of Trump supporters and convince them by this kind of discourse.
Michael: Well, what’s interesting, yes, we’re not. We’re really genuinely speaking to ourselves I can imagine at this point.
Sheldon: Although, I mean, my first talk about the George Bush studies was in Wasilla, Alaska, where Sarah Palin had just been elected mayor. And it was a largely conservative audience. But these were real conservatives because they were pissed until I started showing them data. And then they’re like, you know what, I thought I was gonna kill you when you first started talking, but now seeing that reminding people that they’re going to die, increases support for Bush. I mean, that’s antithetical to democracy, regardless of your political predilections. And so I do think that we could
Michael: Well, I feel, you know, on the left, they feel as though they feel the mortality salience of Trump.
Michael: And they’re responding in much the same way we are criticizing Trump’s supporters.
Sheldon: That’s correct. And Betty, in your piece, which is brilliant in my estimation, you make that point that it’s easy to say, oh okay, I get it. The Trump supporters tend to be blue collar white people whose world view was shattered by modernity, as it were. All right, but what about those of us who didn’t vote for Trump? Well, our progressive worldview was ground into dust because here we are naively, even if well intentioned, subscribing to the Enlightenment tradition that people can be rational, that democratic outcomes can be decided by deliberations.
Michael: And that time leads progress.
Sheldon: Exactly. And that’s really a huge point. That’s correct.
Betty: Just towards progress.
Sheldon: There’s a philosopher in England, John Gray, and he writes about this and he just says, look, this is the Enlightenment idea. Progress is just a de-theistic version of Christianity, where at the end of the road things will inevitably be better. And while that was true for most of American history, it surely no longer true.
Michael: And Trumpism then confronts you in that same way.
Sheldon: That’s exactly right.
Michael: It confronts you with your mortality. It is–
Betty: The end.
Michael: Well, it is much like putting, you know, for lack of a better metaphor, a Jew in a cathedral saying, okay well, what are we going to do with this narrative that doesn’t accept Christ as savior, in immortality, and heaven as a path to it? You know, Trump is now is like that person sitting smack dab next to me saying, the story that you tell about yourself and your culture is now challenged and wrong.
Betty: And I have a lot of patients who are in chaos, you know, for want of a better word. And they don’t know the systems that they believed in, the institutions that they operate under are thrown and have been thrown into chaos. How did this come to pass? And they want to become anarchists on either, you know, on the left. And they know that they can’t. But they struggle internally with this.
Sheldon: Well, it’s a tough one. And I think you’ve really both have identified where we now stand and why it’s such a vulnerable moment, because we’re surrounded by mortality salience. But again, to get back to your point, this is why we’re in an escalating cycle of perseverating problems, because death is in the air. And so you have the Trump people clinging to Trump who has no trouble denigrating anyone who doesn’t believe in him.
Michael: Well, every single utterance out of him is we’re going to die if you don’t do what say.
Sheldon: But apropos of Betty’s point. Well, here we are on the other side of things, reminded of our mortality. And it’s all too easy, myself included, to then just denigrate reflexively the people who support Trump.
Betty: So we’re devolving into an us them. You know, an other.
Sheldon: But as you know, I think it was Martin Luther King. An eye for an eye makes us all blind, right.
Michael: Well, we really it does politics does seem right now to be the two bare fisted fighters in a ring just going at each other with no bell to call the end of a round and the fuel is, as I think you brilliantly point out, Sheldon, a sense, a very immediate reminder constantly in our culture of our own death. And that seems to be the driver for you.
Sheldon: You know, I think it is.
Betty: I have to say, Sheldon, when I read your paper and thought about your work, like Michael, I was astounded because I felt like I had been naive with my faith in facts and my faith in reason and why, why, why, why. But now this is telling us because. Because we are not driven, and naively even me as a psychotherapist know this, and yet I feel to be not driven by my knowledge, but also my feelings and faith in reason. But really, we are driven by emotions and we need to pay attention to that.
Michael: Yes, exactly. And, you know, we didn’t get a chance to talk about it, but maybe we’ll bring you back, because I do think that what’s missing in all of this conversation today, and we had it was brilliant so thank you very, very much, is the environmental crisis and what that’s doing to the left, because that.
Betty: There’s the mortality salience in that.
Michael: Mortality salience of global warming. Climate change. However, you know, I don’t know how I can ever tell which words Frank Lutz made us stop using. I think it was climate change. And we’re now he said, oh, or global warming. Global warming is the one we should be using. And he said, oh, you know, whatever. But the environmental crisis, I think, is the same kind of existential threat on the left. And we had Tom Singer on, who talked about sort of climate denial as a kind of wall.
Sheldon: Yeah. And that’s what we’re doing now empirically. And I couldn’t agree more. And the only difference is we are 12 years away from atrocities that will make Godzilla movies look like Mary Poppins.
Betty: And will increase the immigration crisis, and increase everything else.
Michael: So we’ll have to bring you back to talk about. So I didn’t enjoy this enough, you can join us in a couple of months with Death in the Environment, the sequel.
Betty: That happy tale.
Michael: Exactly. As my analyst likes to say to me, we are out of time. Take your problems home with you. Mind of State is a production of Mind of State Media LLC and Hangar Studios NYC. Our crackerjack producer is Caroline Kwash. Our engineer is Rich Serbini. Mind of State’s original music is composed by Joel Goodman, courtesy of Oovra Music. I’m Michael Epstein.
Betty: And I’m Betty Teng. You can connect with us on Twitter at Mind of State Media, on Facebook and on our website, MindofState.com. You can also subscribe to our show on iTunes or wherever you get your podcasts. Thanks for listening. And we’ll see you next week.