A little pop psychology during a break in Trump’s trial . . . .
An essay in Psychology Today about the lizard brain in all of us got me thinking about the one inside Trump, how it gained him so many zealous followers, and why, as I lamented in my Baltimore Sun column, Republican senators are turning a blind eye to his abuse of power and obstruction of Congress.
The lizard brain refers to the part that is instinctual. It is reflexive. It reacts to danger. It is distinct from the “thinking brain” out of necessity; without reptilian impulses, we would not recognize a threat fast enough to survive.
That’s the basic, or primitive, idea. The lizard brain was our ancestors’ first line of defense against the saber-toothed cats and other predators. But, says psychotherapist and author Bryan Robinson, the lizard brain is also responsible for how we react to predicaments in modern life — slights and insults, accidents and oversights, even slow lines at the coffee shop. “It’s often nothing more than you’re simply upset that people and things aren’t doing what you want,” Robinson writes, “or life isn’t working out the way you planned — the way it’s ‘supposed to.’”
The lizard is necessary but it competes for dominance with the other parts of our brain where emotions live and where deep-thinking takes place.
With Trump, the lizard impulse has been on display forever, and I thought of it again last night after hearing what he said in the now-public recording of his 2018 encounter with Giuiliani associates Lev Parnas and Igor Fruman, key figures in Trump’s Ukraine extortion scheme. Told that the U.S. ambassador to Ukraine, Marie Yovanovitch, was a problem, you can hear Trump say, “Get rid of her! Get her out tomorrow. I don’t care. Get her out tomorrow. Take her out. OK? Do it.”
Now, that might have been a deliberative Trump finally giving an order to remove a perceived obstacle to his Ukraine plan. But it’s also possible — in fact, likely — that his lizard brain pushed those words out of his mouth the instant he heard from Parnas and Fruman. With Trump, the reptilian dominates. I think it’s the root of his power.
As the impeachment trial got underway, I heard several people wonder openly, “Why are all these Republican senators in bed with Trump? Why are they all ready to acquit him without even hearing all the evidence?”
It’s similar to the question that has been around since before his election: “Why do so many Americans support this crude idiot?”
I’ve been asked this a lot and considered all the explanations — remember “economic anxiety”? — and I’ve watched and listened to Trump at his many rallies. I don’t think there’s much more to this than the lizard.
“When a population is feeling insecure, it favors authoritarian figures who promise to solve their problems and defeat their enemies,” said Dr. William J. Doherty, professor of Family Social Science at University of Minnesota.
Trump is a bigot and a fear monger, and he’s exploited all kinds of fears in his followers. Think about it. Going back to his entrance into the 2016 presidential race, Trump made outsiders the villains — all Muslims everywhere, immigrants from Central America. Trump was the lead birther, exploiting Obama hatred and gathering supporters as he carried out his ugly campaign to prove America’s first black president was not a citizen. And his record since then is clear: It has been dominated by appeals to peoples’ base instincts. At every opportunity, Trump pushes buttons based on fear of immigrants and fear of the nation’s racial, ethnic and cultural changes. He spoke of migrants as if they were all killers and terrorists. He exploited worries among whites that the country was headed down the wrong path after eight years of Obama. His tweeted reactions to events and developments are personal and petty. That’s all lizard brain stuff.
“Even though studies show that 90 percent of worries are false alarms that never manifest,” Robinson writes in Psychology Today, “your lizard brain prioritizes and remembers the negative experiences in an attempt to prevent life’s unexpected curve balls from ambushing you.”
And so people who hated Obama, who previously hated politics and politicians generally, or who just didn’t pay much attention, suddenly were in the electoral mix. They heard Trump say things — crude, nasty, politically incorrect things — that they had previously heard only on conservative talk radio or on FOX programming. They liked it. Trump spoke to them. His simple us-versus-them view of the country, his America First worldview — it all appealed to them. They took his lack of impulse control for candor, his attacks on Democrats (their fellow Americans) as patriotic. Perhaps that’s all emotional. I think it’s more primal than that.
Republican senators, led by the tortoise-like Mitch McConnell, have never seen anything like this before, and I believe Trump has stirred up fear in all of them — fear of the people he’s pulled into politics, the MAGA crowd, the cheering, jeering men and women who have responded to Trump, stand by him and ignore his constant lies. So spineless senators, fearing backlash from zealous Trumpistas, eschew their responsibility to deliberate and consider the evidence. They’re all-in with the worst president in U.S. history. It’s not complicated. It’s self-preservation. It requires no thinking. It’s all lizard brain stuff.