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Why Donald Trump scares you so much — and why it matters


Why Donald Trump scares you so much — and why it matters
Donald Trump (Credit: Reuters/Lucas Jackson)

For many people, this presidential election is triggering a visceral fear response hard to put into words. Here are the words you might have been looking for: We are born to fear predators.

There are many tangible or visible indicators of why people have every right to be scared about a potential Donald Trump presidency. These include Trump’s pattern of misogynistic and overtly racist behavior. One cannot look at how Trump has treated women and not feel deep qualms about how his decision-making as the most powerful leader in the world would impact women and girls and those who love them. One cannot look at how Trump has discriminated against black people or encouraged hatred of immigrants and fear of Muslims without understanding that his policies would almost certainly be discriminatory on a scale we haven’t seen in the United States since Jim Crow. One cannot look at how he encourages violence and targets freedom of the press without getting chills about how, were he to gain power, Trump would institutionalize those tendencies.

But awareness of potential increases in systemic ills like misogyny and racism alone – which would be significant in ways I won’t attempt to address here – do not fully explain what many people are experiencing: a sense of foreboding and feeling of imminent danger unlike any we have known in our previous political lives.

Some people have used a historical lens through which to try to explain this fear, citing Trump’s evident similarities to leaders of the past like Adolf Hitler or Benito Mussolini. Making the conscious connection between Trump and fear, others have written about how Trump himself leverages fear in his approach to campaigning. Still others have documented what one author called “Trump-induced anxiety,” or suggested that Trump has suppressed our national sex drive. All of these are valid and even important perspectives, but none fully explains the uniqueness of the phenomenon many are experiencing – personally and viscerally experiencing – with regard to their reactions to Trump.

For many people, Trump’s candidacy is evoking not just politically justified anxiety but rather true primal, survival-related fear.

As Gavin de Becker explores in his exceptional book, “The Gift of Fear,” fear is a gift passed down from our ancestors that enables us to assess potential threats to our survival. Many people misunderstand fear and misuse the word. Fear is not a mood like happiness or sadness, nor is it a lasting physiological state like anxiety. True fear is an often fleeting yet vitally important message from the most primitive parts of our brains, which developed long before our capacity for language did. The fact that fear is produced at such a primitive level is what makes putting it into words so hard. It is, literally, a nonverbal experience.

Some describe these types of nonverbal messages as intuition. In his book, de Becker enumerates the following as “messengers of intuition,” in approximate order of the immediacy of their importance: nagging feelings, persistent thoughts, humor (in particular dark humor, such as jokes about a Trump presidency bringing about Armageddon), wondering, anxiety, curiosity, hunches, gut feelings, doubt, hesitation, suspicion, apprehension and, finally, fear itself. Consider how many of these messengers of intuition you’ve experienced within the past year with regard to Trump and the possibility he might become president. Consider how they’ve increased in severity and frequency as the election approaches. Have you wondered about these experiences? Have you tried to minimize them or even told yourself, “Don’t be silly”? Have you asked yourself why this is happening? You are not alone.

We often think of ourselves as above or separate from the animal world, but the reality is we are animals ourselves. The times we do recognize our connections with beings in the natural world, it’s often to imagine ourselves as being in danger from them. Consider our vastly disproportionate fear of sharks, for instance. There is an entire week of television programming dedicated to stimulating our perhaps innate fear of this particular apex predator. We often fail to make the link, however, to the fact that even as we are prey, human beings are also predators. Armed with intellect and weapon-making skills, we are arguably the apex predator of the natural world.

Just as most human beings have the gift of fear (not all – there are certain neurological conditions that strip people of the capacity for fear) to protect us in our capacity as prey, some human beings have traits that make them more effective as predators than the rest of us. The most commonly used term for such human predators is “psychopath.” It’s not a diagnosis you will find in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders. Being psychopathic is not technically a mental illness. Historically, what we consider to be a psychopath was not considered a form of mental insanity but rather a form of moral insanity. Psychopaths are people unconstrained by empathy or conscience.

Some people mistakenly equate the description of a person being a “sociopath” or having been diagnosed with Antisocial Personality Disorder with being a psychopath. Others mistakenly equate the description of a person being a “narcissist,” or meeting criteria for Narcissistic Personality Disorder, with being a psychopath. Neither is correct. Rather, “psychopath” is a descriptive term used to identify a relatively small subset of people who manifest many traits found in other so-called Cluster B personality disorders, yet whose destructive impact on the world around them is often far more severe than that of others who meet diagnostic criteria for various character disorders.

While this might sound and feel a bit fuzzy, remember that we are discussing a phenomenon that doesn’t lend itself to words. In earlier societies, we might have addressed this phenomenon using religiously laden terms like good and evil. Or we might have used mythological imagery such as vampires and demons to convey the dangers beyond words that some humans present to other humans. In 1964, social psychologist Erich Fromm created the highly descriptive term “malignant narcissist” to attempt to capture the nature of such individuals in his book “The Heart of Man: Its Genius for Good and Evil.” In later years, psychiatrist and psychoanalyst Otto Kernberg further developed the framework for understanding how people like this think and act, using the terms “malignant narcissist” and “psychopath” interchangeably in his works.

Just as many people mistakenly think of the term “psychopath” as being a diagnosis of mental disorder, many also mistakenly think of psychopaths as necessarily being literal, physical predators, such as serial killers. Despite the public fascination with serial killers, the reality is most psychopaths function within the society and communities in which we all live and work. In his seminal book on the subject, “Without Conscience: the Disturbing World of the Psychopaths Among Us,” researcher Robert Hare refers to psychopaths who appear to function reasonably well as businesspeople, doctors, lawyers, police officers, performers, etc., and who are able thereby to avoid prison as “subcriminal psychopaths.” In their book, “Snakes in Suits: When Psychopaths Go to Work,” Hare and his colleague Paul Babiak found that about 4 percent of high-level corporate professionals scored high enough on a screening tool, the PCL-R or Hare Psychopathy Checklist, to qualify for this potential description.

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