We aren’t born to hate – we are convinced to hate. We are not a divided nation – we are a nation that is being divided. The steady growth in divisive rhetoric that started shortly after 9/11 is hard to deny but the damage is easy to see. If we look into the human mind then it is also easy to see how we got to this point.
Many Americans have been hurt over the past several decades by conservative and corporate driven ideas such as trickle down economics, deregulation, maximizing shareholder value, and other wealth-inspired policies. Their suffering has continued on as Democrats were either unable or uninterested in pushing back against the influence of Big Money. This put folks in an vulnerable position that conservative media was happy to exploit – initially it was just to provide cover for their policies, but it has grown into outright control of many in the Republican base. Stunningly, the Left does little to effectively counter the lies and manipulation, and in fact, are often guilty of fanning the flames.
This brief outlines a possible approach to help restore the previous beliefs, values, and priorities of MAGA in order to get America back on track and focused on the critical issues that will take us forward – this includes controlling the pandemic, protecting Democracy, quickly dealing with Climate Change, reducing bigotry, removing corruption from government, unwinding the pain and suffering caused by trickle down economics, and probably several more. The term MAGA is not being used with disrespect – it is only being used as a familiar “catch all” term to describe those who have been swayed to ignore, accept, or support the dishonest, divisive, and often destructive rhetoric that has been steadily growing around the country. We use this term to include the many Americans who have been disenfranchised by the Right and ignored by the Left well before the Trump Administration.
[Ideally, “MAGA” is a temporary term used for the discussions below and a different term should be determined.]
It is proposed that MAGA and the GOP Base have been guided to their current behavior through long-term (well before President Trump) manipulation that has created angst and that the manner in which the human subconscious deals with angst has led to their behavior. This is often made worse by the Left as their messaging often activates the very subconscious processing that the Right has been exploiting. The approach outlined here is an attempt to use our understanding of subconscious behavior to undo this processing and bridge our dangerous divide. If there is one core concept here, it is to start restoring the self-esteem and dignity of the many Americans who have been left behind. Before specifying the approach, it is important to identify who might be more be responsive as well as explain some of the involved subconscious processing that is understood by psychology and social psychology.
Who would be responsive
Some of MAGA may be more responsive in this endeavor. These are people that are less committed to the current trajectory of the Republican Party. This partial or wavering affiliation can come from a variety of circumstances such as:
- They have “always been Republican” so their affiliation can be attributed primary to “muscle memory”
- Their position is mostly driven by family members or peer pressure
- Their main concern is their 401K or investment portfolio
- They are currently in a “good place” and haven’t yet considered the harm being done to others or the harm heading their way
- The handling of the pandemic by GOP Governors is giving them pause
- They have lost loved ones to the pandemic
- They are realizing the dangers of the mounting undemocratic stances by the GOP
It is hoped that these folks can more easily be nudged away from their damaging political stance – partly by seeing successful Democrat policies/actions and partly by the messaging that would result from this particular endeavor.
Some of MAGA will be a tougher nut to crack and includes those who are more committed to the policies/actions of the Right. These are folks who will have more of an emotional attachment to MAGA, President Trump, the GOP, etc. They may feel that they have been left behind or betrayed by America and they strive for a new America where they “fit in” and have influence and even “power”. For a number of reasons, these folks feel in their gut that Trumpism and Conservatism will return what was taken from them (even though there is a high probability that Conservative policies are what left them behind in the first place). Some of the circumstances that brought them to this mindset can include any combination of the following:
- Being left behind because of trickle down economics (and pro-wealth policies)
- Jobs, careers, entire industries being sent overseas
- Main Street being decimated by Big Box stores and on-line shopping
- Financially ruined from medical expenses
- Having a damaged self-esteem
- Slipping into poverty
- Unable to provide for their family
- Unable to find a job out of high school or college
- A misguided choice of attending college because of job/social pressure only put them in debt
- Doing okay, but not good enough to meet the unreasonable standards of “success” in America
- Accepting the messages from Conservative media that give them someone to blame/fear
- Liberals, “Dems”, and an oversized, overpriced, overreaching government
- Immigrants taking jobs, committing crimes, and spreading the pandemic
- Minorities and urban areas “taking” your taxpayer dollars
- Charismatic leaders and heartstring/heritage/patriotism/bootstraps rhetoric
These folks are more likely to be victims of our subconscious processing related to damaged self-esteem and fear. This will make it challenging to pull these folks back but it must be attempted or our country faces increased bigotry and divisiveness that will lead to increasing violence and potentially the end of our Democracy. It’s hard to know who can really be reached – even some of those who went as far as attacking the U.S. Capitol on Jan 6th could very well have gone home and taken a good look at themselves and reflected on how they got to that point.
It is hoped that the approach outlined below can be used to pull enough of MAGA back to a more reasonable stance in order to get them to voice and vote for more “center” policies and politicians. Hopefully their additional votes will be able to counter gerrymandering and the corrupt voting laws that are currently being established in many red states.
The Psychology and Social Psychology Background
This section provides some insight into the conscious and unconscious processes that we all share and how they can be, and have been, used against us. Having a general understanding of these processes will help the Left lessen their continual “triggering” of MAGA as well guide our approach to bringing MAGA back to the table. It is worth starting this off by sharing some insights from Eric Hoffer’s 1951 book “The True Believer: Thoughts on the Nature of Mass Movements”:
The primary impetus for all populist movements is a critical mass of frustrated and disaffected citizens subject to grave economic and/or psychological insecurity “in desperate need of something…to live for.”
Such citizens are thus prone to unwavering dedication and loyalty to a leader who confidently espouses a cause that infuses their lives with a sense of “worth and meaning“ AND…
…faith in the future via “identification; the process by which the individual ceases to be himself and becomes part of something eternal.” [Symbolic immortality]
Charismatic leaders, need not be exceptionally intelligent, noble, or original.
The primary qualifications “seem to be: audacity and a joy in defiance; an iron will; a fanatical conviction that he is in possession of the one and only truth; faith in his destiny and luck; a capacity for passionate hatred; contempt for the present; a cunning estimate of human nature; a delight in symbols (spectacles and ceremonials)…the arrogant gesture, the complete disregard of the opinion of others, the singlehanded defiance of the world…[and] some deliberate misrepresentation of facts”.
Mass movements also require an external enemy to enable the charismatic leader to direct/deflect the rage and righteous indignation of their frustrated and disaffected followers toward a tangible scapegoat, an individual or group of individuals designated as an all-encompassing repository of evil who must be subdued or eradicated.
Finally: “All active mass movements strive…to interpose a fact-proof screen between the faithful and the realities of the world. They do this by claiming that the ultimate and absolute truth is already embodied in their doctrine and that there is no truth nor certitude outside of it…It is the true believer’s ability to “shut his eyes and stop his ears” to facts…which is the source of his unequaled fortitude and constancy. He cannot be frightened by danger nor disheartened by obstacles nor baffled by contradictions because he denies their existence”
So yes, that was written 70 years ago…
What follows is a cursory overview of some of the psychology behind behaviors – this information will require a more robust and professional explanation, especially in the context of proper political messaging. There is a significant amount of supporting research and articles on the Web, a small number of which are referenced at the end of this brief.
There is more to self-esteem than just trying to be liked or driving around in a big truck or a Lexus (explicit self-esteem). It’s also about our place in society (implicit self-esteem) – are we fitting in, do we belong, are we contributing, are we successful to the degree that our society expects, and importantly, do we feel that we are part of something enduring and greater than us?
America has been suffering through decades of wealth-driven ideologies and policies that have shrunk the middle class, moved more and more of us into poverty, and have all but removed any hope for getting ahead. All of this slowly erodes our self-esteem as we feel ourselves being left behind by the rest of our country. We want that existence back – we want our country back – we want to fit in. Humans need a strong self-esteem more than we realize and one way to restore our own self-esteem is to look down on others. This provides at least some, albeit false, sense of dignity or superiority by making us believe we are better than at least some other people. Unfortunately, our subconscious will tell us exactly who we should look down upon… those who are different from us. Importantly, it doesn’t matter if they have caused our suffering or not – they are different and that is all our subconscious cares about. This is the cause of much of the bigotry and hate in our country – massive numbers of Americans who have been beaten down and whose subconscious is helping them deal with that by lashing out at others.
Having a low self-esteem can also make us vulnerable to the influence of others as we subconsciously look for ways or for those who can help restore our world view.
This isn’t referencing the fear of starting a new job or public speaking – we are talking about the fear for our future, the fear of losing our job, the fear of failing our children, etc. It is also about our subconscious and ongoing dread of our own mortality.
This level of fear makes us pull back from others and reduces the scope of who and what we accept. Fear is a primitive life-saving emotion and much of our processing of it goes on in our subconscious and because of this, we have no clue how it impacts our behavior. There have been plenty of experiments in the area of psychology and social psychology that show how fear controls us. When we retreat in fear, we retreat not only from the perceived threat, but we also retreat from anything or anyone that is different from us. Strangely, this means that as fear increases over the pandemic or climate change, we can expect bigotry to increase along with it.
Fear makes us more likely to “see” additional evil or threat in those that are different and, just as dangerous, it makes us more likely to ignore or accept the negatives or even the evils of those who are similar to us. To make matters worse, fear also reduces our ability to rationalize.
It isn’t only direct threats to our safety or well-being that make us afraid. Threats, actual or perceived, to the constructs that have been built by our society (religion, tradition, heritage, the flag, nostalgia, country, sports, etc.) are taken seriously by our subconscious. This is because these social constructs were formulated by humans over the course of our existence to give us meaning and purpose in life, and further, to help us cope with the fact that, as humans, we know our existence is finite and we have no control over our end. This is some pretty deep stuff but, subconsciously, humans created these societal constructs to protect the conscious mind from dwelling on our pending doom (an example case study is included at the end of this document). Any threats to these constructs, especially those such as religion and heritage, is a threat to the very meaning of our existence and our subconscious does not handle that well at all. We will have no problem allowing or even performing atrocities to protect ourselves from these threats, actual or otherwise.
Fear works hand-in-hand with poor self-esteem. We are more likely to fear something or look down on someone different than us if our self-esteem is in poor shape. If we are told that there are specific people or ideas that have caused our suffering, then all the better. This is especially true when those who provide us these scapegoats are charismatic or in positions of authority (news anchors, pundits, politicians, presidents, and even preachers). Looking down on others is a general-purpose tool that our subconscious uses to repair our self-esteem, but that self-esteem is turbo-charged when authority figures tell us who or what we can specifically blame for our (supposed) failures.
As fear or damaged self-esteem makes us withdraw, we are greatly relieved when we learn (or are told) that there are others who are suffering along with us. Even without physically interacting with them – just knowing they exist – gives us solace, camaraderie, and a much-needed sense of belonging. All of this is exacerbated by the internet and social media which creates a 24/7/365 virtual back porch where our new-found group interactions bring us validation, amplification, and even expansion of the fears and the threats that brought us together. Being a member of a group, even if vaguely labeled as “not those others”, provides a sense of safety.
Not only do we identify with the group, but the group can actually become our identity as we continually strive to reshape ourselves to be more like the people in our group – no matter how radical the group becomes. We readily ignore facts or embrace conspiracy theories if that helps to prove our commitment to the group. The safety we find in our group is more important than truth. The denial of climate change shows that we can discard facts that aren’t even an attack on us or our group – it is the source of the “fact” that is all-important.
Being part of a group does wonders for our ego and self-esteem and the lure is often strong enough to pull us away from our core social anchors (tradition, religion, and even family). It is not uncommon to hear stories about families being ripped apart because of the highly manipulative noise coming out of Fox News and other conservative media outlets.
When our ego and self-esteem are in desperate need of repair we eagerly embrace and even obey the charismatic voices who promise to alleviate our internal subconscious suffering. If candidate Trump had one message, it was “there are many forces against you and only I can save you”. We are empowered when public leaders at the highest levels openly, even if disingenuously, have our back. We believe that such leaders will return what has been taken from us – this is where our fears can be used to control us on dangerous levels. With our new-found power combined with the belief that our very lives are at stake, we are ready to make sacrifices for our protectors, “circle the wagons” for our group, and even strike out at the “threats”. This feeling of power makes up for all the years that we were wrongly cast aside – and we will not let go of this power.
The “psychological intersection” of fear, poor self-esteem, group association, and new found power can be used to make us do things that we normally wouldn’t do on our own – such as marching on a campus or attacking the Capitol.
Constructive Common Cause
This can be the way out. Research has shown that our prejudices are decreased when we work together toward a shared goal. So if we are provided a constructive common cause (such as fighting climate change, getting money back out of politics, bring jobs home, or wealth inequality) then we not only reduce our prejudices but we also work on those issues that created fear and reduced our self-esteem in the first place. A slightly different take is having a common enemy such as Authoritarianism or government corruption.
There is a lot going on in the mind of MAGA, and there is certainly much more to it than what is outlined above. However, these concepts can provide important guidance and constraints on how we can begin to unwind MAGA. Based on the above, we can establish an initial set of do’s and don’ts when working with MAGA regardless of the actual mechanism or approach being used.
Because their weakened self-esteem and (largely manufactured) fear has fueled bigotry and an aversion to facts, it is important to avoid activating the landmines that have been firmly established in the mind of MAGA. The landmines need to be acknowledged, understood, and side-stepped during this process (especially early in this process) or it will generate a negative outcome. The sections below outline some things to consider in this endeavor, but it is fully acknowledged that this is only a starting point and much assistance is needed from those with the appropriate background in politics (federal, state, and local), communications (public service announcements, marketing, etc.), psychology, political associations, etc. In fact, the first step would be to find those who could make the appropriate adjustments to this plan.
The Overall Approach
The main idea is to not start from scratch, but to work with existing organizations to make sure they understand the nuances in communicating with MAGA. In other words, this plan is less about getting the message out to voters and more about getting the message out to existing messengers. The mechanisms and players are already in place – they just need to understand how their message could be adjusted.
Because the divisive and manipulative rhetoric from the Right comes from all directions, the messaging described in this plan should ideally come from a wide variety of sources:
- Established political organizations (including think tanks)
- Public Service Announcements
- DNC-funded groups, ads, pamphlets, billboards, etc.
- Grassroots political groups such as those that support HR1, Common Sense Democracy, Wolf-PAC, etc.
- Local members of political groups writing “letters to the editors”
- Newspapers in purple regions but with Left/Center Editor(s).
- Internet, Social Media, etc.
- Talk radio that might have a blend of listeners (is there such a thing?)
Assistance would be needed from thought leaders in political psychology, especially in the areas of self-esteem, fear, group association, etc. to ensure that messaging is constructive and does not trigger or magnify existing fears. In addition to avoiding triggers, help will be needed in terms of creating positive and unifying messages as well as ideas that we can all work toward. Below is a partial list of people that could provide input (note that the people listed below have NOT been contacted about this proposal – and their endorsement of it should not be assumed by the reader).
- Dr. Elliot Aronson – University California – Santa Cruz
- Dr. Merlyn Mowrey – Central Michigan University
- Dr. Sheldon Solomon – Skidmore College
- The Ernest Becker Foundation
The output of the effort could be various types of training material in the form of videos, a website, pamphlets, “cheat sheet” of reminders, etc.. There could be various flavors of each type that target different forms of communication (such as instructions writing letters to the editor vs. different instructions for creating video ads). Background training on the applicable areas of psychology would be short and to-the-point but provide an overall level of understanding sufficient enough to avoid triggers. In general, most training material would be newly created and very much to-the-point of proper messaging.
Assistance would also be needed in identifying the various groups or individuals who could use this information and in getting it out to them.
Bring to light the existing common causes that we actually need to address. There is no con game here. Having common causes will get us to work together and that will help to diminish bigotry and redirect fear to where it belongs (corporate America, climate, corruption, money in politics, policies that create poverty, and to those who have enabled it all). Show how the working class has been abused over the years, expose those who perpetrated (and continue to perpetrate) the attack, and explain how we were tricked into going along with it. We need to acknowledge that out-of-control capitalism has caused significant and enduring harm to many of us. We were trusting and hard working and always pushing America forward, but we had no idea of the slow and stealthy work that was being done against us by a handful of billionaires, millionaires, corporatists, and their minions. We did not catch on to the slow decades-long transition from Walter Cronkite to Tucker Carlson.
We are all in this together – we have much more in common than what divides us and we need to put those minimal differences aside to (literally) keep humanity alive. Our Democracy, the planet, our society, and our mental and physical health are all in deep decay, but it’s not our fault nor is it the fault of the guy across town. It’s not our fault, but it will be if we don’t do anything about it.
Discussions could include addressing climate change, ending the pandemic, corruption and money in politics, the 1%, restoring main street and small businesses, bringing jobs home, the need for money to flow through an economy/society, reopening rural hospitals, etc. Ideally, self-esteem would be restored in folks by them working towards, or at least be supportive of, these efforts to restore their world. Care must be taken when discussing climate change, the pandemic, or other topics because they are considered to be false narratives by some of MAGA – for example, avoid terminology such as “The Green New Deal” because it is a trigger at many levels.
Also show that there are others (don’t showcase Democrats too much – but gently show that it is not Republicans) who are actually working to get America back on track.
Unfortunately, discussions cannot include racial equality, equal rights, abortion rights, etc. Hopefully these will be some of the outcomes of this plan, but they cannot be part of the process. Likewise, “The Steal”, Donald Trump, or even protecting Democracy should be avoided. Don’t attack, don’t lecture, don’t fact check – this will be viewed as an attack on their beliefs, the people in their group, and the charismatic people who are saving them and providing meaning to their existence.
Crucially, these folks need a way out. They were led down a path they normally would not have chosen and their realization of this great betrayal will generate varying degrees of humiliation, wounded pride, etc. Care must be taken to not point out their failures, not lecture, or use the very rhetoric and language they have been trained to disregard. These folks need a new path and it has to be a path of least resistance…
Ideally, Democrats can take this beyond just discussions and begin to take tangible action such as bringing jobs back to America, introducing new industries to hard-hit areas, start chipping away corruptions, etc.
The sooner the better – the 2022 elections could easily bring the end of Democracy. This is not hyperbole – our society is extremely divided, our government is corrupt, officials are power hungry, laws are being rewritten to control whose votes count, voter rolls are being purged, and dark money continues to flow in. This effort needs to start as soon as it can wherever it can be most effective. It does not have to be completely figured out up front – it doesn’t have to be perfect. There will be a learning curve, lessons learned, and adjustments to make – but the sooner we stand and stumble the sooner we will get our footing right.
The public facing messengers (in ads, PSAs, etc.) must be limited to people such as working class, farmers, manufacturers, folks on a front porch, rural families, select celebrities, preachers, independents, republicans that “get it” but that have also not been denigrated (it is not clear who that would be at this point), etc. Other messengers could be fellow Americans who have been greatly harmed by trickle-down and wealth-inspired policies but see that the way out is not to fight against each other for the shrinking last slice of pie, but to work together to get our pie back from corporate America.
At least in the early stages, public facing messengers should not include minorities (Native Americans, African Americans, Asians, LGBTQ, non-Christian, etc.), Hollywood types, highly educated, highly successful, high-ranking or far-left Democrats, etc. They could be seen only as Leftist talking heads.
Because time is of the essence, care must be taken in selecting where these efforts would have the greatest impact in the shortest amount of time. Deep red areas of the country would have little impact. These areas can be addressed later if early efforts are successful. The focus should be on the purple areas of the country, areas that have only recently gone from blue to red, or specific areas where Republican candidates are weak for whatever reason.
Help from the DNC or appropriately informed political associations would be needed to help with such planning.
The main point of all of this is not to add additional voices to all the political noise that is out there. The idea is to adjust the messaging currently being used by existing groups, politicians, individuals, etc. to avoid helping the messengers on the Right and at the same time use our subconscious behaviors to help undo the damage done to MAGA.
These are just a few of many resources available to learn more about our psychology and our politics
- A very good starting place
- A significant number of interviews with thought leaders provided by the Hub of New Ideas – https://www.youtube.com/user/SJamesProducer/videos
- Especially Episode 2 on Bigotry and Episode 12 on Self-Esteem
- A deep dive into our Fears and how it controls us https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yqYX-Tw2U-Y&t=7s
- A random sampling of the many articles on the web
- Eric Hoffer quotations
- Providing a path out
- One of many examples of cultivating fear
- This has all happened before
- And it is happening again…
Example Case Study
Our first experiment was conducted with 22 municipal court judges in Tucson, Ariz. We told the judges we were studying the relation between personality traits, attitudes and bond decisions. A bond is a sum of money a defendant pays prior to trial to be released from prison in the interim. The judges completed a set of questionnaires consisting of some standard personality assessment instruments. Embedded in the personality assessments were two questions designed to trigger mortality salience: “Please briefly describe the emotions that the thought of your own death arouses in you” and “Jot down, as specifically as you can, what you think will happen to you as you physically die and once you are physically dead.” Only half of the judges were randomly given these questions to answer.
The judges were then given a legal case brief virtually identical to one they would typically see before a trial. The brief stated the arresting charge, which was prostitution, and the defendant’s address, employment record and length of residency. A copy of the citation issued to the defendant when she was arrested was also included. Finally, the judges were given a form to set bond for the defendant. We chose judges for the study because they are rigorously trained to make rational and uniform decisions based solely on evidence relative to existing laws. And we had them pass judgment on an alleged prostitute because prostitution offends the moral sensibilities of the average American. To the extent that cultural worldviews serve to mitigate mortal terror, we hypothesized that judges who thought about death would set higher bonds than those in the control condition. The results were striking. Judges in the control condition set an average bond of $50, which was typical for this charge in actual cases at the time. However, judges who thought about their death set an average bond of $455.
Since then, more than 300 studies by independent researchers in approximately 20 countries have found support for hypotheses derived from TMT. And it’s not just direct questions about death: mortality salience has also been induced by interviewing people in front of a funeral home or subliminal exposure to the word “dead” or “death.”
Dr. Sheldon Solomon – Skidmore College