In a recent column, I expressed the hope that the coronavirus epidemic, by exposing the incompetence and mendacity of the Trump regime, will bring it to an end. Joe Biden will win in a landslide next November and initiate a new progressive era, with bipartisan support for universal health care, climate-change mitigation and economic equality. Internationally, there will be greater cooperation and a shift away from militarism.
Or not. As you’ve probably heard, Trump’s approval ratings have risen lately. According to a recent Gallup poll, 49 percent of Americans approve of Trump, up 5 points from a month ago. A Washington Post/ABC poll shows Trump narrowing the gap between him and Biden. My liberal, anti-Trump friends find this trend alarming, and astonishing, but it is all too easily explained by terror-management theory.
Conceived decades ago by psychologists Sheldon Solomon, Jeff Greenberg and Tom Pyszczynski, terror-management theory holds that fear of death, conscious or unconscious, profoundly affects our thoughts and behavior. Events that remind us of our mortality—notably acts of terrorism and epidemics—can make us think and act irrationally as individuals and societies. We become more attached to our belief systems, especially those that give us a sense of belonging to something greater than ourselves.
We may thus become more patriotic and religious and less tolerant of those outside of our tribe, who do not share our values. We also become more likely to turn to ultra-confident, authoritarian leaders. Solomon and his colleagues were inspired by anthropologist Ernest Becker, who argued in his classic 1973 book The Denial of Death that awareness of mortality has profoundly shaped our social evolution, in ways good and bad. Becker once wrote:
“It is [fear] that makes people so willing to follow brash, strong-looking demagogues with tight jaws and loud voices: those who focus their measured words and their sharpened eyes in the intensity of hate, and so seem most capable of cleansing the world of the vague, the weak, the uncertain, the evil. Ah, to give oneself over to their direction – what calm, what relief.”
Solomon, Greenberg and Pyszczynski present abundant evidence for terror-management theory in their 2015 book Worm at the Core: On the Role of Death in Life. After reading the book, I invited Solomon, a professor at Skidmore College, to Stevens Institute of Technology to give a talk, and I interviewed him on Meaningoflife.tv. I interviewed Solomon again for this blog in 2016, a few months before the U.S. Presidential election, and he said that terror-management theory explained the rightward drift of the U.S. following 9/11.
President George Bush “garnered tremendous support by declaring that he would rid the world of evil and that he believed God had chosen him at that perilous time,” Solomon said. In a study carried out shortly before the 2004 presidential election, in which George Bush ran against John Kerry, Americans reminded of their mortality or of the 9/11 attacks said they planned to vote for Bush by an almost 3 to 1 margin. Americans in a control group intended to vote for Kerry by a 4 to 1 margin.
Similarly, Solomon told me, a spate of terrorist attacks in 2015 and 2016 favored Donald Trump’s Presidential bid. Trump “promised to make America great again by building a giant wall to keep immigrants out and bombing the shit out of ISIS,” Solomon said. At the time, Solomon and two other psychologists, Florette Cohen and Daniel Kaplin, were carrying out an experiment to test this thesis.
The researchers asked 152 college students questions such as, “Please briefly describe the emotions that the thought of your own death arouses in you” and “Jot down… what you think will happen to you as you physically die.” Students reminded of death in this manner were more likely to support Trump than those in a control group. They were also more likely to have negative attitudes toward immigrants and to the hypothetical construction of a mosque in their community.
Solomon, Cohen and Kaplin reported their results in their 2017 paper “You’re Hired! Mortality Salience Increases Americans’ Support for Donald Trump,” published in Analyses of Social Issues and Public Policy. Solomon spelled out the implications of this research in The Guardian last fall. “The fact that fleeting death reminders have a potent effect on political preferences conflicts with the democratic ideal that electoral outcomes result from rational deliberation,” he wrote.
Solomon reiterates these concerns in an essay in Health in the Anthropocene, a book edited by Katharine Zywert and Stephen Quilley and published in February. Terror-management theory “does not bode well for humankind’s prospects in the Anthropocene,” Solomon writes. Far from motivating us against climate change, our growing fear of its effects might exacerbate our problems, by transforming many of us into “hateful, warmongering, proto-fascists alienated from nature.”
Then the coronavirus pandemic struck. I recently emailed Solomon to ask for his thoughts on the crisis. Terror-management theory, he replied, helps explain “why Trump’s approval rating continues to climb despite his obvious incompetence and unfitness for office.” Solomon fears that the pandemic will also exacerbate racism and xenophobia in the U.S. and elsewhere, as well as support for Trump and other authoritarian leaders.
Does his research offer any encouragement to those of us looking for positive outcomes of the current crisis? “We know that death reminders increase pro-social behavior towards in-group members (but not outgroups),” Solomon replied, “and that people with liberal worldviews will become more tolerant in the wake of death reminders.”
If more of us become aware of how fear of death affects us, Solomon adds, we can resist our self-destructive, irrational impulses, including tribalism and a yearning for authoritarian leaders. We can also resist leaders’ attempts to “exploit our existential anxieties for personal and political gain.” That is why Solomon and his colleagues keep writing and talking about terror-management theory. Unfortunately, those who most need to hear their message are the least likely to heed it.
I’ll end with a quote from Camus that I found in one of Solomon’s papers. In his novel The Plague, Camus said that “we learn in time of pestilence ... that there are more things to admire in men than to despise.” Let’s hope.
See also my free, online book Mind-Body Problems: Science, Subjectivity & Who We Really Are.