How Political Rhetoric Inspires White Nationalist Terror

When immigrants are portrayed as existential threats, things can get deadly.

Posted Mar 27, 2019

It’s no secret that one of Donald Trump’s political tactics of choice is fear mongering. And there is no doubt that this strategy is effective, especially among his supporters, but as we have seen over the last few years, it can also be deadly. Why? Because minority groups are framed as being an existential threat to Americans, and also Christian white cultures around the world. Muslims are terrorists, and those who aren’t, hate the Western way of life. Hispanic immigrants are murderers and rapists. The migrant caravan headed toward the southern border is full of criminals.

And when unstable people feel that their life is being threatened, or that the existence of their “ingroup” — those who share their cultural worldview and national or ethnic identity — is at risk, they may resort to extreme measures to “protect” themselves and their loved ones. This phenomenon can be understood by considering a well-established psychology theory, known as Terror Management Theory (TMT).

In the animal kingdom, humans have a unique awareness of our own mortality. Our intelligence and self-awareness allow us to recognize that death is not only inevitable, but can occur at any time for reasons that cannot be controlled or predicted. To manage this profound terror, TMT argues, humans create cultural worldviews — like religions, political ideologies, and national identities — that instill life with meaning and value, and distracts from and eases the fear of death. Cultural worldviews also diminish death anxiety by offering paths to immortality. While religions offer a road to literal immortality through the concept of an afterlife, political ideologies, and national identities offer paths to symbolic immortality—being part of something larger that will outlive the physical self, and people strive to achieve this through leaving a legacy, or doing something that will get one remembered by society long after death.

TMT predicts that when thoughts about death are triggered, people will do all they can to preserve and strengthen their cultural worldviews, since it is those worldviews that act as a death anxiety-buffer. This means clinging to those worldviews more strongly, as well as defending those who share those worldviews and aggressively opposing those who do not. They may also seek paths to symbolic immortality, committing acts that they will be remembered for.

The 2018 Pittsburgh synagogue massacre and the recent New Zealand attack represent extreme responses to perceived existential threat, induced by heated and divisive rhetoric from politicians and right-wing media. Immigrants and Muslims, as well as those who support them — liberal politicians and citizens — are seen as a direct threat to “true Americans" or to the overall white Christian worldview. The intense aggression toward minorities — outgroup members — is predicted by Terror Management Theory, as are the acts of terror. These heinous crimes are attempts by the terrorist to achieve symbolic immortality. They are efforts to be remembered forever by their cultural group as a savior or martyr. But in reality, the perpetrators are neither of those things: They are murderers.

According to Terror Management Theory, reducing the aggression toward outgroup members, as well as the terror attacks or attempts, should be easy — at least in theory. All that the president and other politicians and the media have to do is to tone down the rhetoric and quit presenting minorities as an existential threat to Americans and whites around the globe. However, actually getting President Trump to do this is not an easy task, as he knows that the fear mongering stokes existential terror, and that is a primary source of his popularity with his political base. Without the fear, Trump isn’t as attractive. So he will likely continue the dangerous rhetoric, and as long as it persists, the terror may continue as well.