Risk, Fear, and the Rise of Demagogues

Here's what happens when we let a politician manipulate our lizard brain

Posted Oct 11, 2017

Fumiste Studios
Source: Fumiste Studios

A while ago I wrote about what happens to children who are overly cosseted and shielded from the risks of being a normal kid; terrible dangers such as climbing high trees, wandering backyards unsupervised, firing slingshots, walking home alone from school. Not surprisingly the shielded kids tend to become developmentally challenged, afraid to go out or interact, nervous about new situations. 

The personal problems involved in excessive safety would seem obvious, especially when one considers that our human intelligence developed by taking risks. Climbing that mountain range to see what was on the other side meant using our brains more than would be the case if we just sat by the campfire fretting. The same, it seems, happens on an individual level, even to descendants of a million years of humanoid risk-takers.

But what happens to an entire culture that grows addicted to safety, that spends enormous amounts of time worrying about risk, and tremendous sums of money trying to ensure safety?

Such a culture, of course, becomes more vulnerable to fear.

In the last SUaL post, I mentioned how the mechanics of über-safety—techniques of surveillance and control based on trying to eliminate the risk of terrorist attack, for example—must inevitably result in increasing surveillance, control of individuals, and loss of liberty across the board. The 2001 "Patriot Act," which suspended important civil liberties for U.S. citizens on mere suspicion that they were planning action against the U.S. government, was a case in point.(1)

The Patriot Act was a symptom of a deeper flaw in a fear-driven society. The impulse to make war against a perceived enemy, no matter how absurd the threat that enemy might pose, draws on profound tropes, such as fear of the Other, and the ensuing fight-or-flight reflex induced by fear, cached deep in our brain stem, cerebellum, and parts of our limbic system. These are sections of brain we inherited from reptiles and early mammals.

Ronald Reagan's invasion of Grenada triggered those reflexes, earning him a badly needed spike in approval ratings countrywide. The fact that Grenada was a sleepy island in the Caribbean with no military and a population slightly higher than Santa Monica's, against which Reagan unleashed the planet's mightiest military machine, turned out to be irrelevant. The fear trope, the fight/flight reflex, doesn't discriminate much.

George W. Bush's invasion of Iraq was another example of what happens when our fear reflex is activated. Saddam Hussein's Iraq, no question, was a vicious tyranny, but no different in that respect from many other allies, past and present, of the United States. It was also a relatively secular state, an enemy of the Tehran theocracy, and one of the few nations in the Middle East that were anathema to al-Qaeda. Although Bush obviously was not responsible for the 9/11 attacks, the appearance, literally out of the blue, of an actual terrorist threat to American shores, however marginal in the overall picture, saved his faltering presidency from likely defeat in the next election. His proxy-invasion of Afghanistan, which did make sense from a geopolitical point of view, brought his popularity up to politically gratifying levels.

But once al-Qaeda was kicked out of Afghanistan there were no enemies left to strike fear in the hearts of voters, no war to unite the country around Bush's banner again. And elections were coming up. Advisers such as Carl Rove and Dick Cheney were well aware of the political drawbacks of peace. Attacking Iraq made as much sense in terms of fighting terrorism as invading Grenada. But to scare Americans with talk of "Weapons of Mass Destruction," to accuse Iraq of supporting terrorism, to sound the drums and bugles once more and by so doing trigger the fear reflex and its fight-or-flight tropes made absolute sense in domestic political terms. (2) The result: Bush won another term as president. The other results? Almost 4,500 dead American soldiers, at least a quarter of a million dead Iraqis (most of them civilians)--and an army of Islamists, empowered by America's invasion, conquering vast stretches of Syria and Iraq.

Would this were all in the past. But look at the situation today: a U.S. president, viewed by most observers at home and abroad as both incompetent and erratic, suffering giddily plummeting popularity; and not one but two "enemies" with which to scare the population and boost ratings. Trump has virtually announced his bellicose intentions, threatening Pyongyang with "Fire and fury like the world has never seen," vowing to scrap the nuclear arms deal with Iran, and telling his generals we are all living in "the calm before the storm."

Admittedly, North Korea has nukes, which is never a laughing matter. But to any sane observer of Korean history, it seems clear that the Pyongyang regime has always used the threat of nuclear weapons as a bargaining chip to ensure its own survival; just as it has also used the "American enemy" argument to trigger the fear reflex and ensure support among its own people. Cashing in those chips in order to ensure its own destruction makes zero sense. The sensible option for the U.S. is to play a waiting game, with Chinese help, until Kim Jong Un's regime implodes on its own.

An equally sane historical analysis of Iran points to the fact that Tehran, too, uses the threat of building a nuclear arsenal largely as a bargaining chip. While Persians see no reason why they should not have the nukes that Israel and Pakistan both possess, the Bomb is not key to their ambitions. Persia has always sought to build up its economic and political power in the Gulf, especially in order to further the interests of sectarian Shia allies, and has no real interest in harming, let alone nuking, either the U.S. or its Israeli allies. And the inspections and attendant sanctions the Iran treaty put in place effectively deter Tehran from building a usable atomic bomb in any case.

But that won't matter to the fear reflex. If Trump and his acolytes ramp up the tension, Pyongyang and Tehran are likely to respond, in good part because using the fight-or-flight reflex keeps their own populations in line. If Trump orders an attack on the nuclear installations of either country his popularity ratings at home are virtually guaranteed to skyrocket, even as thousands, even hundreds of thousands of innocents pay with their lives the price of such cynical use of our lizard brain.

(1) The first time this happened was when the notorious "Alien and Sedition Acts" were enacted by a Federalist government terrified at the thought of French Revolutionary ideals threatening the bank-friendly plutocracy they were trying to set up.

(2) The might of AIPAC (America Israel Political Action Committee) and the Israeli lobby--which wanted Iraq neutralized to further ensure its military domination of the Levant--also played a large role, through their massively leveraged role in financing Congressional candidates.