(A Special Report Series)
Liberty can no more exist without virtue and independence than the body can live and move without a soul.– John Adams
Mob Mentality & The Era of Trump
In 2014 researchers Alan Fiske and Tage Rai published their book, Virtuous Violence: Hurting and Killing to Create, Sustain, End, and Honor Social Relationships. Their main argument: Throughout history average people have committed violent acts by means of moral justifications. They call it virtuous violence theory. Fiske and Rai defined violence as an:
[A]ction in which the perpetrator regards inflicting pain, suffering, fear, distress, injury, maiming, disfigurement, or death as the intrinsic, necessary, or desirable means by the intended ends (p. 2).1
Furthermore the authors explain morality under two psychological relationships between the emotional and the evaluative state of mind:
When we posit that most violence is morally motivated, we mean that the person doing the violence subjectively feels that what she is doing is right: she believes that she should do the violence, and she is actually moved by moral emotions such as loyalty or outrage. As the same time, moral refers to the evaluation of action, attitudes, motives, and intentions with reference to an ideal model of how to relate (p. 5).2
Morality has a powerful influence over the decision-making of an individual. What he or she believes to be true or right holds inwardly and deeply an assurance that “they” are doing what is “right” for themselves, their families, their nation, their science, their truth, their gods. From human sacrifices to world wars societies have made moral justifications for violence throughout all human history. Nevertheless what is moral or immoral remains debatable. Philosophers have long debated the subjectiveness/objectiveness of emotive responses and their ties associated to morality.
Moving from morality to violence mental health professionals identify two forms of violent action, 1) instrumental and 2) reactive:
Instrumental violence refers to violence that is employed as a means to attain a subsidiary goal, and can be contrasted with reactive violence, which involves a response to a perceived threat or provocation.3
Responding to perceived threats considered detrimental to a group or a society was the very foundation of the War on Terror after 9/11; a foundation that continues to define even the most recent movements of Black Lives Matter or groups like the Alt-Right. Both feel a sense of loss and a moral obligation to regain that which has eroded, or been taken away, or obtain that which is necessary for their survival even if that requires violence.
Fundamentally when enough people feel threatened via an act of injustice, a loss of liberty, or a perceived attack against personal dignity, individuals tend to form into groups and construct movements which can lead to altercation and violence. Not all movements are violent, just as not all groups are dangerous, and not only groups commit acts of violence, but regardless of violent or nonviolent intentions, moral or immoral justifications, when like-minded individuals form into groups and movements, polarization is bound to occur for good and for bad.4 And “when groups move, they do so in large part because of the impact of information” (p. 22).5 The more shared and agreed upon the information, regardless of skew, people are moved into action.
Hence the power of conspiracy theories in the last eight years from Flat Earthers and far-right Birther groups to #SaveTheChildren, Pizzagate, and Wayfair sex trafficking conspiracies. After September 11, 2001 left-wing conspiracies floated around for a decade that 9/11 was a hoax orchestrated by Vice-President Dick Cheney, “a new pearl harbor.” Never-mind the mass volume of books arguing that the Bush Administration’s War In Iraq was part of a neoconservative ploy to take control of resources and claim position in the Middle East for a “New American Empire.” Such predispositions concerning information have lead people to take extremist stances and potentially even violent action. This is the mentality of the herd.
In a repetitional cascade, people think that they know what is right, or what is likely to be right, but they nonetheless go along with the crowd to maintain the good opinion of others (Pp, 95-96).6
On July 22, 2020 the CATO Institute published a national survey finding 62% of the American population believe they are being prevented from saying their real opinion due to a tumultuous political environment.7 That view was held by every ideological category except “staunch liberals” who by 58% believed that they could voice their opinion freely.8 As diverse public opinion grows more silent there is serious concern surrounding the harmful extent such silence will have on institutions to objectively uphold their responsibility to all citizens rather than being swayed by extremist tendencies.
NeuroImage, a scientific journal focusing on the brain, published an article titled, Reduced self-referential neural response during intergroup competition predicts competitor harm (2014). Researchers for that study asked the question, “Why do interactions become more hostile when social relations shift from “me versus you” to “us versus them?”9 Results from that study suggested “intergroup competition (above and beyond inter-personal competition) can reduce self-referential processing of moral information, enabling harmful behaviors towards members of a competitive group.”10 Essentially as peer-pressure increases, objective moral decision-making decreases. There is a mental tipping point where people give into a set of beliefs regardless of their original moral objections (e.g. burning down buildings or killing someone). Birds of a feather flock together takes a whole new meaning when subscribed to the effects of herd mentality:
Herding is a form of convergent social behaviour that can be broadly defined as the alignment of the thoughts or behaviours of individuals in a group (herd) through local interaction and without centralized coordination. We suggest that herding has a broad application, from intellectual fashion to mob violence; and that understanding herding is particularly pertinent in an increasingly interconnected world.11
Unless capable of withstanding mob madness, movements, groups and institutions are susceptible to extremist views. Colleges and Universities, hospitals, government agencies, and corporations are all susceptible to varying pressures as much as BLM and the alt-right.
People tend to fall prey to extremism where there are unmarked boundaries, a lack of checks and balances, no transparency, and are closed off from oppositional opinions including “inside” and “outside” the group. Overtime those actions turn toward a mindset of dehumanization, a process now being reclassified by researchers.
Dehumanization & Infrahumanization
Dehumanization is a process whereby people fail to view others as human beings. Instead, the others are perceived as nonhuman animals or objects, unworthy of the same moral treatment.12
President Donald J. Trump, an enigma, who has potentially set a new low standard for future leadership in the American political landscape—an all gloves off approach. Radical times have been met with radical responses. Fighting fire with fire. President Trump’s outrageous behavior polarizes even the most moderate into unmarked territories. Famous for over 11,000 tweets13, the President of the United States behavior is often belittling, combative, and dehumanizing.14
Modernity is covered in dehumanizing events including the mass genocides of Nazi Germany, Cambodia, Rwanda, and of most recently Syria. Coalesced with infrahumanization, when an “in-group” believes they are more human than an “out-group”, as occurred during Segregation in the United States and Apartheid in South Africa. American Slavery was both in nature.
There are several studies important to highlight in relation to mob rule, mob rules. First, a study that included Tage S. Rai, co-author of Virtuous Violence (2014), that challenges past research concerning dehumanization by providing data that suggests instrumental violence is increased by dehumanization but not moral violence.15 Secondly, Tage Rai’s study aligns with multiple studies affirming that while dehumanization practices, such as propaganda used during Nazi Germany or Rwanda, may provide a means to violence such practices do not necessarily precede the road to violence:
In sum, whether in Germany during the Holocaust or Rwanda during the genocide, we still lack clear evidence that dehumanizing propaganda convinced ordinary civilians to change their minds about their neighbors and kill them… in any conflict, multiple mechanisms may be at play, motivations can change over time, and the same individual can vary their behaviors from killing to not killing and even saving during a genocide. It is therefore impossible to attribute any one motivation to why people kill, let alone to why the same individual kills over time, during a genocide.16
But the author warns:
Extreme perspectives can become normalized when dehumanization becomes central to political discourse.17
Thirdly, tensions tend to magnify as groups confront one another over past or present atrocities. In an experiment where an in-group was made aware of atrocities committed against an out-group researchers found that infrahumanization increased while simultaneously, though unrelated, collective guilt also caused an increase of infrahumanization towards the effected out-group.18
All groups are prone to violence, misinformation, and zealousness. Today’s toxic atmosphere is no different. Leaders, thinkers, and journalist are all culpable.
Americans need stable leadership at a time when tensions are peaking over Covid-19, identity politics, economic instability, and external threats from China and Russia. Leveling polarization and herd instincts is a priority the President can potentially help in. There are real fears felt by mass populations across the nation from black to white, middle class and poor, politically left and right. Inappropriate behavior by the President has only intensified rather than rectified polarized groups and movements. Addressing the hurt of American citizens may help pacify blistering wounds but it must be conducted in a fair manner.
The old adage, “Sticks and stones may break my bone but words will never hurt me” works as a theoretical principle by which to justify the protections of hate speech, but it completely fails in the day to day lives of people who are hurt and enraged by the words spoken against them. There is a clear difference between having the right to speech versus knowing when to speak. Prudence can go a long way for this White House.
As one study called the President, Tweeter-in-Chief: A Content Analysis of President Trump’s Tweeting Habits (2017), Trump has in fact criticized more Republican than Democratic lawmakers.19 Though likely politically motivated according to another study that found four stylistic variations (conversational, campaigning, engaged, and advisory discourse) in the President’s tweeting patterns.20 Regrettably, President Trump has proven himself incapable of holding his tongue for long.
Not to focus entirely on Donald Trumps twitter habits as much as to demonstrate the mind of a controversial businessman turned President of a nation in the midst of a paradigm shift. Emperors, kings, queens, and lords have all been in similar shifts. While present history unfolds before us, the past speaks to us explaining possible outcomes. What awaits the U.S of A? Trump was elected out of fear and a spinning lack of control felt by middle class citizens whose jobs and way of life are changing for better or for worse in a globalized technocratic, scientific, and secular society.
The news media wrongfully portrays the President either as a bad character or the man of the people, a dictator set on doing evil in the world or an outsider fighting evil. Media bias only bolsters fake-news narratives regardless of political leanings. Fox News, CNN, MSNBC, and other major news networks are all active participates in disinformation and hate.21
Donald Trump is not Russia’s (Forever) President Vladimir Putin nor is he North Korea’s Supreme Leader Kim Jong-un, however, the current President fits well within the rule and rules of mob tactics. Portrayed as a hero set on “draining the swamp” it became clear that the Washington outsider brought in his own muck. Now the world watches and waits for what will happen next.
God Help Us.
Coming Up: Part 3 — Trumphantism: Donald J. Trump and the Trump Administration
1Fiske, Alan. P., & Rai, Tage. S. Tage. (2014). Virtuous Violence: Hurting and Killing to Create, Sustain, End, and Honor Social Relationships. Cambridge, UK. Cambridge University Press.
2 Ibid., 5.
3 Sears R.R., Maccoby E.E., & Levin H. Patterns of child rearing. Oxford: Row & Peterson; 1957.
4 Sunstein, Cass. (2009). Going to Extreme: How Like Minds Unite and Divide. New York, NY: Oxford University Press, Inc.
5 Ibid., 22.
6 Ibid., 95-96
7 Ekins, Emily. (2020, July 22). Poll: 62% of Americans Say They Have Political Views They’re Afraid to Share. Cato Institution. https://www.cato.org/publications/survey-reports/poll-62-americans-say-they-have-political-views-theyre-afraid-share
9 M. Cikara, A.C. Jenkins, N. Dufour, R. Saxe. Reduced self-referential neural response during intergroup competition predicts competitor harm, NeuroImage, Volume 96, 2014, Pages 36-43, ISSN 1053-8119, https://doi.org/10.1016/j.neuroimage.2014.03.080. (http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S1053811914002420)
11 Raafat, Ramsey M. et al. Herding in Humans.Trends in Cognitive Sciences, Volume 13, Issue 10, 420 – 428. DOI:https://doi.org/10.1016/j.tics.2009.08.002. (https://www.cell.com/trends/cognitive-sciences/fulltext/S1364-6613(09)00170-3?_returnURL=https%3A%2F%2Flinkinghub.elsevier.com%2Fretrieve%2Fpii%2FS1364661309001703%3Fshowall%3Dtrue)
12 Thyberg, J. (2019). Dehumanization in the brain. (Dissertation). Digitala Vetenskapliga Arkivet. http://his.diva-portal.org/smash/record.jsf?pid=diva2%3A1355126&dswid=-8480
13 Shear, Michael. D., Haberman, Maggie. Confessore, Nicholas., Karen Yourish., Larry Buchanan., & Keith Collins. (2019, 2 November). How Trump Reshaped the Presidency in Over 11,000 Tweets. The New York Times. https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2019/11/02/us/politics/trump-twitter-presidency.html
14 Lang, Java. (2019, October 26). The 65 worst Trump tweets of the 2010s. The Week. https://theweek.com/articles/870368/65-worst-trump-tweets-2010s
15 Rai, T. S., Valdesolo, P., & Graham, J. (2017). Dehumanization increases instrumental violence, but not moral violence. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America, 114(32), 8511–8516. https://doi.org/10.1073/pnas.1705238114 (https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5559031/)
16 Luft, Aliza. (2019, May 21). Dehumanization and the Normalization of Violence: It’s Not What You Think. Social Science Research Council. https://items.ssrc.org/insights/dehumanization-and-the-normalization-of-violence-its-not-what-you-think/
18 Castano, E., & Giner-Sorolla, R. (2006). Not quite human: Infrahumanization in response to collective responsibility for intergroup killing. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 90(5), 804–818. https://doi.org/10.1037/0022-3522.214.171.1244 (https://psycnet.apa.org/doiLanding?doi=10.1037%2F0022-35126.96.36.1994)
19 Anderson, Bryan. Tweeter-in-Chief: A Content Analysis of President Trump’s Tweeting Habits, Vol. 8, 2017, No. 2, Pages 36-47. Elon Journal of Undergraduate Research in Communications. https://www.elon.edu/u/academics/communications/journal/wp-content/uploads/sites/153/2017/12/04_TwitterInChief_Anderson.pdf
20 Clarke I, Grieve J (2019) Stylistic variation on the Donald Trump Twitter account: A linguistic analysis of tweets posted between 2009 and 2018. PLoS ONE 14(9): e0222062. https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0222062 (https://journals.plos.org/plosone/article?id=10.1371/journal.pone.0222062)
21 Hedges, Chris. (2019, Mat 27). The Mass Media Is Poisoning Us With Hate. Truthdig. https://www.truthdig.com/articles/the-mass-media-is-poisoning-us-with-hate/