This is your brain on Trump

With President Trump’s mental fitness dominating the news these days, less attention has been paid to how the rest of our brains are faring under this administration. One of us (psychology professor Drew Westen) has extensively researched the role of reason and emotion in making political judgments. The other (former congressman Steve Israel) used that research as the head of messaging for House Democrats in the 2016 congressional elections.

So, just what impact does Trump have on the brains of Americans? For Trump supporters, it often seems to be about emotional “damage control.” A little more than a decade ago, Westen’s research team discovered something striking about the way passionate partisans on all issues think, which other neuroscientists have since corroborated. When any partisans hear threatening information, they don’t make a conscious and objective assessment. Instead, they first get a burst of negative emotion, which may not even consciously register.

{mosads}Imagine the parts of the brain as players on a football team. When all is going well, these parts work together to get the job done. But when negative emotion strikes the partisan brain, it’s like a blitz by the opposing team, with part of the brain acting to block the emotion, and other parts scrambling to figure a way out under pressure.

At the front and center of our brains, behind the eyes and forehead, is the ventromedial prefrontal cortex. It plays a number of roles in everyday life, including regulating our emotions. It helps us control our sadness, anxiety or fear, in coordination with the brain’s emotion circuits. In the case of, say, a Trump partisan’s brain, it plays a crucial role in blocking negative emotions from breaking through.

The coach sends in one of the brain’s quarterbacks, the anterior cingulate, which scans the field and makes the call to save the president’s most loyal followers from that blitz of negative emotion, and the brain begins the search for rationalizations. At the same time, the brain releases dopamine, which is involved in feelings of pleasure or reward, to just the right receivers. At that point, the brain of the Trump supporter likely feels better about him than it did before the blitz began.

If you’re a diehard “he could shoot somebody on 5th Avenue but I still support him” Trump backer, you might actually like the president more than you did before his last tweet. Before the anti-Trump crowd gets to feeling too smug, they should know that their brains run the exact same plays. They just try to move the figurative ball in the other direction. Each time Trump makes a statement, they feel confirmed in their belief that he is “an idiot,” regardless of his genuine accomplishments in business and television, and the fact that he did vanquish some strong opponents to get to the White House.

While there were numerous external factors impacting the 2016 election, like an extra man on the field here and there (whether it was FBI Director James Comey or Russian President Vladimir Putin), Trump’s impressive ability to connect with the brains of Americans to trigger strong emotions can’t be denied. This isn’t brain science. It’s what you see and hear every day: the full-throttled defense of Trump by his supporters, and the reflexive condemnations of him by his opponents.

It’s often described as if Democrats and Republicans are so polarized that they live on different planets. In reality, we’re hemispheres apart. If Democrats learn this, they will find effective messaging strategies to win the hearts — and minds — of American voters in the elections to come. If they disregard it, we’ll likely face many more years of mindless policies.

Drew Westen, Ph.D., is a professor of psychology at Emory University and a consultant on strategic messaging. He is the author of “The Political Brain: The Role of Emotion in Deciding the Fate of the Nation.”

Former Congressman Steve Israel chaired the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee and represented New York in Congress for 16 years. His next novel, “Big Guns,” will be published in April.

Tags Americans Donald Trump James Comey Politics Psychology Steve Israel

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