As we know all too well in Montana, hate groups existed long before Donald Trump became president. But the fact that Trump didn’t create hate doesn’t let him off the hook. He’s complicit, because he helps hate grow.

Words like “invasion” and “rapists” are designed to activate fear, and direct rage toward vulnerable targets. Trump’s targets are nearly always resource-poor. Somehow, he convinces his base that Mexicans, Latino children, and other minorities are a threat to our American way of life.

Canadian psychologists and researchers Erik Woody and Henry Szechtman say that Trump’s threatening messages activate a neural network in the brain called the “security motivation system.” In contrast to the fight or flight response (which activates when humans experience danger), the security motivation system responds to “partial, uncertain cues of potential threat.” Once activated, the security motivation system gathers fragmented information, fills in logical gaps with blather or paranoia, rushes past uncertainty, and concludes that action is needed to take down the dangers Trump has identified.

But why isn’t everyone similarly reactive to Trump’s threat messages?

In the early 1900s, Alfred Adler described the inferiority complex. Growing up, children are naturally weaker and less capable than adults. Consequently, everyone must face and resolve the ubiquitous challenge of inferiority.

Most of us never completely resolve our inferiority issues. For example, in the previous paragraph I intentionally used the word ubiquitous to activate inferiority issues. If you felt annoyed, join the club, most people feel annoyed toward people (like me) who use big words to act. But if you felt rage, along with an urge to “show me a thing or two,” then I might have pushed a deeper button in you — a button that taps into impulses to display dominance or superiority.

Trump’s message to his followers — whether they realize it or not — is that he will make them big and dominant. He’s offering a power-based elixir to soothe what’s ailing them.

Many (not all) Trump followers are drawn to power and dominance like moths to light. They’re prone to putting on displays of power or superiority. You know the type. In high school, my friends and I knew which words and actions would set off particular teachers and classmates. Sometimes, for fun, we’d “poke the bear” and then watch the fireworks.

Similarly, many Trump followers find palabras en español or ideas like “climate change” threatening and react to them with predictable displays of dominance. Or, when perceiving emotional sensitivity, they pounce on “libtards” for “getting their panties in a bunch.” The underlying belief is that any emotion (other than anger) makes the emotional person a baby in diapers. Trumpers who publicly display automatic weapons or use them to shoot down innocent, unarmed victims, are especially psychologically vulnerable to Trump’s triggering rhetoric.

Resolving inferiority is a long and winding road beginning in childhood. When parents, teachers, and other adults help us discover our strengths and work on our weaknesses, we build an important sense of self-efficacy. Arriving at a place where we feel confident, capable, without needing to bully others or constantly display dominance, is an achievement that rests on healthy, reciprocal social and romantic relationships.

Hope lies in relationships. Adler believed in the religious principle, “Love thy neighbor as thyself.” Empathic, compassionate and cooperative community relationships across race, religion, and gender constitute the counterforce to hate. Get involved in the give-and-take of community politics now, before we’re all living in a dangerous and hateful swamp.

Get News Alerts delivered directly to you.

* I understand and agree that registration on or use of this site constitutes agreement to its user agreement and privacy policy.

John Sommers-Flanagan is a clinical psychologist and professor of counseling at the University of Montana. His views do not represent the University of Montana or the Montana University System. 

You must be logged in to react.
Click any reaction to login.