As a role model, President Donald Trump might now rank the most successful man ever to occupy the White House.
More and more Americans become like him every day, and if one is to accept the hypothesis of Dr. Robert Lustig, emeritus professor of pediatric endocrinology and a member of the Institute for Health Policy Studies at the University of California San Fransisco, this is no accident.
“Everyone is worried about what happened to Trump’s brain,” Lustig has written at MedPage today, “but no one seems to be particularly worried about what’s happening to ours. The Russians hacked the election, but it’s Trump who has hacked our minds.”
How bad is it?
Well, Fairbanks writer Dermot Cole a couple of days ago took Sen. Dan Sullivan, R-Alaska, to task for neglecting to rip Trump a new one for his fighting with the late Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz.
He tried to handle questions on the talk show Meet the Press in a statesmanlike manner. Sullivan said this in the middle of a 10-minute long interview:
“I’m not trying to gloss over it. But here’s what I think is more important. Yes, there was tensions between the president and John McCain. This week, though, has been all about John McCain and the unity of his vision of courage, of patriotism, of freedom, of service before self. And I think that’s the lesson that we should take away from the week. That’s what I want. I think that’s what the family wants to take away.”
Cole was upset that Sullivan didn’t light into Trump, writing that “Sullivan could have taken the opportunity to reject Trump’s attacks, but he reverted to his standard practice of never saying anything that might offend the president. Pretending that there was ‘tension’ in the Trump/McCain hatefest fits that pattern of obsequious behavior.”
Or maybe Sullivan was simply maneuvering to stay on speaking terms with a president whose policies have generally been good for the Senator’s home state and who appears only to become more intransigent, rather than less so, when confronted with foot-stomping, table-pounding and shouting.
Cursed be the peacemakers
But maybe it isn’t Cole’s fault he got so upset with Sullivan trying to make nice with the President. Maybe it’s Trump’s fault.
Yes, that sounds a little crazy, but here’s what Lustig writes:
“Many have remarked that Trump operates out of his “lizard brain“. Rather, I would argue that Trump has turned our brains reptilian. The two emotions that belie this effect — greed and fear — are the same two emotions that govern Wall Street’s behavior. No surprise.
“Greed drives dopamine action in the nucleus accumbens (NAc), the reward center deep within the limbic system, the emotional part of the brain (Freud called it our id). Appealing to our avarice with promises of ‘good jobs’ and ‘healthcare for everyone’ and ‘tariffs on our competitors’ and ‘better trade deals’ and ‘tax breaks’, Trump jacks up our dopamine the same way a roller coaster does. Thrills in both directions, up and down. When the NAc goes into hyperdrive, it translates into ‘I want more.’ The problem with the dopamine response is it’s a bell-shaped curve — there is an optimum below which people are lethargic and above which they become irritable.”
The dopamine ups and downs, Lustwig contends, only increase the irritability. But that’s only the half of it.
“Fear,” he writes, “activates the amygdala, which sends corticotropin-releasing hormone (CRH) signals throughout the CNS. CRH drives cortisol, which stymies our prefrontal cortex (PFC) the executive function center (Freud’s superego), which sits just above the eyes and serves as our internal compass. Normally, the PFC makes you behave and keeps you from doing stupid things you’ll later regret, and acts as the ‘brake’ on the NAc. Unfortunately, the PFC is a highly vulnerable structure. Chronic stress and cortisol kill neurons in the PFC….”
Once Trump gets the dopamine and cortisol rolling in your system, you’re his or your him, even if you’re a her. And if you don’t know a her who has become a little less thoughtful and a little more reptilian, like Cole, thanks to Trump, either you’re extremely lucky or you’re not paying attention.
This country is today overrun with people like Trump to whom aggression is the seemingly most natural form of discourse and reality is what he or she want to believe, facts be damned.
Trump at least has an excuse for the latter. He was a reality TV star, and he seems to have stayed stuck in the role of all-powerful boss on “The Apprentice” where the week’s winners and losers were defined by the whim of their leader and where the catch line was “you’re fired.”
Trump would clearly like to run government just like “The Apprentice.” And his core constituency, tired of being looked down upon by the U.S. intelligentsia and a bureaucracy that sometimes appears to them like Czarist Americana, is happy to embrace that approach.
Meanwhile, the self-identified “better” part of America recoils at Trump and all those commoners down in the mud and the blood and the beer clinging to their “guns or religion or antipathy to people who aren’t like them” as another candidate for president once put it.
Trump gets their reptilian hormones cooking, too. The only difference between them and Cole is that they scurry in opposite directions.
“So, what do you think Trump’s 3 a.m. non-stop Twitter feed combined with a 24-hour media cycle is doing to you?” Lustwig asks. “The next quickest way to inactivate the PFC? Xenophobia. Build that wall. Banish that Muslim. Nuke North Korea. A dysfunctional PFC inhibits cognitive processing, restricts long-term planning, and translates into ‘I don’t care about the consequences.’
“These two neurophysiologic phenomena have conspired to change human behavior throughout the millennia, and have previously been harnessed by demagogues in the name of populism,” which is wholly what Trump is selling.
Sales, particularly self-promotional sales, was the world from which Trump came, and he has clearly identified good, old American populism as one of his most-effective pitches. “The Apprentice” was a weekly clinic on how to make things sell. Trump as president is leveraging everything learned there to make the sales pitch of a lifetime to the masses.
Trump is no populist. He was born to wealth. He has no clue what it’s like to work behind the counter at a McDonald’s or shovel shit at a stable in California, but he has a salesman’s innate sense for the feelings of those who labor for a living, and he has shown a remarkable ability to take that skill out of the small world of traditional sales into the global world of the internet.
Trump has, to steal a term from Lustig, “weaponized” the sale of Trump.
Whether Trump arrived there by accident or study only he and some close associates know, but the science is out there.
“After the harvesting of data from 270,000 Facebook users in 2013, Alexandr Kogan and Joseph Chancellor of Cambridge University predicted ‘likes’ and ‘dislikes’ based on a personality questionnaire called ‘thisisyourdigitallife,’ Lustig writes. From there, the researchers accessed 87 million ‘friends’ data, including 1 million U.K. records. Utilizing two algorithms similar to what Netflix uses to predict movie choices called ‘singular value decomposition’ and ‘multi-step co-occurrence’ they exhibited 95 percent confidence in distinguishing black from white, 93 percent confidence in distinguishing men from women, 88 percent in distinguishing gay from straight, 85 percent distinguishing Democrats from Republicans, and 70 percent to 80 percent distinguishing five personality traits to target with social media.
“From there, the Canadian consultancy AggregateIQ used these data to create the Ripon platform to activate dopamine and cortisol to influence voters to sway the Brexit referendum on June 23, 2016. They then sold the dataset to Cambridge Analytica to influence specific voters in the American election on November 8, 2016, to increase their dopamine and cortisol to get them irritable enough so that they would vote, and couldn’t necessarily foresee the consequences of their actions.”
Trump campaign strategist Steve Bannon is alleged to have used what Cambridge Analytica learned to help suppress the turnout of Democrat voters and get Trump elected. But don’t think for a minute that Democrats aren’t deep into the same tactics as you read this.
No one is innocent in this game.
Copycatting is a standard of American politics. Democrats are every bit as busy fear-mongering as Trump and have been for longer. The biggest difference might be simply that the fear of climate change doesn’t sell as well as the fear of Muslims in a society increasingly tribalizing.
“The cortisol/PFC response on dopaminergic activity is enough to alter human behavior in predictable, if socially undesirable, ways,” Lustig wrote. “Witness the episode of ‘The View’ last week when Whoopi Goldberg popped off at Judge Jeanine Pirro.”
“…Many of us have now become Trump. The more dopamine and cortisol, the more we lose our ability to discern truth from post-truth, the more irritable we become, and the more we abandon our cognitive control and with little regard for the consequences.”
As a result, reality cedes ground to propaganda. People stop looking for facts and go looking for what someone claims to be factual even if it is obviously not, and the tubes become fertile ground for “fake news,” which should really just be a joke.
Most fake news is so obviously fake no thinking person would believe it. But we’re becoming a society that thinks less and reacts more, a society Lustig would argue is so pumped up on hormones that we’ve become badly prone to act before we think.
Or act and never think.