A world-renowned psychologist talks about the collective trauma we are all suffering as a result of modern political manipulation.
Everyday we look at unfolding news and events through the lens of politics. Suppose we tried to understand it all instead through the lens of psychology? Suppose we got beyond the zero-sum political construct, and into how we have been and are still being manipulated.
What if we realized that President Donald Trump is just a symptom of the deeper crumbling psychological infrastructure of our country? One that makes us so vulnerable to divisive political tactics?
Our guest on this week’s WhoWhatWhy podcast is psychologist and attorney Dr. Bryant Welch. In his book State of Confusion, he argues that these are questions not of politics, but about the health of the American mind.
Welch talks to Jeff Schechtman about the long-term impact of today’s sophisticated forms of political manipulation, all of which undercut our ability to seriously deal with modern problems. In an era of change and the onslaught of technology, Welch explains how we are particularly susceptible to paranoia, sexual perplexity, and envy — and how they can easily be used to undermine our ability to function rationally.
In Welch’s theories, we can see the root cause of the power of religious groups, and why long-accepted rational scientific ideas are suddenly now under siege. According to Welch, half of Americans today are “suggestive and regressed,” and he says that we are now also suffering from a kind of collective trauma.
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|Welcome to Radio WhoWhatWhy. I’m Jeff Schechtman. When Ed Murrow took down Joe McCarthy, he reminded us in a line from Shakespeare that Cassius was right, “The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars but in ourselves.” He went on to remind us that at the time McCarthy didn’t create the atmosphere of hate and paranoia that had swept the country, he merely successfully exploited it.
|Much the same can be said of the political climate we’re now living through. Donald Trump didn’t create a culture of distorted reality, meanness, lack of empathy, but he and others have successfully exploited it, and frankly, it’s been easy to do so. In an age of anxiety, extreme change, paranoia, politicians, and our media environment have created what Steve Jobs used to refer to as a reality distortion field. But while Jobs exploited it to give us insanely great products, others are using it to divide us, to gin up our most primal fears of invasion of our space, and to take advantage of it, to sell us bigotry and despotism.
|That is in short, the psychological state of America today. To look deeper into it, I’m joined by my guest, Dr. Bryant Welch. He’s been a nationally recognized clinical psychologist for over 30 years. He’s a graduate of Harvard and Harvard Law before receiving his PhD in clinical psychology. It is my pleasure to welcome Dr. Bryant Welch here to talk about his book, State of Confusion: Political Manipulation and the Assault on the American Mind. Bryant, thanks so much for joining us here on Radio WhoWhatWhy.
|Dr. Bryant Welch:
|Jeff, thanks so much for having me.
|You originally wrote the first draft of this book back in 2008. What did you see percolating in the American consciousness at that point?
|Dr. Bryant Welch:
|Well, I had been working in Washington DC and was lobbying for mental health care. There was a change in the political climate, both in DC but also in the mass media with the evolution of Fox News and negative campaigning, a change in the atmosphere that was pretty dramatic. And I was less concerned with the policies that it was leading to than I was with the impact it was going to have on the American mind as I understand how it functions and what affects it.
|So I became particularly concerned with the way we rushed to war after 9/11 and from that started looking at the impact the Bush Administration and the more radical right wing at the time was having with the techniques they were using. So I began to outline that process and that’s what led to the first book. But then with Donald Trump’s administration and the changes in the American mind since that time, I revisited it all and it was quite striking. You could just take the same concepts that I’d talked about in 2005, 2006 and you looked at them today and you could see how the deteriorations that I talked about were a lot further down the road and the country was… the mental functioning was deteriorating.
|In many ways, politics has always been about marketing, about deception, and in a broader sense, I mean you can go back to the ’50s and Vance Packard writing about the hidden persuaders and Fletcher Knebel in a novel talking about the 480 slicing and dicing America up into its component parts. What’s different today?
|Dr. Bryant Welch:
|Well, what’s different, there are two things that are different. One, the technology we have to do those things you just described is infinitely more powerful, infinitely more available, so the instruments that we have to reach right inside the mind and create visceral experiences, which are the experiences that determine what we really do. It’s not so much our thinking, it’s the way we feel in our body, these bodily states, that are going to shape it. So with television, as we saw for the first time I think in the Nixon-Kennedy debates in 1960, you could reach right inside a person and give them the experience of calm, cool, handsome John Kennedy and you could contrast that with the experience viscerally of a sweaty, jowly Richard Nixon and the question for the electorate was which experience do you prefer? Lo and behold, they preferred Kennedy for those reasons.
|The TV was the first instrument where people could work that kind of mischief directly and move right inside the mind. The technology we’ve got has been greatly expanded. At the same time, the object of that technology, the human mind, or the American mind in this case, has been under a withering assault. That’s what I talk about in State of Confusion, that the amount of pressure on the mind… the mind’s first and most important job is to create our sense of reality. Now we all think of reality as just something out there that we perceive. But it’s not like that. The mind has to take all of the myriad things that are coming into it and it has to organize it and synthesize it and create a sense of what we prioritize as our reality.
|When the mind can’t do that, when it’s overloaded with material or when for some other reason it starts to malfunction and we can’t create a reality sense that we trust in, we get very, very anxious. At that point, we don’t function as well. We tend to look to some powerful other figure, a demagogue if you will, who will tell us what’s real and what’s not real. So the mind, as I document in the book, the pace of change that we’ve had to integrate with the amount of dislocation, disruption, and economic fear, the mind has been assaulted. The incidents of trauma in this country, it’s so ubiquitous that we overlook it and say, “Well, it’s just life.” But 80% of the American public has experienced some form of significant traumatic experience, which we can reasonably anticipate will disrupt our effective psychological functioning.
|So what’s changed then is you’ve got the mechanisms to work the mischief and the object on which they’re working it, the human mind is, sadly, in much more disarray as the world becomes more complex and as we lose those things that support the mind. The sanctity of the family, the extended family, communities, neighborhoods, schools, even professionalism. All the things that once supported the mind’s ability to construct its reality have been under assault and the price we’re paying is terrible. People are becoming unable… they’re so shaky in their trust in their own reality that when we see someone with a different reality, it’s too threatening to us and so we hate them. That’s the real danger in the country.
|How much of this comes from the fact that there is this trauma, there is this change, there’s so much coming at us, and it has now exceeded our essentially evolutionary ability of the mind to process that much?
|Dr. Bryant Welch:
|You stated my big concern very, very well. That’s exactly the concern. There’s an old Far Side cartoon which shows a dinosaur giving a keynote address at a dinosaur convention and he says, “Ladies and gentlemen, the future is bleak. The climate is changing, the mammals are taking over, and we have a brain the size of a walnut.” It’s a little bit like our situation now. There is a lot we can do to improve the functioning of the mind, but we’ve got to do it and we’ve got to do it pretty soon.
|My message is not all despair, but you do… that is the big fear that our capacity to grow the mind into a healthy, functioning organ is going to be outstripped by the demands on the mind. It doesn’t have to be that way, but we’ve been moving that way.
|In terms of the broader political neuroses that you write about, how much of it – and certainly there’s historic precedent for this and we can go back and talk about Kennedy, Nixon, and television – how much of it is the techniques of persuasion, the way information comes at us today, aligning with what the message is and what the paranoia is about and that creating a kind of perfect storm?
|Dr. Bryant Welch:
|It is the trifecta. It is the perfect storm. The limitations on the mind to begin with, the traumatic impact… the impact that trauma from all sources has had on the mind, and then the role of political manipulating, what I call political gaslighting in the book, that’s the trifecta for the American mind. So it’s, yes, that’s why I refer to it as the assault on the American mind. The three things coming together is devastating.
|Now, at the same time, and a lot of progress since I wrote the first volume of the book that caused me to write the second volume is that we are learning a lot about the mind and we’re discovering some things we can really do to fairly quickly transform and strengthen the mind. We not only have the developments in neuroscience where we can look at the mind and the brain, but we also have a renaissance-like cross fertilization that’s taking place as the Eastern half of the world with its history of contemplative practices, Tibetan Buddhism being a brilliant example, is coming ashore and we are able to integrate it with Western psychology, and it is a lot like the Renaissance where you had crosscultural, two cultures, three cultures coming together and cross-pollinating one another.
|So we are now, if you look at what we’ve learned about trauma in this country, what the Eastern half of the world was learning about the mind in general, we can put those things together into some techniques, and I have been practicing clinical psychology here in Sausalito for a long time and I’ve never been so excited about what we can do with an individual mind.
|But, there are also implications for what we can do at a national level based on our new understanding of the mind. Most importantly, our leaders need to be helping the mind construct a reality with a confidence and protect their ability to think independently. Roosevelt was a fabulous example of this in 1932 with the Great Depression and he… the very first thing he said to us after he was elected, the first paragraph of his first inauguration, he said “We have nothing to fear but fear itself.”
|Now, I’ve seen a lot of commentators who chuckle and say that doesn’t make any sense, but it does make a lot of sense, because what he was doing was he was identifying, making people aware of their inner psychological state. Once you’re aware of it, my neuroscientist friends have a saying, if you can name it you can tame it, and once we become aware of fear and we label it fear, we then do what Roosevelt did with us, with his fireside chats of holding our hands and walking us through the steps of a program to get the economy moving again. After he did that, he took on a madman in Hitler in Europe and defeated him. He took the mind and made it a healthy mind and made it functional and reality based. And of course today, Donald Trump in the same predicament is encouraging people. He’s not identifying the fear, he’s just encouraging people to hate as a basis of it so he’s harnessing it for his own divisive political aspirations.
|Except that part of the problem today is that the message fits so perfectly with the paranoia that’s out there, that the message of fear, that the message of paranoia fits just perfectly, like a piece of a puzzle with what the concerns are today, so it is self-perpetuating in so many respects.
|Dr. Bryant Welch:
|Oh it is. Yes, you put your finger on it when you say paranoia and I spend a lot of time in the book talking about what paranoia is. We all think of paranoia as irrational suspicion. It is that, that’s correct, but it’s a lot more. Paranoia takes place right at the boundary between what’s inside our mind and what is outside our mind, and that’s a pretty thin membrane and we can easily get confused on it. If we have a fearful inner state that you’re referring to, it’s very tempting to project it out, to get it out of us and to see it as out in the world on an identified enemy that we can blame, scapegoat, but at least feel that our anxiety is outside us, that it’s containable, and it’s defeatable. That’s what… that’s the main technique that the country has gone through whenever it has been frightened.
|So yes, it’s a… the paranoid stuff is very dangerous because it confuses inner from outer states and we then… we then behave very erratically.
|Hasn’t that, though, been part of politics for a long time? I mean Richard Hofstadter wrote 50 years ago about the paranoid style in American politics. This is something that has been part and parcel of our politics for so long, it just seems to be so much more dangerous now.
|Dr. Bryant Welch:
|No, absolutely. The Hofstadter article, I just reread it the other day and it’s almost quaint, but yes, there’s always been a paranoid streak in American politics. The problem is that the pressures on the mind that create the paranoid state have grown exponentially and the supports that we have traditionally used in this country to address those insecurities have all been under attack themselves.
|If you look at the professions… it’s not just the free press that’s been under assault, all of the professions, law, medicine, teachers, all of them have in some way had their autonomy usurped by corporate interests in this country and so they don’t function independently and they are subject to the controls and the objectives of a commercial state. The strains of paranoia have always been there, but the pressures on those paranoid mechanisms that I talk about in State of Confusion are now much bigger and growing much faster.
|If our leaders can begin to help us identify these states before we project them, before we go to war in Iraq, if you can talk about our fear after 9/11, you can do what Roosevelt did and help us manage the fear and see that it can be contained and see that it can be turned into good works, into constructive things that really do make us safer, happier, and a more loving culture.
|I mean, I guess the question is whether all of these positive things can be reinforced in the same way by the external communication stimulation that we have today. This comes back to this idea that we talked about before of kind of the perfect storm, that these things fit together so well. Do these things fit together with an inspiring positive message, and arguably not so much?
|Dr. Bryant Welch:
|Yes, they can if there… if we do take advantage of, I’ll call it the new understandings we have of the American mind, but I think we have to respect that some of these understandings were observed halfway around the globe 2500 years ago. I will say the newly emerging understanding we have about the mind, the fundamental principle, and it’s not one that, at least to me, was ever intuitively obvious, but the key word for an American cure is awareness. It’s awareness, awareness, awareness. Now that’s a word that has multiple levels of meaning. On the most superficial level, if we are aware of the techniques by which we’re being manipulated, if we’re aware of what psychological trauma does to us and what we need to do to address it, if we’re aware of the limitations of the mind, half of our struggle honestly is resolved with that awareness.
|We are lucky in that regard, but there’s also a deeper health dimension to awareness. When the mind is being aware, when it is in a state of awareness, we are then making it healthy just by virtue of doing the awaring if you will. It is an exercise for the mind and it enables us to tolerate dealing with more difficult things. It enables us to see more, it enables us to understand our own individual absurdities of petty annoyances and where they come from that divide us.
|So it’s harder to build something than it is to tear it down, so I don’t want to say this is a slam dunk, a piece of cake, or that we will do it. But it is exciting, the potential, and if we had a leader who would articulate our inner experience to us, our true inner fears, and then show us how to lead us out of those things together and bring us closer, it could make a huge, huge difference.
|Isn’t the counterargument to that though what you talk about in terms of our lack of rationality? Our lack of rational thought?
|Dr. Bryant Welch:
|Definitely, yes, it is definitely the counterargument that we are on… we have been in a downward spiral. We have someone who, to some extent, is a master manipulator at the helm. We have several billions of dollars directed at trying to completely confuse and befuddle the American mind, that’s the gaslighting that I talk about in “State of Confusion,” so yes, it’s a… it is a very dire situation we’re in. The first step, and the reason I wrote State of Confusion is we talk about the environment and the dangers that are being denied, well nothing is as denied as our awareness of the human mind and that’s the instrument that we’re trying to dig our way out of this mess with, we’ve got to pay attention to it, understand it, and take care of it a little bit.
|Is it your feeling that Americans are more susceptible to this than other countries, other cultures?
|Dr. Bryant Welch:
|Well, we have special areas of susceptibility and I can’t claim expertise in other cultures. But it goes back in our DNA. We were a bunch of people who came to this country, we were all immigrants, for the most part, fleeing a more powerful state. We were in some ways a paranoia ridden country from the beginning and we use some horrible projection scapegoating devices that led us enslave millions of people because they had a different skin color. We retreated, we were called the Island Fortress because we had these big bodies of water all around us and those things psychologically were protective. We also had an incredible abundance of natural resources so that poverty didn’t have to be a big problem right away.
|Now all of those things are evaporating in terms of the protective buffer they give us, but yes, we were an odd sort that came together and fought this revolution. Now we did have some brilliant people. I mean, the work of the founding fathers. You compare what they did and you read The Federalist papers or you look at the philosophical underpinnings of our constitution. They were brilliant. They were… they were able to be rational and show a lot of foresight.
|But you’re right, this country has had its special areas and its special privileges because of geography and resources that other countries haven’t had.
|To what extent does diversity play a part in shaping reality? Because we are such a big, expansive country, because we are so diverse, because there’s such differences in experience and culture and education, how much does that impact the multiple realities that we see people responding to?
|Dr. Bryant Welch:
|That’s a great question, and the country, as you know, has really struggled with how to tolerate and harness diversity that we often forget that the country was developed by very diverse minds, by people coming from all over the world to settle here. Now, the… I’ve spent my whole life looking at individual minds and looking at how they fit together or don’t fit together. Minds are like snowflakes. There are no two that’s alike and the minus in that is that it’s threatening when we see a different mind, but if you begin to look at organizational psychology studies, what’s very clear is that if you can have multiple minds brought to bear on a particular problem, you’ve got a much better job of if your airplane crashes of getting out of the desert successfully when you have more minds at play on it, because they each have different strengths.
|The challenge in this country, and we had this horrible thing with slavery, horrible thing that’s been all over the world with sexism, but we have been blessed to be able to integrate and use a lot of these differences and resources, but it’s been a bloody process getting to the place where we could do it.
|Is it possible that we’re so deep into this that there really is no way out?
|Dr. Bryant Welch:
|Yes. It is possible, and that is the concern. That’s why I’m writing State of Confusion. I can say to you with 100% certainty if we will pay attention to the mind and if we will understand it and respect it and do what it needs, we can overcome these things. I can’t say to you for sure that we will. It’s like the environment. I don’t know. Have we reached a point of no return? It’s chilling. I can’t say we have not, but in some ways it doesn’t matter. We damn well better get ourselves moving and doing what we can so we at least have a chance. If we do not recognize the things I’m talking about in State of Confusion, we are doomed. It would just… unless there’s some intervening miracle and I don’t much believe in those kinds of miracles.
|So yes, it’s possible we have gone past doomsday and not really known it, but what I’m trying to say is I think there are some resources available to us that I try to talk about in the new edition of State of Confusion. That if we will use them, we can make a huge difference and have a much greater chance of survival.
|Finally, in order to do that, does it have to come from charismatic leadership, or does it come from individual grassroots efforts?
|Dr. Bryant Welch:
|I think we’re in a state where we really need both and the two, the one hand has to wash the other in that regard. It’s pretty darn hard to do this without good leadership. Just the economic problem alone, we need government and one of the things in the book I talk about that I’m critical of Ronald Reagan for, is he really destroyed people’s capacity to use government. He said government is not the solution, it’s the problem. Well that’s baloney. It may be imperfect, but it’s the only tool we got to address some of these problems.
|On an individual level, I talk a lot about what we can do with our individual minds. Yes, we are the sum of our parts and we need bright vibrant people. When we do have that vitality and vibrancy in individual minds, we start working together pretty quickly. We recognize each other. We have a sense of community and we can move as a group. There have been instances of that happening. We no longer have a luxury of just using one or the other. We need some good leadership, but they have to be selected by healthy, vibrant minds that know how to get them elected. We’ve obviously not done well on that one.
|Dr. Bryant Welch, thank you so much for spending time with us here on Radio WhoWhatWhy.
|Dr. Bryant Welch:
|Jeff, thank you so much. It’s been a pleasure.
|Thank you. And thank you for listening and for joining us here on Radio WhoWhatWhy. I hope you join us next week for another Radio WhoWhatWhy podcast. I’m Jeff Schechtman.
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