Politicians like Trump — and, more recently, RFK Jr. — have mastered what it takes to tap into your reptilian brain.
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Five percent of the people think; 10 percent of the people think they think; and the other 85 percent would rather die than think. — Thomas A. Edison
The constant obsessing with Hunter Biden — as if this man matters, given the very real threats our society faces — what is that actually about? Well, more than mere tribalism or confirmation bias on the right. It’s symptomatic of a deeper and broader illness.
To be sure, those who condemn Hunter Biden’s behavior (and allege special treatment) seem to ignore the financial corruption, debauchery, and far worse by a legion of right-wing leaders, movement heroes, pastors, etc. — where no accountability is typically the rule, not the exception. Including the children of the immediate past president, to say nothing of the “former guy” himself. As someone tweeted in response to a posting I did on Hunter derangement:
Hunter has never been in politics. Ivanka and Jared made 300+ million in salary as advisors not to mention 2 billion from the Saudis and why no one is investigating that is beyond me.
So, why make so much of Hunter’s offenses, which are really inconsequential in the greater scheme of things, and ever so slight in comparison with the monumental outrages of so many right-wingers?
What Lies Beneath
To find the answer to this mystery, we need to lift the lid on the human skull — and have a look at the wiring inside. By “wiring” I refer to a specific feature of anatomy that may provide at least part of the explanation: the reptilian brain. Carl Sagan described it well:
Deep inside the skull of every one of us there is something like a brain of a crocodile … which evolved tens of millions of years ago. … It is a major source of our moods and emotions. … On the outside, living in uneasy truce with the more primitive brains beneath, is the cerebral cortex [that part of the brain that thinks rationally]; civilization is a product of the cerebral cortex.
So, our civilized selves live in “uneasy truce” with our more primitive selves, an internal battle within each of us.
Our civilized selves evaluate the nuances and complexity of issues, and are comfortable with the uncertainties inherent in this rational process.
On the other hand, our primitive selves crave certainty, but are willing to settle for the mere appearance of certainty — relying on incomplete information, the perception of only part of a pattern, and a bias against inconvenient facts. Studies have shown that those considered “right wing” have enlarged amygdalas (where fear and other emotions are felt) — that is, the reptilian brain. (To my knowledge, comparable studies have not been done on the hard left.)
Left, Right, and Way Beyond
Yet the problem I wish to address here does not solely concern one end of the spectrum. A comparable group at the opposite end, on the left, mirrors in many ways the right. Both have invested a great deal of time and energy in maintaining their worldview.
And we see a tendency for these two supposedly adversarial camps to make common cause, like two poles of a magnet suddenly locking together.
Also at play are two more camps that are very different from each other: the “techno bros” (the Elon Musk set) and the “spiritualists.” One group has an excessive faith in technological solutions; the other in the nebulous grail of “spiritual” solutions.
All four of these sometimes overlapping constituencies— the right wing, left wing, the techno wing (who hold themselves proud skeptics), and the spirituals (devout non-skeptics) — believe they have found a purity of morals and motives as the “real patriots,” the “true idealists,” or “the only people fighting for the working class.” And all four usually exhibit a totemistic devotion to particular public figures who offer a comforting dogma about what ails us — and the one sure way to a cure.
Another interesting thing about them: They either see conspiracies everywhere — or nowhere at all.
But those driven by logic see conspiracies where facts show they exist. Tough-minded people of the latter sort believe that, while veiled coalitions with coordinated agendas can indeed explain some of the world’s problems, most are the result of shifting combinations of intent, happenstance, coincidence, visible processes, inertia, and complex and often competing interests.
As for the not so tough-minded extreme right and left, there are other striking parallels: Both are relentlessly critical of Big Government and Big Business — while remaining, with few exceptions, in strident denial of the extent to which they depend on benefits accorded by the very same power structures. They insist they would rather not do so, but fail in most cases to live their “truth.”
Both sides are frequently and broadly hostile to any establishment, well beyond the normal critiques we all share of the self-interest and group-think one finds in bureaucratic structures anywhere. For instance, they may take reasonable concerns about the murky origins of COVID-19 and the hasty process by which the life-saving COVID-19 vaccines were rolled out — and extend them into dangerous and unproven narratives that undermine evidence-based efforts to save lives.
This tendency to vastly oversimplify complex issues and gain adherents by imputing nefarious intentions to actions taken on the front lines of a crisis is a sure sign of reptilian-brain thinking.
You will find it in pundits and activists who draw sweeping conclusions from one set of historical events and mindlessly apply them again and again to entirely different situations and circumstances. This predisposition to judgmental certainty also makes them more receptive to dangerously unhinged rhetoric and tendentious advocacy of bad policies. And they accept their
leaders’ constant depiction of opposing personalities — their presumed “enemies” — as exemplars of almost cartoonish villainy.
Do we not all have friends who pride themselves on their broad reading and deep analysis of diverse philosophies and lifestyles, yet who seem incapable of considering newly available information in an ever-changing situation? This kind of resistance to abandoning past certainties strikes me as having, despite the seeming sophistication, reptilian-brain thinking at its root.
This is especially dangerous when it comes to the subject of vaccines. There are people who exhibit a baffling inability to distinguish between thoughtful, if sometimes mistaken, front-line investigators, and counterfeit “experts” who trumpet what they want to hear.
More difficult to evaluate are the views of doctors and scientists with impressive credentials who also tell them what they want to hear. They are seen as heroes for going against the establishment. But these seemingly qualified people have been discredited — as dishonest in many cases — by an overwhelming majority of doctors and scientists with credentials that are at least as impressive, if not more so.
The usual antidote to this inconvenient truth is naive: All those other doctors must have been paid off.
As a longtime analyst of historical and political events, I’m well aware of the odiousness of many establishment figures and policies. I’m also exquisitely sensitive to the dangers of co-opting carefully researched and extensively sourced work to support irrational and highly tendentious conclusions about life-and-death issues.
I see this phenomenon when I perpetually receive links to the same passed-around article or video from a range of people who insist that if I would only consider with an open mind the views of this or that self-proclaimed expert, I would come to see that everyone on the “other side” is dead wrong.
At first blush, these articles often make a kind of sense, at least on the surface, which is exactly why they achieve some degree of resonance. Yet, those buying into them seem oblivious to the wealth of other studies that have produced contradictory results.
Tapping Into the Power
We could of course blame these “true believers” for their inconsistent skepticism and their rejection of data-driven arguments against their pet views. Or we could focus on the cynical nature of those who, for their own advancement and enrichment, use their rational minds to manipulate these believers.
Self-serving politicians and preachers, today’s virally-motivated influencer class and, of course, the commercial establishment, have long recognized what it takes to tap into the reptilian brain. The buzz words. The obsessions. The guilt. The anger. The suspicion. The frustration. The need for a righteous cause. The desire for simplicity in an increasingly complex, confounding world. The sense of security found in nostalgia. The desire for escape or cleansing.
That’s how a Trump or an RFK Jr. can assume the mantle of the one “truth speaker” equipped to clean up a rotten system. They all have simple solutions for the overwhelmingly complex problems we all face.
And their adherents respond in kind. The broad generalizations, the default responses to widely varied issues, the hardened positions on everything from Big Pharma’s perfidy to “woke this-and-that” to climate change denial to gun ownership to opposing help for Ukraine as it resists Russian imperialism — all demonstrate a lack of intellectual elasticity that would allow them to keep learning new things.
A reader recently reminded me of a quote by the poet Carl Sandburg that I think nails the reptilian brain in action:
If the facts are against you, argue the law. If the law is against you, argue the facts. If the law and the facts are against you, pound the table and yell like hell.
Today, while the hard right and hard left are pounding the table — the world is going up in flames.