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How Authoritarianism Short-Circuits the Lizard Brain

The GOP’s slavish groveling overrides – for once – its basic instinct for fear and panic.

Trump & Fox News' Sean Hannity

Trump & Fox News' Sean Hannity. (cc/flickr/Gage Skidmore)

The tendency of Republicans both to respond to and sow fear and panic has been with us for decades. Yet during the coronavirus pandemic, to anyone who bothers to look, we are seeing a new and strangely unremarked twist to their behavior, a development that gives valuable -- and chilling -- insight into Republican psychology.

During the early 1950s, Republicans stampeded themselves and much of the country into a state of hysteria over homegrown Communist subversion. That there were a few Communist spies is undeniable, but Republicans vastly overestimated their number. Senator Joseph McCarthy, the ringleader of the GOP vigilantes, was unable to uncover a single one, settling for ruining the reputations of innocent Americans.

Over the years, conservatives (I use the term interchangeably with Republicans) have swooned over various moral panics, such as the evergreen fear that gays will convert their children into perverts, or the imagined war against Christmas that secular humanists supposedly wage with the implacable ferocity of the Stalingrad campaign. Since 9/11, panic over Muslims has been a hardy perennial: the GOP faithful are forever on guard lest their city council should impose Sharia law on hapless Christians. Never mind that for the last decade, domestic right-wing terrorist incidents have greatly outpaced incidents committed by Muslims.

There is a reason for these inappropriately fearful responses that is related to brain physiology. Strongly conservative individuals literally have different brains than the rest of the population. MRI tests have shown that different centers of the brain light up more robustly in these persons than others, and their amygdala – the so-called “lizard brain” that controls the threat response – is larger than average. To what extent this characteristic is an inherited tendency and to what extent socialization alters the highly adaptable components of the brain is debatable.

This is not to say that there are not powerful evolutionary reasons for a fight-or-flight response: some threats in our pre-history (say, an approaching saber-toothed tiger) were real. So is the instinct not to walk casually amid automobile traffic. But when fear is exaggerated and the response irrational it can impede long-term survival, for the human species needs to confront and intelligently overcome risk in order to progress above the level of feces-throwing primates.

Some aversion instincts are deeply wired in everyone, regardless of ideology: such as the impulse to avoid the sources of suspected infectious disease. This is so heavily ingrained that the mere sight of some disgusting object, such as a rotting animal corpse, will trigger the immune system to produce more antibodies. This even can occur from looking at pictures of sick persons.

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All the more surprising, then, is the nonchalant response of most Republicans to the coronavirus pandemic. You’d think it would stimulate their lizard brains to hyper-alertness, but no.

From the president, who once said the virus was a hoax (then predictably denied that he said what he said) to Rush Limbaugh, who claimed it was only a common cold, to Congressman Matt Gaetz (a man who habitually acts like the insufferable smartass all of us encountered in the eighth-grade), who showed up on the House floor wearing a gas mask to mock the Democrats’ concern, Republicans have demonstrated derision and indifference. Even the fact that many of them were exposed to, or even contracted, the virus at the annual CPAC convention has not improved their lackadaisical attitude. (That CPAC has transitioned from virally broadcasting noxious ideas to more literal virus spreading is an irony that future historians may note with bemusement.)

This behavior is not confined to GOP politicians and rabble-rousers. It began with anecdotal evidence that some Fox News-addicted elderly were not regarding the threat of the virus seriously and weren’t taking personal protective measures. But polls have also found that there is a statistically significant difference between the reaction of ordinary Democrats and Republicans to the outbreak. A whopping 72 percent of Republicans trust the “information” (sic) provided by President Trump, whose performance has been so abysmal, and so full of lies, that a child of eight could see through them.

What accounts for this astonishing behavior? I have written before about American conservatives’ authoritarianism, a trait that has starkly accelerated during Trump’s period of riotous misrule. This cultish instinct to blindly follow the direction of their leaders, and to conform their opinions to those of their own in-group, has become so strong that even in the face of disease it appears to have overridden even deep-rooted human aversion instincts, as well as their own habitual, hypertrophied sense of social fear.

The transcendent power of authoritarianism over immature minds can explain otherwise baffling incidents in history. Why did members of the Charlemagne assault battalion, Frenchmen who had no rational stake in Nazism or Germany, die suicidally in the rubble of Berlin, perishing to defend a Führer who considered France the hereditary enemy of Germany? Why do Republicans seem to think they have to scoff at a global pandemic in order to “own the libs?”

The GOP has not yet gone quite as far as the Charlemagne unit, but make no mistake: the core tenets of American conservatism in the age of Trump are genuinely crazy. If Republicans, goaded and cheered on by dangerous imbeciles like Rush Limbaugh or Sean Hannity, continue to maintain their grip of governmental power, the results will not be pretty.

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