An Extraordinarily Dangerous Moment for Rural America

Tribalism places rural America at great risk.

Posted Nov 27, 2020

Like J.D Vance in his groundbreaking book Hillbilly Elegy, I grew up in a poor Southern community in rural America. We made our living in the foothills of North Carolina raising eight acres of tobacco, and I managed to put myself through college doing this. In fact, I was fortunate to have found my way to a graduate degree and faculty positions in places like Wake Forest University School of Medicine, Johns Hopkins, and most recently, the University of Arizona. Although my career has taken me out of rural America, my heart is still very much tied to my roots and the beauty of my life growing up.

I provide this as background to convey that I know from where I come, and I know very well the people who live there. I love these people, but I am also extremely concerned how unconscious tribalism is placing them at great risk of losing their lives.

The early works of Sloman, Stanovich, Evans, and Kahneman proposed a dual process theory of thought. A psychological distinction is made between slow, deliberate “thinking” versus fast, effortless, unconscious, associative processes and emphasizes the dominance of the latter evolutionarily driven, unconscious system in most people and especially in people who feel threatened. I published a book focused on this topic entitled The Rewired Brain and in it, I spoke of the unconscious associative processes that lead to tribalism and can result in cruelty.

“At the heart of most human violence sits our primal instinct to control what we perceive to be dangerous or put us or our tribe at risk…When humans encounter a person or a group of people that are different (whether in gender, race, religion, political affiliation, sexual orientation, or nationality), our unconscious mind and its primitive origins kick in.”

As I wrote these words in 2016 and retold the history of madmen such as Hitler, Stalin, and Pol Pot, I had never observed how powerful and crushing these unconscious instincts and drives could be in real time. I am now observing this process in an already suffering people (my rural tribe) as they are manipulated by a failing leader who is blatantly advocating actions that will have dire health and economic consequences.

History teaches us that when power is taken or, in today’s case, given away by a large segment of the population, that power can be transferred to the sociopathic leader who eventually uses it to kill massive numbers of the very people who gave it to him. In the latter months of WWII, with no hope of winning, Hitler fought on, killing hundreds of thousands more German lives and at one point even ordered the destruction of German power plants, farms, dams, schools, and utilities. He was reported to have said, “We don’t need to worry about their survival, because all the good Germans are dead.” We see this with other historical figures such as Stalin and Pol Pot, who both killed millions of their own people.

In light of current events, I find it shocking and troubling that rural Americans, my tribe, have shown unflinching loyalty and are seemingly willing to sacrifice themselves in an act of ultimate obedience. While many rural “red” states were spared the spring coronavirus cases, the overall number of cases is now exponentially growing in these states, causing understandable alarm as medical staff are stretched thin and hospitals (particularly ICU beds) are running out of capacity.

High percentages of people are sick, dying, and facing financial ruin in these areas, while President Trump still maintains it’s all a hoax, eliminates financial safety nets, and discourages his rural followers from using the only disease prevention tools we currently have (masks and social distancing) to protect themselves. If this were not enough, the tribe has implausibly connected the violent words and actions of this man with the beautiful, non-violent, liberating life of Christ. Many of their Christian pastors often fortify this association.

As I write these words, I can hardly wrap my mind around the unflinching loyalty I am observing for our president given the current death and destruction directed at the people I love. My day job as a biomedical researcher focuses on understanding the molecular underpinnings of inflammation and inflammatory storms such as what we observe in patients who have harsh/lethal responses to COVID-19. My lab has received blood from almost 1000 COVID-19 positive individuals, many now deceased. My cousin’s wife called me last week from my rural North Carolina hometown and said, “We have community spread and most people here are still calling this a hoax…what’s wrong with these people?” I submit there is nothing “wrong” with them, they are lovely people who honestly believe they are doing the right thing. The problem is they have been gravely deceived, and now the consequence is a “mass suicide."

I will end this post with a dire warning. History teaches us that as strongmen become weaker and more disempowered, the more sacrifice and death they will ask of us all, but particularly their followers. This grim reality is breaking my heart, and I can no longer remain silent without feeling complicit. Our president is now leading a death cult and my people are his target. Not wearing a mask and attending mass gatherings are seen as a symbol of allegiance to their declining savior. Collectively, these actions will lead to tens of thousands more deaths and devastating economic consequences for the tribe and other innocent victims. History clearly shows us that dangerous, heartless leaders are more than willing to sacrifice the lives of their tribe to maintain their power, ego, and influence.