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The Deep Fear That Trumps All Others, Including COVID-19

With COVID victims all around them, Trump supporters stayed true to their tribe.

If you want a bracingly clear picture of where America is headed in the immediate future, you need look no further than the election result in counties where COVID-19 is killing people at high rates. Voters in the 350 counties with the highest number of new COVID-19 cases per capita voted for Donald Trump. In 139 counties experiencing high COVID-19 mortality that went for Trump in 2016, more people voted for him this time than last.

How could this be? With people all around them dying – even members of their own families, how could Trump’s supporters not fear COVID-19? How could they deny that the threat is greater because of how badly Trump has handled the pandemic? Regardless of their politics, aren’t these people afraid?

Of course, they are. And that fear drove votes, just as Richard Nixon predicted when he observed that “People react to fear, not love; they don't teach that in Sunday School, but it's true.” But it’s not COVID that Trump supporters feared most. There is something even more threatening driving choices and behaviors that seem to deny reality, a fear that we all share, a fear that drives the angry polarized Us-Against-Them division tearing America apart. It’s fear of being kicked out of our tribe.

Humans are social animals. We have evolved to depend on each other for our safety and survival. When the lion is attacking, together we each stand a chance. Alone, we’re lion food. And during the attack is too late to start figuring out who’s on our side and who isn’t. We have developed exquisitely perceptive tools for constantly gauging who we can trust. The brain even has cells in the area known as the amygdala, where our Fight or Flight or Freeze response begins, that raise or lower our sensitivity to stimuli indicating possible danger, based on trust.

Perhaps the most common way we assure ourselves we’re among people we can trust is by affiliating with those who share our views. We are most powerfully drawn to those who share our sense of how society should work and our moral ideas of what is right and wrong, key commonalities that determine not only which political party we identify with but who we choose to be with, live among, have as friends. These affiliative groups are our tribes, units of social cooperation that keep us safe. We instinctively expect that members of our tribe will protect any loyal member. A Presidential election is an opportunity to demonstrate that loyalty.

But the lesson here is about much more than one vote. It’s about the depth of the passion behind that vote, the passion that’s still there, the passion that is so important it distorts reason itself. Trump supporters downplayed the threat of one of the worst diseases to hit humanity in decades. One hospital patient, sick with COVID and about to be intubated, told her doctor "It can't be COVID. That's a hoax." They ignored the elementary-school-obvious idea that wearing a mask protects you and those around you. They denied all the missteps by the current administration by simply calling evidence of those missteps “fake” or “false”.

As they told exit pollsters, they believed that Trump would do the best job handling COVID, despite his calling COVID a disease that “doesn’t affect anybody” and “we’re rounding the corner” just as the worst of the pandemic is hitting. To maintain loyalty to the tribe and therefore merit the tribe’s acceptance and protection, they did an awful lot of what cognitive science experts call motivated reasoning, reasoning not to divine the accurate objective truth but to achieve a goal, the goal being nothing less than safety and survival, perhaps our most powerful biological motivator.

Neuroscience contributes here, too. When people are expressing dogmatic beliefs that fly against the evidence but match the views of their tribe, the parts of the brain that are more active are not the ones associated with higher-order reasoning, but the ones more associated with social affiliation and loyalty. This stuff is deeply rooted in our biology, as critical tools for survival must be.

This is how we all behave, all the time. This is why our disagreements on polarized issues are not just about ideas, why compromise has become so uncommon, why we think of those in other groups as “the enemy”, and why agreeing with someone with a different view is so very very hard. This is why tribal identity matters so much. It's threatening. So much so that it literally triggers an instinctive Fight or Flight or Freeze response, to even consider going against your tribe. A prominent environmentalist friend once described delaying for two years his announcement that he had changed his mind and now supported genetically modified food because he said “It felt like I was on a scaffold with a trap door at my feet and a noose around my neck and the lever was in my hand.” He could not have described the powerful biological imperative of tribal loyalty more dramatically.

These tribes are still firmly in place. And the tribe that lost, now no longer in power, is even more challenged to cling to shared beliefs in the name of safety and protection. We are left with the central question America faced before the election, and still does; why have things gotten so tribal in the first place? Why are people feeling so threatened that the tribe has become much more important for our sense of safety? What dangers have developed over the past few decades that are so ominous that we feel the need to circle the wagons with our votes and our views into an Us-Against-Them world? The election didn’t eliminate those underlying pressures. Identifying and addressing them is what America must do as it struggles with the polarized tribal battles that this election surely won’t resolve.