Kirby Farrell Ph.D.

A Swim in Denial


Anxiety Is a Leadership Tool

Threat display as a weapon.

Posted Sep 24, 2017

Many people felt anxious at the escalating insults between North Korea’s Kim Song-un and Donald Trump. On the surface, the anxiety comes from the leaders’ nuclear arsenals and military juggernauts. Over the first weekend, the insult competition was stagey, with the leaders parodying each other as in kids' sticks and stones taunts.  Yet the anxiety was real.

By Monday, North Korea was claiming that Mr. Trump's insults were a declaration of war.  Countering their opponents'  war games, North Korea threatened to shoot down American planes, even outside of North Korean airspace. In no time the calendar had been peeled back to August 1914.

An insult contest is a symbolic war for prestige, with the contestants playing at threat display. [1] They display craziness with scare quotes—“craziness.” Presumably, they have both studied the history and psychology of past contests, such as the brutal Korean War. Yet both leaders play at being on the edge of control, though this risks creeping out the home team, especially when one leader thinks the nation of Namibia is “Nambia.”

Nukes can make you queasy. But let’s peer through the taboos to a more basic force at work. One reason many Americans feel like someone might kill you is that Mr. Trump is projecting the urge to kill you. It’s partly the temperament he displays:

In the fifth season of "The Apprentice," Ivanka Trump chastises a contestant for bearing grudges, Trump cuts her off: "Who doesn’t! I do. Nobody takes things more personally than me. When somebody says something personal about me, I hate them for the rest of my life. It’s probably wrong, but I hate people." He pauses. "Do you understand that? I hate ‘em . . . . I never recover from it.” [2]

Whether or not you voted for Mr. Trump, you risk feeling hated because he turns contests such as an election into life-or-death fights. His opponent he continues to smear as a criminal (“Lock her up!”). The North Korean government is “a band of criminals.” Whether or not he really believes it, he insists that “millions” of voters, presumably poor minorities, cast illegal ballots against him. In climate change, labor, and immigration, say, his policies and cabinet appointments have been hostile to those voters who opposed him. Cutting back the enrollment window, Mr. Trump tries to validate his threats against  ACA health insurance by forcing it to fail. That is, he wants to validate his insult. Threat display seeps into actual aggression. Each political move has been an intimidating threat that no compromise can stop him. 

The problem with threat display is that it has no natural limit.  As in fake wrestling, the antagonists assume there’s always an element of bluffing and so they keep feigning rage, trying to top one another. Hence to be convincing, Mr. Trump has had to stage tantrums against Mr. Sessions and his Republican allies in Congress. 

Before we ask why such displays work, consider the goal of his rage.  When neo-Nazis invaded Charlottesville VA spoiling for a fight, Mr. Trump waffled about his loyalty to ordinary citizens. He may have been so invested in threat display that he couldn’t compromise.

In this behavior, the leader divides those he serves into Us and Them [3], and consigns racial and policy “enemies” to social death. The deep model is combat and symbolic killing. As dictators routinely do in history, Mr. Trump is dramatizing vivid fantasies of punishment and death. When he encourages his rallies to chant “Lock her up,” for example, the behavior is symbolic lynching by a vigilante mob. Without that scapegoat to draw off their aggression, the rally crowd could be dangerous to each other.

The deep threat, as Mr. Trump said on the air, is that “I hate people.” At the UN it came out as the vow that “We” will “totally destroy” North Korea. He makes the world's conflict personal by vowing death for the North Korean leader: "Kim “won’t be around much longer."

Supporters will indignantly retort that their man hasn’t killed anyone. And of course, they’re right. When Mr. Trump confesses that “I hate people,” it’s not a courageous act of Socratic self-knowledge, it’s threat display.  He is warning listeners, including his daughter Ivanka, that he doesn’t feel the usual fellow-feeling that inhibits violence. 

It means that he dominates others through intimidation: and his threats are symbolic violence. Symbolically he “totally destroys” the lives of immigrants. By stiffing people who have worked for him, he is attacking their well-being. By muscling the nation to strip away people’s medical insurance, he directly attacks their health.

Because Mr. Trump incites aggression in his political allies, the dominant party in Congress, we are looking at not one symbolic rampage killer, but rather charging armies. The behavior is group threat display. In its appeal to partisans, the group's leaders warn that unless the group repeals popular health insurance, it will be dismissed as an impotent party of losers.

To appreciate the existential ground of this aggression, consider the stakes. “Campaign fund-raising was drying up, [Sen. Cory Gardner] said, because of widespread disappointment among donors over the inability of the Republican Senate to repeal the Affordable Care Act or do much of anything else.” [4] At issue is the 5.5 percent tax on the rich that helps pays for the ACA. The rich have resented this requirement to share so much that they spend money hiring mercenaries to destroy it. But, you may well say, it’s only money. No rich people have gone bust.

Ah, but money is symbolic. Money is self-esteem: Money is life. Money gives you command over people. As in a slave economy, their work makes you bigger: You are able to build an “empire” and wow others. If you control the law through lobbying, you control the nation’s identity and its founding reality.

Make no mistake: Mr. Trump’s “base” supports his strategy. Their approval says that given the chance, they too would like to dominate by wiping out “Thems.”

Mr. Trump combines these themes in his call for a boycott unless NFL football team owners fire or suspend players who kneel or sit during the national anthem to protest racial and social injustice. “Fire or suspend!” Mr. Trump demanded in a tweet, demanding a symbolic death penalty. Reported the New York Times, foregrounding the metaphor of warfare, Mr. Trump is “bent on deepening a bitter culture-war fight with the N.F.L.”

In this case, the leader decries the players’ “disrespect” as a threat to his supporters, and he urges supporters to convert flight to fight, by changing their anxiety to punishing outrage—in this case, firing, the equivalent of the death penalty.

What needs to be said is that Mr. Trump’s threat-display is strategic. So far it is “only” strategic. What intensifies anxiety outside his base is the prospect that even in play, symbolic guns can accidentally go off, with real injuries.

Mr. Trump’s efforts to reward rich donors have been frustrated in Congress. While this may indeed anger him, he and his political allies are trapped: They can only pay back their donors by forcing legislation that voters have repeatedly rejected. The rejection is self-defense. Voters recognize that attacks on ACA health insurance are attacks on them.

To limit voters' alienation and reality-testing, the leader poses as the hero who rescues followers from horror. After hurricanes demolished Puerto Rico, Mr. Trump lambasted the mayor of San Juan because she complained that "We are dying here."  The leader praised Washington's "fantastic" response. In fact Puerto Rico is in debt at a time when Mr. Trump is trying to save money for his radical tax plan for the rich. And Puerto Rico has features in common with Mexico and other groups he has aggressively deported.  His political opponents, he claimed, put the mayor up to attacking him.  That is, the islanders aren't facing death threats: the leader is. You're right to feel anxiety, but use it to save him.

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1. While a polite world prefers passive aggression, when that becomes too familiar, it loses its potency. The era of industrial entertainment and social media tweets favors shock. Threat display competes for maximum impact. For audiences used to tweets and TV, even stagey threat displays may feel more authentic and powerful than more considered threats. See my The Psychology of Abandon, Leveller's Press, 2015. 

2. Emily Nussbaum, “Guilty Pleasure: how TV created Donald Trump”  New Yorker, July 31, 2017, 26.

3. Robert Sapolsky, “Why Your Brain Hates Other People: and how to make it think differently, June 22, 2017.

4. Clark Hulse, “Behind New Obamacare Repeal Vote: ‘Furious’ G.O.P. Donors,” NY Times (Sept. 22, 2017):