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A fascinating psychological experiment could explain Donald Trump’s rise

Republican frontrunner Donald Trump, pictured at a fundraiser in Las Vegas, has risen to a new high in national polls.
Republican frontrunner Donald Trump, pictured at a fundraiser in Las Vegas, has risen to a new high in national polls.
Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

In the wake of the terrorist attack in San Bernardino, California, Donald Trump’s standing in Republican polls has spiked, even after many speculated Trump had gone too far with his incendiary proposal to temporarily ban foreign Muslims from entering the United States. Trump was at 41 percent, up from 28 percent in October, in a Monmouth University poll of Republican and Republican-leaning voters.

There are all kinds of reasons why Trump has succeeded to date in attracting Republican support: among others, his strident opposition to illegal immigration and to Chinese trade practices, his bluster and belligerence, his defiance of political correctness, his reputation as a successful businessman, and his promise of independence from big contributors and lobbyists. But another factor may account for his recent boost in popularity.

To understand Trump’s rise, you must first understand this philosopher

The key to understanding Trump’s appeal may lie in the works of the late anthropologist/philosopher Ernest Becker. In his Pulitzer Prize–winning book The Denial of Death, Becker contended that a fear of death shapes in very basic ways our being in the world. He says the fear of death contributes to a literal and figurative quest for immortality through religion, parenting, and the production of what we hope are lasting works.

It can fuel a fascination with heroes who defied death and celebrities whose fame will live after them. And in certain circumstances, it can also influence our moral and political judgments. It can make us less tolerant and even fearful of different ethnic groups, religions, and nations, creating a sharp gap between "us" and "them," and it can strengthen our support for strong and charismatic leaders who will protect us against them. The San Bernardino massacre may have been one such circumstance, and the fear of death it awakened may help explain Trump’s sudden rise in the polls.

Three psychologists — Sheldon Solomon, Jeff Greenberg, and Tom Pyszczynski, who met as graduate students in psychology at the University of Kansas in the mid-1970s — were inspired by Becker’s work. Over the past 25 years, they have tried to prove his theory about the fear of death through practical, real-life experiments. The editor of a professional journal had advised them that if they wanted other psychologists to take Becker’s ideas seriously, they would have to demonstrate their validity through experiments.

How the fear of death plays out in real life

In 1989, Solomon, Greenberg, and Pyszczynski devised the first of what would be scores of successful experiments. This one was intended to show that a fear of death could lead to harsh moral judgments. The psychologists recruited 22 Tucson municipal court judges. They told the judges they wanted to test the relationship between personality traits and bail decisions, but for some of them, they inserted in the middle of a personality questionnaire two exercises meant to evoke an awareness of their own mortality. (One exercise asked them to "briefly describe the emotions that the thought of your own death arouses in you.") Then they asked the judges to set a bond in the hypothetical case of a prostitute who a prosecutor warned was a flight risk. The judges who did the mortality exercises set an average bail of $455; those who did not do the exercises set an average of $50, which was the prevailing rate in Tucson.

Over the next decades, the psychologists, and colleagues in the United States and overseas, devised experiments that showed that these kinds of mortality reminders affected people’s views of other religions, races, and nations. They recount many of these experiments in a recently published bookThe Worm at the Core: On the Role of Death in Life. When they had students at a Christian college evaluate essays by what they were told were a Jewish and a Christian author, those who did the mortality exercises took a far more negative view of the Jewish author than the control group did. A German psychologist, testing these theories, found a mortality reminder increased Germans’ hostility toward Turks. Other experiments showed subjects who received the mortality reminders expressed a far greater veneration for the American flag, took a far more negative view of an essay critical of the United States, and expressed a harsher view of people who had different political views from their own.

How thinking about death makes you more likely to support George W. Bush

President George W. Bush in 2014

After 9/11, the researchers devised experiments to gauge the effect of the terrorist attack on Americans’ awareness of their own mortality. Subjects who had "911" flash subliminally before their eyes between word associations were more likely to complete word fragments with words associated with death than subjects who had innocuous word combinations flash before them. (Did "coff" become "coffee" or "coffin?") They concluded that reminders of 9/11 functioned as mortality reminders. They then did experiments that showed that mortality reminders lent greater appeal to charismatic leaders.

They tested the response of two groups — one that experienced mortality reminders and one that didn’t — to three hypothetical gubernatorial candidates. One was "task-oriented and emphasized the ability to get things done"; another "emphasized the importance of share responsibility, relationships, and working together"; and a third was "bold self-confident, and emphasized the group’s greatness" ("you are part of a special state nation"). After a reminder of mortality, there was an eightfold increase in support for the charismatic candidate.

In October 2003, the researchers began testing whether George W. Bush’s appeal stemmed in part from mortality fears awakened by 9/11. They had two groups of Rutgers undergraduates read an essay expressing a "highly favorable opinion of the measures taken with regards to 9/11 and the Iraqi conflict." Those who did the mortality exercises judged the statement favorably; those who didn’t did not. In late September 2004, the team gathered together undergraduates to see whether mortality reminders affected their decision to support Bush over Democratic challenger John Kerry in the upcoming election. Just as undergraduate opinion had opposed the war, it favored Kerry, and the group that did not do the mortality exercise chose Kerry by four to one. But the students who did the exercise favored Bush by more than two to one.

Trump has awakened our fear of "us" versus "them"

According to Sheldon Solomon, who teaches at Skidmore College, the psychologists are in the process of conducting experiments to see whether voters’ reaction to Trump, in the wake of a mortality reminder, is similar to their reaction in 2003 and 2004 to George W. Bush. They are not permitted to publish their results until they are vetted by peer review in a scientific journal, but Solomon wrote to me that he expects "the outcome to be the same as 2004 given the similarity of historical conditions (9/11-France/California) and candidates (Bush-Trump)."

I, too, expect the results to be similar. The San Bernardino and Paris attacks are strong mortality reminders that awaken fear of "them," and Trump, of all the Republican candidates, combines celebrity and charisma with contempt and contumely toward those responsible for the attacks. Many voters would see his proposal to bar Muslims from the country not as an assault upon the Constitution and religious belief, but as a recognition of a mortal threat to America. And that perception of him would help explain his sudden rise in the polls.

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