Fear the Strong Man Saving Us from Death

Driftwood bones on the beach


Terror Management Theory (TMT) is a branch of psychology that has arisen out of the work of social anthropologist Ernest Becker and his book, "The Denial of Death". The theory is that humans are uniquely conscious of their own mortality which generates existential dread.

Culture can be viewed as the attempt to occupy our minds, to provide a sense of permanence in an impermanent life, to reassure ourselves of our value, to give meaning where death renders everything meaningless. We make things in an attempt to transcend oblivion whether it's great art, huge buildings, religious beliefs, or children. We cover ourselves with the security blanket of culture and for the most part it helps us keep the death monster under the bed muffled and drowsy.

When someone comes along and invokes images of a shattered culture, direct threats of violence from outsiders and other imagery that causes our security blanket to shift and slip off, we instinctively look for reassurance that someone can easily put things back in order and shove the monster back under the bed, a least for a while.

Donald Trump invokes this existential dread in just this way. He paints a picture that we live in a world of growing chaos and fear. He invokes that primal monster until we see its red glowing eyes peering at us over the edge of the bed. And then he proclaims he alone can conquer that monster, build.a wall around him and make him pay for it. 

A few quotes from an interview with one of the proponents of TMT from "Fear, Death and Politics: What Your Mortality Has to Do with the Upcoming Election", Scientific American, October 23, 2008 seem prescient.

"...when fears of death are aroused, people are more likely to embrace leaders who provide psychological security by making their citizens feel like they are valued contributors to a great mission to eradicate evil."

"The best antidote...may be to monitor and take pains to resist any efforts by politicians or others to capitalize on fear mongering."

"As a culture, we should also work to teach our children and encourage our citizens to vote with their “heads” rather than their “hearts.” And it may also be helpful to raise awareness of how concerns about mortality affect human behavior. I hope that such measures will encourage people to make rational choices based on the political qualifications and positions of the candidates rather than on defensive needs to preserve psychological equanimity in response to reminders of death."

Since a version of this article was first published in the September issue of Senior News, the fear and anger aroused by Donald Trump's campaign has become even more egregious.