Trump at a campaign rally in 2019. (AP Photo/Gerald Herbert)

The neocortex has left the building

The dangers of narcissists like Trump

By Doug Thomson

Watching the Trump administration’s lurching dance into the heart of the swamp he promised to drain would be funny if it wasn’t so terribly wretched, and dangerous.

When we witness the president of the most powerful nation in the world standing behind a podium and declaring himself, “… a very stable genius,” not once but repeatedly, it is simultaneously funny and base.

Not content with one narcissistic trait on the continuum of anti-social behaviour, Trump also professes (ad nauseum) that he knows more about windmills, the law, the military, campaign finance, the courts, trade, renewable energy, infrastructure, drones and pretty much everything else that pops up in his “stable genius,” narcissistic brain.

The trouble is, however, that Trump’s brain is flawed – he hurts people, good people like U.S. Ukrainian ambassador, Marie Yovanovitch, or the children of refugees. He lavishes attention on the world’s worst dictators while denigrating his closest allies.

He reinforces the purveyors of prejudice and bigotry and emboldens the forces of hatred and division.

In short, he’s bad stuff for the world far beyond the borders of the U.S – and that includes us.

We Canadians are no longer sleeping next to an elephant – we are now sharing a continent-sized mattress with Freddy Krueger and that shouldn’t be comforting.

None of Trump’s behaviour is new – he has been a grifter throughout his life and by all accounts he is even a serial cheat at golf. However, to dismiss Trump as just a pennyante cheat would be to underestimate him in a very dangerous way.

No – Trump’s incredibly strong suit is pathos (indeed, from which we derive pathetic). Pathos is a literary device, a tool described by Aristotle in his tome, Rhetoric, the purpose of which is to induce in an audience a judgement desired by the speaker.

Watch any footage of a Trump rally and you will see the impossible happening. Here is a man who is the polar opposite of the people who are enthralled by his presence. He lives a gaudy and ostentatious life, he was born with a golden spoon in his mouth and he’s kept it there.

He has failed repeatedly at business and has cheated a legion of small contractors who employ just the kind of people who are wearing his MAGA hats.

Trump appeals to the base instincts in his constituency. He is about spitting in the face of authority, of despising the ‘system’ and denigrating anything and everything that is not about his wants. This is primitive brain psychology; it is about reacting and not at all about thinking.

Trump says he “loves the uneducated,” but in truth, more than the uneducated can fall victim to the grifter, the conman. We are all susceptible to the amygdala hijacking the neocortex, the place where we should be adjudicating a whole lot more than we do.

The brain is complicated. Stick your hand onto a hot stove and you don’t want to get into a long-winded debate with yourself about what you are experiencing. Neither do you want to get into a crying jag until later. You want to move your hand fast – it’s important. That’s amygdala stuff.

But the Trumps of the world have an uncanny ability to hijack the emotional role of the brain and can have a crowd chanting without ever thinking for one second about what he or they are saying. He elicits an action devoid of reason because that primitive, fight-or-flight part of the brain has taken over reason.

The amygdala has hijacked the front part of their brains – the neocortex – where rational thought are negotiated. This is exactly why threats of violence are rife at his rallies.

Violence is reactive, primitive brain stuff. So are the endless put-downs of his opponents, the name calling, and anger directed at anyone who has the temerity to disagree with him.

His crass lies reinforce every emotional spike and because the neocortex has been cut off, making sense of those lies is rendered impotent.

When people are caught in an amygdala-hijack they invariably behave irrationally. Their heartrate increases, they get sweaty, develop goosebumps and may become breathless. Their faces become flushed and their eyes dilate because stress hormones are going crazy in their bodies.

Look at a Trump crowd and bear witness. Trump has not only identified the risk to them (Hillary Clinton, a protestor, the Libtards, “Shifty Adam Schiff,” refugees, Congress – whatever), but also displays himself as the omniscient and only savior who will deliver them from the very enemy he has created.

There is no easy way out of this psychological straight jacket. Once invested in the con, people do not easily come around. A square peg has been beaten into a round hole and getting it out again can be very challenging.

An interesting insight into this extreme level of denial by a victim of a con can be enjoyed in Michael Steinberger’s Vanity Fair article A Vintage Crime, July 12, 2012. It’s a fascinating read.

Amygdala – the section of the brain that deals with emotions.

Neocortex – the section of the brain that deals with reason, movement, language, the senses (touch, hearing, taste etc).

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