Trait Anger and Displaced Aggression as a Political Philosophy
by Curtis Laforge
What is the relationship between anger and political disposition?
Ever go to a family get together, only to meet a cousin that you hadn’t seen for ten years? Within a minute, before you can finish your discussion on how bad traffic is, that cousin is already complaining about Obama or Hillary. Like they were still in office. What year is this? And not just complaining. Anger. And the longer he goes on, the more he talks like Alex Jones. He scares small children. Why is he so angry?
He lives in Idaho. He complains about taxes. But he doesn’t pay any income taxes. He buys and sells guns. Cash only. And removes his water usage meter for twenty-five days each month so he pays about $3 in water. And brags about it. It’s easy to see why Trump’s grifting doesn’t phase him. He’s just like Trump, but on a smaller scale. And wait for him to pick up the check at a restaurant? You’ll wait a long time. But he is still mad that people are getting free government benefits. When he lost his job, he got on unemployment and Obamacare. He’s still on it. And he still wants it repealed. Why? Because he’s angry. Why so much anger? He has a nice house. Lives in a beautiful forest. Far away from everyone. Thank God.
This certainly begs the question: which came first, the anger, or the Trumpism? And what is with the Trumpers’ continuing angry obsession with Hillary Clinton? Did she win? Is she President? For God’s sake, please let it go. But they can’t.
Fortunately, the liberals at my family reunion didn’t start complaining about Trump for at least an hour. And they weren’t nearly as angry. Just sad. Despondent. But then again, liberals are liberals. They will always be liberals, that is, their political beliefs are more innately constructed without too much interference from the environment. The foundation of liberalism is empathy, which is more a product of genes than the environment. A liberal from 2000 years ago wasn't too much different than one of today. Even 2,000 years ago, liberals had dim views of slavery, income inequality, the rich, and warfare. And you can rely on them to continue this way. They’re reliable.
It's the conservative political beliefs that are not. They are managed more by their social networks. They need it. It is not as easy for them to formulate their opinions without their social networks to guide them. The cons get significant pleasure in coordinating their beliefs, and the more conservative they are, the more pleasure they get. Fox News during the week. Church on Sunday. Maybe a Trump rally where they can enjoy the simple orgiastic pleasures of screaming about locking people up or building a wall. They are the ultimate social competitors, and view social programs, even the ones they take advantage of, as giving someone unfair advantage over them. While they can be quite genial to the people they encounter in their daily lives, what about having empathy for people they do not directly encounter? That’s not easy for them without guidance from their social networks. It is easier for them to hate them than to like them.
Trumpism and the Angry Ruminators
Trump, who started his 2016 campaign as a business opportunity, and accidentally ended up as President, knew better than almost anyone on how to tempt them. He learned it during his failed bid for the Reform Party nomination in 2000, when he saw Pat Buchanan clean his clock with a campaign very similar to his own in 2016. He ironically claimed that Buchanan was running a racist campaign, and even called him a “Hitler-lover”. But wait, this is Trump. In the middle of complaining about Buchanan, he just realized something. These Buchanan followers were angry. And they ruminated about it constantly. There was money to be made.
Buchanan’s anti-immigration rhetoric showed Trump the way. He could convert this racially fixated and angry American subpopulation into big profits. The angle, of course, was their own anger. These proto-Trumpers were always angry about something. Somebody was always taking unfair advantage of them. Obamacare. Illegal immigration. Welfare. Medicaid. And they ruminate about it. Their slow angry burn was constant. Sit down with them and have a casual chat about the weather, and in less than a minute, they are complaining that global warming is fake or something related to race or politics. And not just therapeutic complaining. Demonstrably angry. All the time.
And Trump learned how to cultivate it. In mass. By the time Trump was done with one of his rallies, the Trumpers were ready to fight. Come on libtards, we’ll take you all on. We even pack heat when we go to our demonstrations. And Trump has set us free. Sure he’s a crook and a liar, and we wouldn’t lend him a dollar, but we’re angry, and we are not ashamed anymore. He’s made it socially acceptable to publicly vent our anger. None of the Republican elite do that. They’re a bunch of fake rich people that only care about money.
More than any politician before him, Trump exposed the way the conservative brain works. And among the people that think Trump is crazy, there is one burning question: how does someone continue to support Trump? How is that possible? After all, he lies about everything, pathologically narcissistic, unabashedly greedy, takes credit for every good thing that happens, blames everyone else for the bad things, and obviously sociopathic. If he were someone you dealt with at work, you’d never turn your back on him.
But that’s not how the average Trumper sees things. Trump is a god. Sure he may be have a few personal issues, but he is still a god. Why? Because the Trumper brain is binary. It organizes the world into good and evil. Right and wrong. God and Satan. Lock-up or don’t lock up. Complicated pictures of reality need not apply here. Just give me the Bible and leave me alone. Ever wonder why Trump speaks in hyperbole all the time? Why is everything “amazing” or a “disaster”? It’s because of the Trumper brain. It’s how it works.
Brain wise, one could make a very good case that the Trumpers exhibit a diminished influence of their prefrontal regions, which would more readily account for this binary thinking style. They are the temporo-parietal people. Now, the temporo-parietal regions of the brain are extremely critical to our ability to think and formulate behavior, but they don’t have the architecture for combining together a large and diverse volume of information as do the prefrontal regions. They roll with a diminished supply of available information, and prefer it that way.
While this is admittedly an oversimplification, as anger impacts other regions of the brain, the left side of the brain, on average, is the angrier side. It is more ready to fight than the right side. And if it finds itself as a member of a group of other like-minded angry people--it wants to fight. Like at a Trump rally. The prefrontal cortex tends to disassociate itself from one’s current situation, making it less reactive to the immediate environment. But not the temporal or parietal cortices.
The temporal cortex is also the most racially reactive part of the brain. And that’s the part of the Trumper brain that Trump tickles all the time. It’s also the part of the brain that is best at selective information processing. It can focus on certain salient facts and suppress others just as easily. It is the main conduit of motivated reasoning. It’s also the center of religious belief.
Angry Rumination and the Left Side of the Brain
For most people, anger dissipates within about fifteen minutes. But angry rumination, or the ability to maintain a low but persistent state of anger for long periods of time, can continue in some people for years. But the underlying neural picture of angry rumination seems to explain why the right side of the political spectrum is disproportionately impacted by it.
Angry rumination and BOLD percentage response increases (The Angry Brain: Neural Correlates of Anger, Angry Rumination, and Aggressive Personality. 2009)
And this traces again to the left side of the brain. Many of the characteristics of religiosity and political conservatism can be traced directly to the left side of the brain, and the enhanced ability of the Trumpers for angry rumination seems to be another one of those features, and why Trump continues his assault on Hillary Clinton long after the election. In the graph above, we see the operation of the hippocampus in the left hemisphere during angry rumination.
The hippocampus does a variety of functions, some in dispute, but memory encoding and retrieval are well established. And in angry rumination, the left hippocampus is disproportionately engaged. But as opposed to the spatial memory encoding preference of the right hippocampus, the left hippocampus is predisposed to encoding semantic memories, and semantic opposites, such as “good” and “evil”.
So angry rumination is heavily engaged in retrieving semantically encoded memories of angry content. This impacts all political persuasions, but for the Trumper, the things which constitute an angry memory include Hillary Clinton, Barack Obama, illegal immigration, and Obamacare. And Trump has masterfully exacerbated the Trumpers’ anger with his hyperbolic rhetoric.
After all, the Trump rally takes ordinary Fox News rhetoric and upgrades it into an episodic event. The group setting of the Trump rally lets the Trumpers directly experience other Trumpers as they emotionally react to Trump’s greatest rally hits, like “Crooked Hillary”, “Who’s going to build the wall?”, and “Repeal and replace”. And this experience instantiates ordinary passive political rhetoric to the status of episodic memory, making for easier recall, and increasing the anger upon recall.
But by themselves, even the powerful Trump-induced episodic memories are still unlikely to induce long-term angry rumination. This would more likely come from some sort of directly experienced trauma, and not from some hyperbolic and racially-tinged diatribe experienced at a Trump rally. And this leads us to the fundamental paradigm of the angry Trumper. Why are they so angry?
Certainly there are a variety of reasons, but the main two candidates are trait anger and displaced aggression. Trait anger is analogous to trait anxiety. Some people are naturally disposed to be anxious, and some angry. We see them all the time in our daily lives. The people that tailgate you while you are driving, and then flash their brights. The ones at work that you dread to talk to for fear of some angry response. The ones that always seem a little too tightly wound up.
The neural correlates of trait anger involve many regions of the brain, but the amygdalae in both hemispheres seem to be important, as they are with much politically relevant stimuli. Key to the responsiveness to fearful stimuli, the amygdalae are also active in what would be the opposite emotion: anger. With regards to trait anger, a particular connection of the right amygdala and left orbitofrontal cortex, seems to be closely correlated. In the paper Amygdala-Orbitofrontal Resting State Functional Connectivity is Associated with Trait Anger, Fullwiler et al. (2012) note the inverse relationship. The lesser the functional connectivity between the left OFC and right amygdala, the higher the trait anger. This also occurs with the right OFC and left amygdala, but to a lesser extent. But overall, much of the prefrontal cortex is responsible for reducing trait anger and aggression.
Trait Anger and Anger suppression by the Left orbitofrontal cortex and Right amygdala (solid dots=trait anger correlation, circles=trait anger suppression correlation (AC_Out scale))
Displaced Aggression and the angry Trumper
And then there is displaced aggression. Displaced aggression is the distortion of anger source and anger target. For example, one might be insulted by one’s boss, and then engage in aggressive behavior towards a target other than the boss. It is very common in dominance hierarchies, where redirecting aggression back towards one’s superiors is maladaptive.
But is displaced aggression common in the political psyches of the Trumpers? Does a Trumper have some sort of personal event that causes anger, only to redirect this anger towards some sort of political target, like illegal immigration? This is of course speculative, but there is some circumstantial evidence that indeed implies this. And that is the close relationship between the left medial prefrontal cortex in displaced aggression.
As previously noted, the left brain is more closely aligned with conservative political beliefs than the right brain. This is an oversimplification of course, since the prefrontal regions are sometimes at odds with the temporal and parietal cortices when it comes to political orientation. But the elevated levels of Trumper anger might be partially caused by their ability to displace their anger and aggression towards political targets.
Donald Trump has such an unscrupulous history of business and personal behavior that he places an unusual strain on the hearts and minds of the political and religious conservatives. The intellectual (prefrontal) side of conservatism, like David Frum and George Will, have broken with Trump, and by some religious miracle, the religious conservatives are still holding firm.
While the intellectual conservatives seem to be holding firm with their conservative principles, the religious Trumpers have compromised theirs to such a degree that there is no prior precedent in American political history. How did the religious Trumpers accept Satan as their Lord and Savior? But this curious behavior of the religious has exposed the fundamental nature of political and religious disposition--it’s just another form of Darwinian genetic competition. Small wonder that the Republicans are becoming whiter and the Democrats have been colorizing in an analogous way.
But it is an excellent opportunity for the neuropolitical community to study political and religious belief. Is the Trumper angrier than the average person? Does he ruminate more? Is he more prone to displaced aggression? Does his anger towards the personal slights he receives during his day-to-day life become channeled into anger at political targets, like immigration? We believe the answer to all these questions is yes, but so far, the neurological evidence is just circumstantial.