Without tracks on their arms or powder around their nostrils Trump and his followers are all addicted to the same drug. They’re high, or as they say in sports, “juiced”. The drug of choice? Dopamine; the brain chemical that gives us safety and pleasure in reasonable doses or irrationality and recklessness in large ones.
Lacking an awareness of dopamine’s habit forming highs and “performance enhancing” characteristics, analysts are trying to understand the Trump phenomenon with at least one hand tied behind their backs. Dissecting his behavior and his considerable following without insight about the powerful influence of dopamine, is akin to attempting an understanding of disease before modern microscopes detected the role of viruses and bacteria.
Dopamine, is naturally manufactured between our ears. It can be used by Trump, or any other firebrand pundits, or political, military, and religious leaders, to unintentionally or very deliberately, manipulate the thinking and behavior of those who repeatedly listen to their words and closely watch their behavior.
We can’t help it. We’re hard wired to pay attention to anything novel or frightening. All it takes is an unfamiliar or startling sound (something in the night, or a waiter dropping a tray) or a strange, unexpected behavior (a politician who berates large segments of the voting base, makes light of the use of nuclear weapons, or mocks the grief of others), we have to notice. Whether it’s real fear (of a car swerving in our direction), or ginned-up subconscious fear (of different skin colors, religious traditions, or nationalities), any variety of anxiety automatically activates a primitive survival mechanism in the brain.
Located in the older mammalian (aka animal brain), the amygdala grabs our attention to make sure we notice anything that sounds or looks like a potential threat to our existence. For paying attention, we’re given a dose of dopamine as a feel-good reward so that we’ll retain a memory of that experience. Eventually, repeated exposure to the authentic or fabricated fears and threats becomes associated with feelings of euphoria, not unlike the grandiosity and invincibility produced by a line of cocaine, or the manic energy of amphetamines. This makes sense because dopamine, also an opioid, activates the same region of the brain, the ventral tegmental area, where amphetamines and cocaine evoke their highs and generate the habits.
It’s no mystery that followers can become addicted to this legal, no-cost, dopamine-induced high. Going online or tuning into cable news, is like doing a line, or popping a pill; and it’s available 24/7. Example: a woman, deeply engaged in human rights work and adamantly opposed to Trump’s values and actions, confided with embarrassment that she was mesmerized by his unpredictable antics and found herself regularly turning into various media sources just to catch up on his latest outrages. What she didn’t understand was that as she watched and listened to the shock and horror her brain produced an unavoidable rush of dopamine that kept even this progressive voter repeatedly coming back for more in the next news cycle.
Desperate, disillusioned, and disgruntled Trump supporters may find his anger, belligerence and indifference to civility a surrogate expression of their own frustrations, and feelings of powerlessness. Followers observe that while no one in Washington seems to care about their stagnant wages or debilitating student loans, the media pays attention when Trump, their avatar, shouts obscenities and thumbs his nose at common decency. Every insult directed at the press, and every scornful reaction to the data of economic, political, and scientific experts bring on the ecstatic spirit of a battlefield victory for Trump followers.
Like addictions to street drugs, junkies for dopamine must continue to clamor for a meaner, more outrageous campaign simply to maintain their high. In the case of Donald Trump, ever more outrageous actions are essential in order to keep the media focused on him, and in order to pump out ever larger fixes of dopamine to take care of loyal supporter’s rising tolerance for the drug.
Now, as in the past, this callous neurochemical mechanism has been an effective tool for brutal tyrants and today drives the savagery of ISIL, Boko Haram, the Assad regime, and dictatorships around the world. Once utterly hooked, there is no limit – and no one is more addicted to his self-manufactured dopamine than the leader, himself. Addicted to dopamine, followers must remain vigorously loyal to the individual or ideology responsible for delivering it. Trump’s legion will show up to vote for their candidate. Where will they go for their fixes if Trump is not continuing to push dopamine in the daily headlines and news feeds? A serious question to be considered, indeed. Ratcheting down dopamine and behavior to reasonable levels becomes very difficult.
Multiplying the danger of brains flooded with dopamine, is the fact that when levels soar above normal, healthy concentrations, like combatants in a street fight or at war, participants and their leaders, develop tunnel vision, while their hearing has a singular focus on anything or anyone who can be framed as the “enemy”. Thinking is black or white. Addicts are rendered incapable of independent thinking and behavior. They can no longer challenge leader’s mistakes, ruthlessness, or atrocities. They become desensitized to the needs, and suffering of other. All of this because too much dopamine all but shuts down the most advanced part of the human brain, the prefrontal cortex. Communications between our mammalian brain, designed for impulsive anger and aggression, and our modern, human brain (the prefrontal cortex), the region able to process information critically, see the big picture, work together, feel empathy, and control emotions, is blocked.
Neuroscience is apolitical. Dopamine, in appropriate amounts can be pleasurable and is essential for human survival. Misused, history describes the suffering it can inflict. In this election season, unless we recognize our culture’s growing dopamine dependence on sensationalized political rhetoric and behavior, we risk experiencing not only ever more hideous conduct between now and November 8th, but possibly encountering campaigns of the future where the Trump 2016 tactics are the new norm.