The Political Psychology of the Pandemic: Some Thoughts

WILKES-BARRE, PENNSYLVANIA, UNITED STATES - 2020/11/11: A protester holds a placard and a flag during the demonstration.A group of approximately 25 people in support of Donald Trump marched around Public Square shouting "Stop the Steal" and demanding a recount of votes in Pennsylvania. (Photo by Aimee Dilger/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images)
WILKES-BARRE, PENNSYLVANIA, UNITED STATES - 2020/11/11: A protester holds a placard and a flag during the demonstration. A group of approximately 25 people in support of Donald Trump marched around Public Square shou... WILKES-BARRE, PENNSYLVANIA, UNITED STATES - 2020/11/11: A protester holds a placard and a flag during the demonstration. A group of approximately 25 people in support of Donald Trump marched around Public Square shouting "Stop the Steal" and demanding a recount of votes in Pennsylvania. (Photo by Aimee Dilger/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images) MORE LESS
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January 5, 2021 2:57 p.m.

The damage inflicted by the pandemic and recession is well known: hundreds of thousands dead, millions out of work.  The psychological damage has also been noted: the increase in anxiety and depression disorders, a rise in childhood suicides.  But the pandemic may have also contributed to the craziness of our politics.

Examples on the right are legion.  There is, for instance, the plot in Michigan to kidnap Governor Gretchen Whitmer. Her lockdown last spring to prevent the spread of the virus was met with armed demonstrators at the state capitol demanding to “Liberate Michigan.” In September, a militia group was arrested for plotting to kidnap Whitmer. The group, the Wolverine Watchmen, was a spinoff from the Michigan Militia, which in turn was associated with a bizarre Boogaloo movement that is seeking to incite a second civil war.

After the election, rightwing groups held “stop the steal” rallies to claim without any evidence that Democrats had “rigged” the election to defeat Trump.   In Washington D.C. the Proud Boys, also linked to the Boogaloo movement and warning that whites face genocide, demonstrated on the president’s behalf. They scorned masks in their rally, which  degenerated into mayhem, with 33 arrests and four people getting stabbed. On social media, a bizarre conspiracy theory, QAnon, claiming that Satanic pedophiles were conspiring against Trump, became wildly popular during the last year. Two Republican QAnon supporters even won House seats last November.  These groups and theories have been around before, but not to the same extent, and not with the same support they have enjoyed during the pandemic.

There have also been eruptions on the left. What began as entirely justifiable protests in Minneapolis and Kenosha against police violence spread there and elsewhere to looting, arson and mob violence that very quickly lost any sight of original grievances. Blocks were occupied by protestors in Portland and Seattle. In Portland, a group styling itself the Pacific Northwest Liberation Organization tweeted, “We are a bunch of teenagers armed with ADHD (attention deficit hyperactivity disorder) and yerba mate — we can take a 5 a.m. raid and be back on our feet a few hours later … we’ll be back again and again until every prison is reduced to ashes and every wall to rubble.”

In Seattle’s occupied zone, the Washington Post reported, “Young white men wielding guns would harangue customers as well as Mr. [Faizal] Khan, a gay man of Middle Eastern descent who moved here from Texas so he could more comfortably be out. To get into his coffee shop, he sometimes had to seek the permission of self-appointed armed guards to cross a border they had erected… For 23 days in June, about six blocks in the city’s Capitol Hill neighborhood were claimed by left-wing demonstrators and declared police-free. Protesters hailed it as liberation — from police oppression, from white supremacy — and a catalyst for a national movement.”

These protests overlay the widespread theft of drugs from pharmacies — looting that had nothing to do with police brutality.  Yet the looting and the violence and the mob occupations were lionized in The Nation and The New Republic.  The Nation published an article titled “In Defense of Destroying Property.” Theories that divided the American electorate into racists and anti-racists and that made the struggle for and against white supremacy the singular defining feature of American history became wildly popular during the pandemic and the protests.  In May the Pulitzer committee even awarded a prize for commentary to the author of a controversial introduction of the New York Times‘s “1619 Project,” claiming that 1619 and not 1776 was America’s “true founding.”

There were, of course, many factors that contributed to these political and ideological explosions: Trump himself was a provocateur (more on him later).    The radical right was provoked by Democratic cries beginning even before Trump was inaugurated to remove him from office that culminated in his impeachment by the Democratic majority in the House of Representatives. The incendiary left was responding to police brutality, which many local authorities initially attempted to excuse or ignore, but which videos taken on the scene vividly exposed. The fear of job loss and poverty affected left and right.  But there was an edge of craziness in these different protests that may have had something to do with the psychological effects of the pandemic.

Before I try to make a case that the pandemic had something to do with this craziness, I want to make clear that I am not imputing any moral equivalence to the protests on the left and the right. There is a big difference between teenagers trashing a storefront and armed adults plotting to abduct a governor or between demands to “defund the police” and demands to overturn the November election.   There is also a difference between totally wacky QAnon conspiracy theories and works that attribute a monocausal role in American politics and history to white supremacy. The latter views are grounded in some facts — if they ignore others — and are arguable on grounds of evidence. The problem isn’t the recognition that America had a racist past that endures, but the subordination of all American history and politics to that single cause.  Some of the tinfoil views on the right are so wacky that they are not subject to verification or argument.  But I still maintain that there are excesses in both cases that need to be explained and that the effects of the pandemic may be important in doing so.

The 1919 and 2020 Pandemics

Consider a suggestive historical comparison.  The last time the United States suffered from a murderous pandemic was the influenza virus of 1918-1920, which killed 650,000 Americans at a time when the American population was less than a third of what it is today.  Americans initially believed the illnesses to be an incidental increase in pneumonia, but by 1919, Americans knew there were in the grips of a deadly pandemic.

During this time, there were outbursts on the political right and left.   The Ku Klux Klan revived, and it lynched 83 blacks in 1919.  There were race riots in Chicago, Washington D.C. and a dozen other cities. On the left, there was a massive strike wave — as many as four million workers went on strike — which was fueled in part by revolutionary fantasies.  In Seattle, what began as a shipyard dispute became a general strike that collapsed in defeat after five days.  350,000 steelworkers struck in September and suffered a lasting defeat.

During the same year, as the pandemic raged, the Socialist Party of Eugene Debs split at the seams, as factions from the far left formed what became the American Communist Party.  In its manifesto, the new Communist Party declared in August 1919 that the United States was in “a moment of struggles pregnant with revolution.”  In response to bombs from anarchists that mostly failed to go off and to this hyperbolic revolutionary agitation, Woodrow Wilson’s Attorney General A. Mitchell Palmer launched his infamous raids that led to the arrests of 3000 suspected Bolsheviks. The crazy summer of 1919 was dubbed the “Red Summer.”

Just as during the last year, there were specific provocations that helped explain what happened. The Chicago race riots began when whites murdered a 17-year-old black who was swimming in a part of Lake Michigan adjacent to white neighborhoods. The Klan’s revival came partly in response to the return of black servicemen from World War I and the riots in response to the presumed threat that black workers who had migrated north posed to the jobs of returning whites.  The revolutionary fervor on the left was sparked in part by the Russian Revolution of 1917; the strike wave by hopes of raising wages that had been held in check during the war.  But just as in the last year, the political explosions of the right and left somehow exceeded the specific circumstances.  To repeat what I said about 2020,  I mean no moral equivalence between right and left, between the racists of the KKK and the Seattle strikers. Still, there was an edge of sheer craziness to the political activities and beliefs on both sides that needs to be explained.

The Denial of Death

There were three factors related to the pandemic that may have contributed to the political excesses of the last year.  Two are obvious; the third is not.  First, the protests were probably affected by the hardship and unemployment created by the pandemic, but the effect was indirect.  Most of the protestors on the left and right do not seem to have come from the communities that were hardest hit by the pandemic and recession, and the protestors’ demands — from defund the police to overturn the election — did not bear directly on the economic effects of the pandemic.

From the few surveys that were done, many of the leftwing protestors were young people from the middle or even upper-middle class, many of whom had attended or were attending college. Those who attended Trump rallies seem to have been older and, like many of his enthusiastic followers, less likely to have graduated from college.  Those at Trump rallies may have seen his re-election as key to an economic recovery and to their own fortunes. Those at the rallies against police brutality may have been indirectly motivated by their economic circumstances.  Widespread unemployment among the young may have made them anxious about their future prospects, making them more receptive to a politics of protest.

The second factor that fueled excesses was probably the isolation that the pandemic has created.  For those attending Trump’s rallies and for those demonstrating against police brutality, the events were a respite from the quarantine and the lockdown. These protests and rallies sometimes assumed a party atmosphere with dancing and song and — in the case, say, of Trump’s event at Rushmore — celebration.  But this factor, and the anxiety about future prospects, may have been working in conjunction with what I’ll now speculate is a third factor.

The excesses in 1919 and 2020 may have been stirred by the fear of death that pandemics have aroused.   As theorists from William James to Ernest Becker (in his prize winning last book, The Denial of Death) have argued, the fear of death is intrinsic to humanity and shapes much of our beliefs and behavior. In their everyday lives, people set aside the fear of death through religious belief in their immortality (“Death be not proud,” the poet declares), through identification with one’s offspring and with one’s creations that one hopes will live ever after, and through the submersion in a larger group — from a favorite sports team to an employer or university to a political group or a nation.

Three psychologists, Sheldon Solomon, Jeff Greenberg, and Tom Pyszczynski, have used experimental techniques to demonstrate Becker’s theories. They reported on their researches in an excellent book, The Worm at the Core.  What’s interesting about their findings is a distinction they drew, based on their own experiments,  between “proximal” and “distal” defenses to the fear of death.  Proximal defenses are aroused when someone is reminded directly of their own mortality.  These can consist of variations on the statement, “I feel fine. I am not dying ”  or “I have a long life ahead of me.”  Distal defenses occur after people are reminded of their mortality, but are then distracted by other concerns, so that they don’t consciously fear their own death. In this case, they will still act in ways to ward off anxiety about their own death, but they will choose indirect means.

Somewhere in between these two kinds of circumstance is the fear of death created  (on the Homefront) during war, by a terrorist attack like that on September 11, 2001, or by a deadly pandemic like the current one.  The immediate fear of death may fade (you no longer worry when you get on a Washington subway car) or even be consciously repudiated (Covid is just a bad case of flu), but at that point, distal defenses against anxiety are likely to have set in.  These defenses often take a quasi-religious form, adopting the framework of belief and practices of religions that originated as defenses against the fear of death.

One common defense is to seek the submersion of the self (and the fear of individual mortality) in an exclusive group with exclusive beliefs, sometimes accompanied by liturgical chants and slogans, that members of the group seek to impose on others. For instance: being part of the Black Lives Matter movement, chanting “black lives matter” (and harassing diners at a Washington restaurant who refuse to join in); or joining a pro-Trump group,  wearing a MAGA hat, chanting “stop the steal.”  The groups’ belief system, like that of some religions, takes a Manichean form: the demonization of Trump followers as racists or fascists and of anti-Trump forces as coming from the “deep state” or as “enemies of the people” or even pedophiles. Among the rightwing groups, one also finds another quasi-religious feature: the adoration of a father figure.

Trump is very much at the center of this political psychology of the pandemic.  He serves as God and Devil. To his supporters, he can do no wrong, even when what he does or says would offend his followers if uttered or done by another politician or by a neighbor.  He possesses, as Freud said of group leaders, the power of suggestion.  For his foes on the left, he is the reincarnation of the fascists of the interwar period.  He can do no right, even on issues where they might support another politician.

Trump himself probably has suffered not just physically but psychologically from the pandemic. I followed Trump’s first presidential campaign. He could be nasty and bigoted, but also funny and entertaining. He had the theatrical ability to mimic himself, to strike a pose, to be himself and someone playing himself.  But the Trump of 2020 lost his ability to self-mimic and theatricalize.  He had become  simply a nasty and embittered ranter, eager to divide and demonize. In the face of the pandemic, he alternated between denial and the promotion of quack remedies.  As the November election approached, and he slipped in the polls, he became prey to conspiratorial fantasies. The prospect of loss became the prospect of death in life, the end of any promise of immortality. These fantasies culminated in his attempt to steal an election that he claimed was stolen from him. Did he really believe that he won Georgia by 400,000 votes?

Early into his presidency, psychologists and psychiatrists abused their professional credentials by declaring Trump mentally ill.  Of course, everyone suffers to one degree or another from neuroses, including the much cited pathology of narcissism.  But the category of mentally ill should rightfully be limited to those incapable of the normal tasks of work and life and should not be used, especially by so-called professionals with fancy degrees and titles, to pillory politicians they disagree with or despise. During the pandemic and in the wake of his electoral defeat, however, Trump has become a certain kind of crazy.

As Andrew Sullivan has suggested, Trump began acting like one of Shakespeare’s mad kings — Andrew cited Richard III, I would add King Lear, with the proviso that Lear’s ungrateful daughters be replaced by an ungrateful electorate. Trump has raged on the heath of the electoral arena in the months following his loss. He has become both the leading cause and the best example of the nation’s own madness during the pandemic. Obsessed with his own loss, he has put party, country and the danger of pandemic aside.  One can only hope that with his departure from Washington January 20, and with belated distribution of the vaccine against the virus, the country will begin to return to its senses.

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