By Adam J. Pearson
I don’t often write about politics; my focus lies more on the psychology of suffering and healing, the exploration of insight, and the cultivation of discernment. However, sometimes events in politics have the potential to amplify suffering instead of compassionately addressing it and foster division instead of unity. In such cases, discernment can help us see through insidious attempts at manipulation and blind appeals to emotion that are designed to bypass our rationality and generate rigid illusions of separation. This is one such case.
In a recent speech at his rally in Bethpage, NY, Donald Trump read a passage from Al Wilson’s “The Snake” in which he compared Syrian refugees to a “vicious,” venomous snake who bites and kills the woman who nursed him back to health:
This is not the first time Donald Trump has used the allegory of the snake; in previous rallies, such as in one in Pensacola, Florida, he read the same story and suggested that “If 2%” of Syrian refugees “are ISIS, it’s big trouble. We’re gonna get bit.” Of course, some reasonable and basic screening procedures may be prudent for the very few exceptions when this might actually be the case, but the overwhelming majority of refugees are ordinary families from war-devastated areas who are simply looking for somewhere to start a new life.
We know from research that immigrants tend to be less crime-prone or to have no effect on crime rates than people born into a country (see this review of a large number of studies, for example). The effect of comparing Syrian refugees to a venomous and deadly serpent and inciting suspicion that they may in fact be members of ISIS has the effect of rhetorically aligning families of war refugees with the very people they fled their country to escape.
Refugees are struggling all over the world, from Europe to Canada and the United States. This brief clip reveals some of the struggles they encounter when trying to build a new life for their children in a new country after having to flee the dangers of war and the brutality of militant groups. The effect of rhetoric like Trump’s in these speeches is to exacerbate the challenges they face by fostering hatred and fear of their presence in their new home. Can you imagine how difficult it would be to move to an entirely different country, with a different culture, different language, and great handicaps in a job market that puts you at a disadvantage from the beginning? Compassion, understanding, support, resources, and gestures of connection are what these families need, not ostracism, violence, and cruelty.
Inciting suspicion, anger, and fear through comparisons with serpents is not a new move in the realm of political discourse. Consider another quote from a man who compared the individuals he urged people to fear, hate, and scapegoat to snakes:
“In boundless love as a Christian and as a man I read through the passage which tells us how the Lord at last rose in His might and seized the scourge to drive out of the Temple the brood of vipers and adders. How terrific was his fight against the Jewish poison.”
This passage originates from a speech given in Munich on April 12, 1922 by Adolf Hitler (published in My New Order). Have we learned from the past or will we fall prey to the same old manipulative strategies, the same old attempts to shift attention from connectedness to felt separation, from peaceful coexistence to conflicted antagonism?
The rhetorical and psychological effects of Trump’s comparison of the men, women, and children who fled the devastation of war and brutality to deadly serpents are both insidious and detrimental. The serpent in the Al Wilson song not only bit the hand that nursed him, but also did so malevolently after actively deceiving the woman in the story. Trump’s alignment of refugees with this same figure of betrayal serves to portray them as malevolent and deceptive.
Trump suggests that these refugees may “bite” and maybe even kill the “tender” Americans who helped them out of spite. This is a classic fear-eliciting rhetorical move to dehumanize, scapegoat, and frame ‘the other’ as a dangerous threat. Hitler, Mussolini, and many other tyrants, demagogues, and dictators have used this technique in their own speeches to great effect, as can be seen in the previously quoted passage from Germany in 1922.
What are the next images that Trump evokes after comparing the refugees to poisonous serpents who will inevitably harm or kill the Americans who took them in? Descriptions of the terrorist attacks on the United States on September 11, 2001. The effect of this juxtaposition of images is to align the Syrian refugees with not only the imagery of dangerous snakes, but also terrorism and the destruction of American lives in particular . This is a well-known strategy of psychological manipulation; Trump is effectively attempting to classically condition his listeners to associate the refugees with the September 11th terrorist attacks.
By repeatedly aligning the Syrian refugees with ISIS, terrorists, and serpents, Trump attempts to associate all of these images in the minds of the audience members. Since many people already harbour fears of snakes as dangerous threats, this fear gets psychologically transferred to the associated refugees, such that when the listener thinks of the refugees, he or she feels more inclined to feel the same fear that physical snakes evoke.
This repeated pairing of imagery creates and reinforces synaptic connections between the patterns of neurons in the brain that store the representations of images of refugees, ISIS, September 11, and serpents. Thus, when one of these topics is thought of, it begins to elicit the images of the other, now associated, subjects. In this way, the products of Trump’s rhetoric can even get encoded in the brain.
What is the practical effect of this tactic of associating refugee families with images of danger and threat? Why is Trump inciting fear and anger? Because by doing so, he can cultivate a sense of vulnerability that can move people to seek the safety of a ‘strong’ leader to compensate for the feelings of insecurity that they feel. He’s literally arousing the fight-or-flight response by activating the sympathetic nervous system in his listeners in order to override their reason and make them turn to him out of fear.
It’s a patent form of emotional manipulation that is designed to prevent the cultivation of discernment by eclipsing it behind states of heightened emotional arousal. “Scare them into voting” is the essential principle behind this tactic in its bluntest form.
Trump goes on to paint the Obama administration as a gang of incompetent buffoons who don’t know what they are doing, and who have failed to keep “us” safe from the alleged menace of refugees “we know nothing about.” The combination of the activation of fear from the previous images and this framing of the current leaders as incompetent generates another emotion: anger, anger at “our leaders” for not doing their jobs, anger at their incompetence, anger at their failure to keep “me” and “us” safe from “them.”
The combination of anger and fear is a potent admixture of irrational passion that can evoke a sense of nationalistic, ethnocentric solidarity to the exclusion of all “others.” It’s the same blind, hate and fear-driven patriotism that Trump has often used before via frequent appeals to emotion instead of reason to fuel his campaign, such as his statement of Mexican immigrants that “they’re rapists.”
This is classical demagoguery, hate, prejudice, and fear-inciting, and vilely manipulative Fascist-esque rhetoric at its worst. It is the polar opposite of both compassion and any kind of empathic understanding for the plight of others. As both the best of science and spirituality attest, human beings are enmeshed in complex and unfathomably vast networks of interdependent interrelationships. We are all connected, all affected by what happens to any of us.
We share the same kinds of emotions, the same troublesome thoughts, the same hopes, the same capacity for both kindness and cruelty, violence and compassion. Let us not allow ourselves to be blindly led by the manipulative moves of politicians like Donald Trump. Let us not allow ourselves to buy into the illusions of separation and disconnection. Nonduality means not-two. Americans, Canadians, people of other nations, and Syrian refugees are not-two, not separate from one another. We face challenges together, strive to overcome together, and together, we can offer healing and support where people like Donald Trump would have us offer violence and hatred.
Dear friends who still face dangers in Syria, dear refugees who continue to struggle in Canada, the United States, Europe, Lebanon, and countless other places, please know that we do not all buy into the rhetoric of hatred. Please know that I see you as my brothers and sisters. I have nothing but love for you and will continue to advocate for you as best I can. My hope is that we citizens of the world can continue to come together to cultivate discernment, compassion, understanding, and support for one another. I see and respect your struggles, dear friends. Please nurture your hope and know that you are welcome here.
None can divide those who join in understanding and compassion. As the great Syrian poet Nizar Qabbani, once wrote “our enemies did not cross our borders; they crept through our weaknesses like ants.” We find strength together. If we remain solidly grounded in the strength of our felt unity to one another, no rhetorical ants can creep into our hearts and inject division where connection reigns. And so it will continue to reign within us so long as we remain attuned to one another and engaged in building bridges while others try–and fail–to burn them.