In today’s Republican Party, Trump is becoming what was once unthinkable—conventional, unexceptional, even something of an establishment figure.
By Peter Wehner
Something happened last Saturday that was significant because it was unprecedented: Donald Trump spoke at a rally in the heart of Trump country—Cullman, Alabama, which gave the incumbent president more than 88 percent of the vote in 2020—and he was booed. The jeers were scattered but noticeable, enough so that Trump responded to them.
Trump had encouraged those in the audience to get vaccinated. “I believe totally in your freedoms. I do. You’ve got to do what you have to do,” Trump said, “but I recommend: Take the vaccines. I did it—it’s good.” Yet for a large number of Trump supporters in the audience, even though the former president hadn’t embraced government or private-sector mandates, he had crossed a redline.
Two days later Alex Jones, the far-right radio host, and conspiracy theorist Trump courted in 2016, rebuked Trump. After playing a clip of Trump declaring that the vaccines are working, Jones responded, “BS. Trump, that’s a lie. You’re not stupid.” Jones added, “Shame on you, Trump. Seriously. Hey, if you don’t have the good sense to save yourself and your political career, that’s okay. At least you’re gonna get some good Republicans elected, and you know, we like ya. But my God. Maybe you’re not that bright. Maybe Trump’s actually a dumbass.”
These incidents are just a few of the straws in the turbulent wind, signs that something ominous is happening to the Republican Party. The GOP base may be identifying less and less with Trump personally—that was inevitable after he left the presidency—but it is not identifying any less with the conspiracist and antidemocratic impulses that defined him over the past five years.
In fact, the opposite is happening.
Not long ago, Trump was viewed as avant-garde, outrageous, and scandalous, America’s enfant terrible. His actions were viewed as so shocking and norm-shattering that he couldn’t be ignored. In today’s Republican Party, however, Trump is becoming what was once unthinkable—conventional, unexceptional, even something of an establishment figure.
In a right-wing movement that is home to a growing assortment of cranks and kooks—Marjorie Taylor Greene and Matt Gaetz, Paul Gosar and Lauren Boebert, Mo Brooks and Madison Cawthorn, Ron Johnson and Marsha Blackburn, Mike Lindell and Michael Flynn, Rudy Giuliani and Sidney Powell, Cyber Ninjas and QAnon, anti-vaxxers and insurrectionists—Trump looks rather ordinary. He wants credit for the vaccines that were developed during his administration, which mark a genuine medical milestone, but in some quarters of today’s Republican Party, that makes Trump suspect, too closely aligned with the hated Anthony Fauci, a dumbass.
The dark, destructive place the GOP has found itself in isn’t shocking. For more than half a decade, the Republican base—MAGA world—has been fed a constant diet of outrageous lies and conspiracy theories, not just by Trump but also by his allies in the party and the right-wing media ecosystem. Negative emotions such as fear, rage, and resentment have been constantly stirred up. Over time, transgressive behaviors became chic; “owning the libs” became the name of the game. What mattered was hating the right people.
The MAGA brain was rewired. The psychologist Daniel Goleman refers to “amygdala hijack,” an intense emotional reaction that’s dramatically disproportionate to the situation. When a person has been triggered, their emotions take over, and they see the world through a distorted lens.
Republicans who assumed that the party would return to sanity after Trump left office never understood how deforming the effects of his presidency would be. For many, Trump’s behaviors were initially a bug; eventually, they became a feature. Republicans ignored his corruption and reveled in his cruelty. They entered Trump’s hall of mirrors, and they rather enjoyed it.
To better understand what’s happening in the GOP, think of a person with addiction who over time develops a tolerance; as a result, they need more potent and more frequent doses of the drug to get their desired high. And sometimes even that isn’t enough. They might turn to a more potent drug, which offers a more intense experience and a longer-lasting high, but at the price of considerably more danger.
What was seen as shocking in 2017 is now anodyne. The ethical lines that existed then turned out to have been drawn in the sand. When you cross into territory devoid of moral axioms or epistemic standards—the kind of world you would find in a Turgenev novel—things can get very ugly, very quickly. Even Trump—whose derangement now includes turning a violent Capitol Hill rioter who was shot and killed by a police officer into a martyr, falsely accusing the police officer of murder, and issuing yet another barely concealed incitement to violence—can begin to look like a mainstream figure within the party. At some point in the future, the same may be said of Marjorie Taylor Greene.
Amygdala Hijack: When Emotion Takes Over
Different functions are performed by different parts of your brain. To understand amygdala hijack, you need to know about two of these parts.
The amygdala is a collection of cells near the base of the brain. There are two, one in each hemisphere or side of the brain. This is where emotions are given meaning, remembered, and attached to associations and responses to them (emotional memories).
The amygdala is considered to be part of the brain’s limbic system. It’s key to how you process strong emotions like fear and pleasure.
Fight or flight
Early humans were exposed to the constant threat of being killed or injured by wild animals or other tribes. To improve the chances of survival, the fight-or-flight response evolved. It’s an automatic response to physical danger that allows you to react quickly without thinking.
When you feel threatened and afraid, the amygdala automatically activates the fight-or-flight response by sending out signals to release stress hormones that prepare your body to fight or run away.
This response is triggered by emotions like fear, anxiety, aggression, and anger.
The frontal lobes are the two large areas at the front of your brain. They’re part of the cerebral cortex, which is a newer, rational, and more advanced brain system. This is where thinking, reasoning, decision-making, and planning happen.
The frontal lobes allow you to process and think about your emotions. You can then manage these emotions and determine a logical response. Unlike the automatic response of the amygdala, the response to fear from your frontal lobes is consciously controlled by you.
When you sense danger is present, your amygdala wants to automatically activate the fight-or-flight response immediately. However, at the same time, your frontal lobes are processing the information to determine if danger really is present and the most logical response to it.
When the threat is mild or moderate, the frontal lobes override the amygdala, and you respond in the most rational, appropriate way. However, when the threat is strong, the amygdala acts quickly. It may overpower the frontal lobes, automatically triggering the fight-or-flight response.
The fight-or-flight response was appropriate for early humans because of threats of physical harm. Today, there are far fewer physical threats, but there are a lot of psychological threats caused by the pressures and stresses of modern life.
When stress makes you feel strong anger, aggression, or fear, the fight-or-flight response is activated. It often results in a sudden, illogical, and irrational overreaction to the situation. You may even regret your reaction later.
A psychologist named Daniel Goleman called this overreaction to stress “amygdala hijack” in his 1995 book, “Emotional Intelligence: Why It Can Matter More Than IQ.”
It happens when a situation causes your amygdala to hijack control of your response to stress. The amygdala disables the frontal lobes and activates the fight-or-flight response.
Without the frontal lobes, you can’t think clearly, make rational decisions, or control your responses. Control has been “hijacked” by the amygdala.
Goleman also popularized the concept of emotional intelligence (EI) and its use to help manage your emotions and guide your behavior and thinking. EI refers to recognizing, understanding, and managing emotions and recognizing, understanding, and influencing those of other people.
You can improve your EI with regular practice of controlling your emotions and staying calm when they overwhelm you. To do this, you must first be aware of your emotions and the feelings of others.
The symptoms of amygdala hijack are due to the effects of the two stress hormones: cortisol and adrenaline. Both hormones are released from your adrenal glands to prepare your body to flee or fight.
Cortisol is a steroid hormone that affects many of your body’s functions, including preparing it for the fight-or-flight response. The main job of adrenaline, also called epinephrine, is to stimulant your body systems so they’re ready to respond to a threat.
Stress hormones, primarily adrenaline, do a number of things you may not notice, including:
- relax your airways, opening them up so you can take in more oxygen
- increase the blood flow to your muscles for maximum speed and strength
- increase your blood sugar for more energy
- dilate your pupils to enhance your vision
Symptoms you may notice include:
- rapid heartbeat
- sweaty palms
- goosebumps on your skin
After amygdala hijack, you may feel regret or embarrassment because your behavior may have been inappropriate or irrational.
Symptoms of amygdala hijack can be eased or stopped by consciously activating your frontal cortex, the rational, logical part of your brain. This may take some practice and persistence.
The first step is to acknowledge that you feel threatened or stressed and that your fight-or-flight response has been activated. Become aware of how your emotions and body react to significant stress. Reviewing an episode after it’s over can help.
When you notice the fight-or-flight response has been activated, your goal is to calm down and take control. Remind yourself that what you’re feeling is an automatic response, not necessarily the best or most logical one.
When you’re calm, consciously engage your frontal lobes by thinking about the situation and finding a thoughtful, rational solution.
Become aware of your triggers and warning signs, and notice when they’re present. A good way to stay calm is to pay attention to your breathing.
Breathe slowly and evenly. Think about the speed and rhythm of your breaths, and focus on what’s going on in your body as you inhale and exhale.
The first step in preventing an amygdala attack is to identify what triggers it. When you feel the symptoms of amygdala hijack starting, try to pause for a moment to notice what triggered it.
Anything that causes emotional, physical, or mental stress can be a trigger. There are general categories of stressors that affect everyone to some degree, but specific triggers will be different for everyone.
It’s also helpful to identify other things that trigger the onset of amygdala hijack for you. When you feel threatened or afraid, pause and look for behaviors, bodily changes, or warning signs that are happening at the same time.
A good way to do this is with mindfulness. This refers to staying in the present and being aware of what you’re feeling and thinking, your bodily sensations, and stimuli from your environment.
Don’t try to judge or label the situation as good or bad. Focus only on the current moment, not future tasks or past problems.
Mindfulness takes practice, but it can be done at almost any time. When you’re waiting in the car or going for a walk, take time to focus on what you’re thinking and feeling and what’s happening around you.
At first, your mind will quickly start to wander. With more practice, though, it’ll be easier to stay in the moment.
Another way to stay present is to focus on your breathing. Focus on the air moving in and out of your nose and how it changes between inhaling and exhaling. Notice which parts of your body move when you take a breath.
There are two main ways to prevent amygdala hijack. Using these techniques, you can stop the shutdown of your frontal lobes, override the automatic response of your amygdala, and consciously control your response.
TECHNIQUES TO STOP AMYGDALA HIJACK
- Reasoning. This means you use your frontal lobes to think the situation through, review the possible options, and choose the most rational and logical way to respond.
- Meditation. By relaxing your body and mind through meditation or deep breathing, you can change your brain’s focus from responding to a threat or stress to inner peace and calmness.
Practice these techniques when you’re not experiencing an amygdala hijack so you can use them the next time you’re in a stressful situation.
The modern world is full of stress. We often feel this psychological stress when we see things on the news or social media, such as dangerous events and natural disasters.
Your amygdala can respond to this stress as if it’s a physical threat to you. It can take control of your brain and trigger your fight-or-flight response.
You can prevent or stop an amygdala hijack by breathing, slowing down, and trying to focus your thoughts. This allows your frontal cortex to regain control. You can then choose the most reasonable and appropriate way to respond to the situation.
Practicing these techniques regularly can help prepare you for stressful situations.