How the Republican Brain Plays Defense

  • 08/09/2012
  • Terelle Jerricks

By Paul Rosenberg, Senior Editor

“Suppose a major party candidate for president believed we were in a “post-truth” era and actually campaigned that way. Would political reporters in the mainstream press figure it out and tell us?

“I say no. They would not tell us. Not in any clear way.” – Media critic Jay Rosen

A post on Mitt Romney’s Facebook page on Aug. 4 read:

“President (Barack) Obama’s lawsuit claiming it is unconstitutional for Ohio to allow servicemen and women extended early voting privileges during the state’s early voting period is an outrage”

Outrage, yes. But entirely untrue, ThinkProgress quickly pointed out:

“Since 2005, Ohio has had in person early-voting in the three days prior to the election. This year, however, the Republican legislature in Ohio eliminated early voting during this period, except for members of the military. The Obama lawsuit is attempting to restore voting rights for all Ohioans, not restrict them for the military or any other group.”

There’s nothing unusual in this. It was an example chosen almost at random. The Romney campaign disseminates so many lies that it’s impossible to keep track of them all. And, there’s bound to be all sorts of such lies flying through the air at the upcoming Republican National Convention. Indeed, media critic Jay Rosen has described it as a “post-truth campaign,” intentionally designed to be particularly difficult, if not impossible, for “even-handed” mainstream journalism to deal with—what Rosen calls, “a story that’s too big to tell.”

But maybe it can be told by those outside the mainstream — those capable of seeing that lies are now commonplace. The challenge is how to help folks get a handle on them.  One promising approach is by using the lens of what psychologists call “ego defense mechanisms,” which are used to deal with anxiety, fear, even primordial terror. The first systematic treatment of them was Anna Freud’s 1936 book, The Ego and the Mechanisms of Defense, but some of the most common of them have long been recognized in popular culture.

The expression, “the pot calling the kettle black,” for example, refers to the defense mechanism of projection — attributing unwanted thoughts, feelings, attitudes or characteristics to others. (Romney’s lie about Obama’s lawsuit is an example of this: First, Republicans restrict people’s right to vote, then they accuse Democrats of doing the same thing when they’re actually trying to stop it.) Or, there’s the old Army joke—probably already ancient back in the days of the Roman Legions — about the colonel chewing out the major who chews out the captain, and so on, down to the private, who goes back to the barracks and kicks the dog. That’s called “displacement” — redirecting negative emotions, ideas, etc. to a substitute target.  (Think about blaming teachers and cops for bankrupted local governments after the Wall Street crash.) And, of course, Oprah Winfrey made just a few of her many millions educating half the known universe about another ego defense mechanism: denial (global warming, anyone?), an element of which is present in virtually all the other ego defense mechanisms as well.

While no one has a monopoly on ego defense mechanisms, the post-Bush Republican Party has an awful lot more to be defensive about. Beyond that, the recently-published book, The Republican Brain, presents an overview of wide-ranging scientific evidence that conservatives are more inclined to ideologically reject science and empirical evidence than liberals are. The more that conservatives reject such evidence, the less successful their policies are likely to be. It’s a vicious circle that inevitably makes the use of ego defense mechanisms increasingly attractive as time goes on. While empirical studies of defense mechanisms in politics have yet to be done, it would hardly be surprising to find that they are more common on the right than the left.

Which brings us back to where we started. Here is a list of some common ego defense mechanisms, starting with those already mentioned, along with examples of how they show up in politics.  If you’re brave (or foolish) enough to watch the Republican National Convention, you just might want to use this list to set up your own personal drinking game. But don’t be surprised if one lie seems to call for more than one drink. Defense mechanisms can overlap, reinforce one another, or layer on top of each other. But don’t despair—drink!  And enjoy!  Drink recommendations are from New Orleans bartender Peter-John Paul Hanne (PJ).

  • Denial: Claiming or believing that what is true is actually false. Also, refusing to acknowledge that something has occurred or is ongoing. A prime example of this is Global warming denialism — which is routinely rationalized as “skepticism” (see entry on rationalization, below). Denial is also commonplace regarding the failure of conservative economic ideas — for example, by insisting that tax cuts (a) pay for themselves, (b) produce rapid economic growth, or (c) aren’t responsible for massive deficits, despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary. Insisting that Wall Street and/or unregulated financial markets were not responsible for the financial crises and the Great Recession is another example. PJ recommends: A classic dive bar drink called the Mind Eraser. In a rocks glass with ice, layer one part kahula, then one part vodka, then one part soda water. Stick a straw in the middle and drink it down as fast as you can. It’s easier to deny something if you don’t remember doing it.
  • Displacement: redirecting negative emotions, ideas, actions, etc. to a (less threatening) substitute target. Absolving Wall Street for destroying the economy, then turning around and blaming teachers, firefighters and police officers for local budget deficits—that’s a perfect example of displacement in action. PJ recommends: I think this one calls for a shot of room temp cheap gin. Because nobody wants to drink it; but the shot is right in front of you, so you pass it down to someone less threatening who won’t give you guff for giving it to them.
  • Projection:  attributing unwanted thoughts, feelings, attitudes or characteristics to others. Romney stashes millions in off-shore bank accounts, then accuses Obama of having ideas that are “extremely foreign.” Republicans under Bush turned Clinton’s record surpluses into staggering deficits, then turned around and blamed Democrats for “reckless, out of control spending.” George Bush ignores multiple warnings, and allows the 9/11 attacks to succeed on his own watch, but repeatedly insists that Democrats won’t keep America safe. PJ recommends: chug a beer.
  • Splitting: Separating negative and positive impulses, emotions, ideas, etc. Splitting is arguably the most primative defense mechanism. It underlies other defense mechanisms such as Dissociation: separating oneself from parts of your life—and Compartmentalization–separating conflicting thoughts into separated compartments.  Splitting lies at the very heart of conservative propaganda as far back as Joseph McCarthy and beyond. Conservatives identify themselves with everything good and liberals with everything evil. Thus we even have the spectacle of conservatives today presenting themselves as champions of civil rights, despite all historical evidence to the contrary. Christians are constantly being persecuted, we’re told, deprived of their freedom of religion. But Muslims should not be able to build mosques anywhere in the United States. Government spending is always wasteful, unless it’s supported by conservatives. We can never spend enough on defense — even on weapons designed to fight enemies that no longer exist — not least because it creates jobs…unlike all other government spending.  Once you catch on, you’ll see examples of splitting almost every time a conservative opens their mouth. PJ recommends: Good old fashioned bourbon for splitting and dissociation, and for compartmentalization bourbon with the addition of… The “pickle back” which is a chaser of pickle juice, in a separate glass, taken right after the shot of bourbon. .
  • Fantasy: Escaping reality in order to resolve inner and outer conflict. For many Republicans—particularly conservatives—the idea of non-white President was just too much for them to take. So they escaped into the fantasy that Barack Obama was not actually an American citizen, but only appeared to be one by virtue of an elaborate conspiracy, and therefore legally could not be president. Similarly, the American people could not have actually elected him president — there must have been massive voter fraud, even though there’s zero evidence of it.  Finally, the reality of global warming is too much for many conservative to take, so they retreat into the fantasy that it’s all just an elaborate hoax. PJ recommends: This one should be any brand of whipped cream flavored vodka. Why? Because it’s disgusting. But we fantasize that it tastes good because “it tastes just like whipped cream”!
  • Rationalization: Creating logical reasons for bad behavior. Voter suppression laws were initiated based on the fantasy of massive voter fraud, but since there is no such massive voter fraud, they fall back on rationalizations — protecting against potential fraud, protecting “the integrity of the vote,” etc. Opposition to the marriage of same-sex couples is rationalized in terms of supporting “Biblical marriage” between one man and one woman — even though the Bible is chocked full of other kinds of marriages. Conservatives who reject global warming are in denial, which they rationalize by calling it “skepticism.” But genuine skeptics would not repeat arguments that have been conclusively refuted — as virtually all “global warming skeptics” do. PJ recommends: Clearly, tequila. Creating logical reasons for bad behavior… Sounds like… “Tequila made me do it! The only logical reason”!
  • Regression: Returning to a child state to avoid problems.  During the 2008 election, we witnessed a widespread undercurrent of juvenile, even childish behavior, which only expanded further with the Fox News-fueled growth of the Tea Party Movement. By August 2009, the political operatives pulling the strings directed Tea Party protesters to shout down Congress members holding town hall meetings on the subject of health care reform. Those operatives knew exactly what they were doing, but the great mass of average Tea Partiers, who couldn’t tell the difference between democratic dialogue and a temper tantrum, were unconscious engaged in a mass movement of organized regression. PJ recommends: We all need a warm blanket sometimes so this one should be just a nice big chug of a frosty beer.
  • Acting out: Not coping – giving in to the pressure to misbehave. This is another way to characterize the behavior of Tea Party protesters who made it impossible for actual dialogue to happen at congressional town hall meetings in August 2009.  Regression need not involve bad behavior (a teenager sucking their thumb during an algebra test), and acting out need not be immature. But much of the Tea Party disruptions in August 2009 were both. PJ recommends: Jagermister. Not coping – giving in to the pressure to misbehave… These two belong together.
  • Compensation: Making up for a weakness in one area by gaining strength in another.  A lot of conservative “get tough” policies fall into this category.  The United States has the largest military in the world — by a mile. We spend almost as much on our military as the rest of the world combined, but we rank near the bottom of developed nations on a broad range of social indicators, as shown in a recent e-book, Decline of the USA, by Edward Fullbrook. Likewise, we’ve got 5 to 6 percent of the world’s population, but 25 percent of its prison population, yet the end result is not a particularly low crime rate. PJ recommends: While you still have that jäger bottle out, make yourself a jagerbomb! The effects of alcohol can slow you down so compensate by pepping yourself up with the addition of your favorite energy drink.
  • Reaction formation: Converting unconscious wishes or impulses that are perceived to be dangerous into their opposites. A prominent example is Republican/conservative support for female or minority political figures who are particularly unsuited or unqualified for the positions for which they are proposed. (“See, we’re not racist/sexist, we support X.” Reaction formation is particularly easy to detect in such cases when X is a joke.) Examples include Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas, presidential candidates Alan Keyes, Herman Cain, and Michelle Bachmann, and vice-presidential candidate Sarah Palin. PJ recommends: Wild card. This one I had trouble with. Pick something that some people just drink normally but others go out of their way to openly hate (because they secretly want to drink it, but not in front of their friends). Maybe try Fireball cinnamon flavored whiskey.

Of course Democrats aren’t blameless, either—particularly when they try to be more like Republicans. But just try our drinking game on both national conventions, and see for yourself which party is better at driving you to drink.

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  • Arjun Janah

    Good article.

    • 8:45 pm - 08/14/2012

    • Reply
  • Tina B. Tessina

    Brilliant article! I’m a psychologist, and I really appreciate this. Thanks for writing it.

    • 12:11 am - 08/17/2012

    • Reply

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