How should Democrats respond to Donald Trump pandering to nativist fears?

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      Last night, Global News BC reporter Keith Baldrey stirred up a discussion over Twitter with a comment about Donald Trump's speech to the Republican National Convention.

      Baldrey suggested that analysts who pick apart "facts" in Trump's speech are "going down the wrong road".

      That's because the Republican presidential candidate "plays to emotions and prejudices".

      Baldrey has a point. Demagogues mostly aim their messages at the part of the brain that process emotions, not facts.

      Trump is whipping up fear. Fear for personal safety. Fear for loss of income. Fear for loss of the nation itself.

      In recent years, the roots of fear have been linked to an almond-shaped set of neurons in the brain's temporal lobe known as the amygdala. That's because experiments have shown that when the amygdala is damaged in monkeys, these primates lose their fight-or-flight response to snakes.

      New York University's Joseph LeDoux was one of the first to study the amygdala, which is part of the brain's limbic system. (The limbic system is associated with processing emotions.) But he says it's more complicated than simply linking this part of the brain to fear. 

      Last year in an article in Psychology Today, LeDoux pointed out that human beings "are indeed less responsive to threats when the amygdala is damaged". But that doesn't mean this part of the brain is solely responsible for feeling fearful.

      "The conclusion that the amygdala is the brain’s fear center wrongly assumes that the feelings of 'fear' and the responses elicited by threats are products of the same brain system," LeDoux wrote. "While amygdala circuits are directly responsible for behavioral/physiological responses elicited by threats, they are not directly responsible for feelings of fear.' "

      Instead, he argued that fear "is a product of the cognitive systems in the neocortex that operate in parallel with the amygdala circuit". And fear is not always experienced consciously.

      The neocortex is the most recently evolved part of the brain and is involved in conscious thought and reasoning.

      Trump is stoking fears by providing sufficient information for his followers to link his "facts" through their neocortex to the amygdala circuit. 

      Demolishing Trump's "facts" might help partially offset the effect of his words. But it doesn't deal with the core issue: the feelings of fear, some of it unconscious, that are motivating many voters to take action that might not be in their best economic interest.

      What can Democrats do?

      Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton is struggling to respond to a right-wing demagogue, and not always with a great deal of success.

      In light of what LeDoux wrote, it makes sense for her party to adopt a two-track approach. And that's precisely what appears to be taking place.

      1. The Democrats have sent out Massachusetts senator Elizabeth Warren and others to ratchet up fear of Trump. In the past, Warren has delivered devastating denunciations of Trump as a loser and a charlatan.

      2. Democrats are bringing on intellectual heavyweights like University of California at Berkeley public policy professor Robert Reich to make the case that Trump's economic arguments are actually going to benefit the oligarchy, not the average Joe. It's a tough road when other intellectuals are making the case that Clinton isn't far to the left of the Republicans.

      Senator Elizabeth Warren tees off on Donald Trump.

      Earlier this week, Reich wrote a blog post telling supporters of Bernie Sanders why they're "dead wrong" if they consider Trump to be no worse than Clinton.

      In fact, Reich argued, Trump will make it more difficult for the Sanders supporters to achieve their long-term goal of reclaiming democracy and the economy from the one percenters.

      "Trump is a menace," Reich stated. "He is not just unsuited to being the president of the United States—a bigoted narcissist who incites and excuses violence—but his presidency would threaten everything this nation stands for: tolerance, inclusion, freedom of the press, equal justice, and equal opportunity."

      Backlash against Democrats

      Will the Clinton strategy work? Left-wing filmmaker Michael Moore is doubtful, telling talk-show host and comedian Bill Maher that he thinks Trump is going to win the presidency.

      Already, one of Sanders's influential supporters, Princeton University scholar Cornel West, has endorsed Green party candidate Jill Stein for president.

      West was one of the academy's most outspoken supporters of the Occupy movement. And he has called Clinton a "neoliberal disaster", telling Democracy Now radio host Amy Goodman that the Democratic frontrunner will start wars with Russia and Iran.

      Sanders previously appointed West to the Democratic platform committee. But West said that his side lost votes over the Trans-Pacific Partnership, Medicare, and Israeli settlements.

      "Right now the Democratic Party is still run by big corporations, big lobbyists and so forth, from AIPAC [American Israel Public Affairs Committee] to a host of other lobbyists of big money, and it looks like they want to hold on for dear life," West told Goodman.

      Academic and social activist Cornel West abandoned the Democrats after losing votes on the platform committee.
      Cornel West

      Shades of the 2000 election?

      In 2000, Republican George W. Bush barely won the election for two reasons. Progressive voters embraced the candidacy of Ralph Nader and the U.S. Supreme Court's Republican appointees sided with Republican arguments to accept the result from Florida rather than order a manual recount of ballots.

      Nader's candidacy, like that of Stein, was rooted in the belief that there wasn't a great deal of difference between the Democratic candidate, Al Gore, and Bush. Bush went on to launch wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, which were catalysts for the rise of the Islamic State.

      In 1992, the insurgent candidate, Bill Clinton, defeated incumbent George H.W. Bush, thanks to the entry of a third candidate into the race. Texas billionaire Ross Perot captured enough Republican votes to help Clinton take the White House, even though he had just 43 percent of the votes.

      If recent history is any lesson, the party that holds the presidency is in for a tough race when a third candidate siphons off sufficient support from its base.

      West's move to support the Green party's Stein is significant. While it hasn't generated a great deal of mainstream media coverage, it could one day be seen as a tipping point that led to the election of Trump to the presidency.

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