Horgan: What’s your morning-TV-sound-bite version of terror management theory?
Solomon: In a proverbial nutshell: Terror management theory, following cultural anthropologist Ernest Becker, posits that while human beings share with all forms of life a biological predisposition toward survival in the service of reproduction, we are unique in our capacity to think abstractly, symbolically, and self-reflectively. This trait, while highly adaptive and emotionally uplifting, also gives rise to potentially debilitating existential terror from the awareness that death is inevitable and can occur at any time, and we are (from a purely biological perspective) breathing pieces of defecating meat no more significant or enduring than lizards or potatoes. Humans “manage” this terror by embracing cultural worldviews–beliefs about reality–shared with other group members to convey to each of us a sense that we are valuable individuals in a meaningful universe, and hence eligible for literal and/or symbolic immortality. Accordingly, people are highly motivated (albeit quite unconsciously) to maintain faith in their cultural worldviews and a confidence in their self-worth (i.e. self-esteem); and, threats to cherished beliefs and/or self-esteem instigate defensive efforts to bolster their worldviews and self-esteem…
Horgan: Can terror-management theory help explain the Donald Trump phenomenon?
Solomon: Yes, at least in part. After 9/11, President Bush garnered tremendous support by declaring that he would rid the world of evil and that he believed God had chosen him at that perilous time. This, combined with the death fears aroused by the attacks, boosted Americans’ support for him and probably got him re-elected in 2004. Now in 2015/16, in the aftermath of terrorist attacks in Paris, San Bernardino, and Brussels, Donald Trump has promised to make America great again by building a giant wall to keep immigrants out and bombing the shit out of ISIS. And indeed, in our most recent study, New Yorkers reminded of their mortality were more supportive of Donald Trump and reported being more willing to vote for him.