My late brother Barry, like many men of his generation, was socialized to believe that being a man meant being the breadwinner, being right all the time, being in charge, and having everything in his life exactly as he dictated. By the time he left our family home at the age of seventeen, his mental models were set, largely by the autocratic example our father provided, despite the two of them being so antagonistic toward each other.

When we are taught that our identity is tied to specific characteristics such as intelligence or strength, any contradiction of those qualities is a threat to our sense of self. We become trapped in a psychological box; Barry was in an “Act Like A Man” Box.

Police Line Separates Proud Bys from BLM Counterprotesters.

photo credit: Dee Dwyer for NPR  

It appears that Donald J. Trump also lives inside an “Act Like A Man” Box, or perhaps an “Act Like a Winner” Box. When Donald was two and a half, his mother suddenly became incapacitated with severe osteoarthritis from a sudden loss of estrogen after a hysterectomy, which in turn caused painful spontaneous breaks to her brittle bones. 

When Mary became ill and Donald’s main source of comfort and human connection was suddenly taken away from him, not only was there no one to help him make sense of it, Fred [his father] was the only person left that he could depend on. Donald’s needs, which had been met inconsistently before his mother’s illness, were barely met at all by his father…. [who] was much more likely to be a source of fear or rejection. (Trump, Too Much and Never Enough, p 26.)

Donald’s father’s influence “ensured that Donald would have limited access to his range of emotions.” Donald’s niece Mary Trump writes that “‘needing’ became equated with humiliation, despair, and hopelessness. Because Fred didn’t want to be disturbed when he was home… his children learned one way or another not to need anything.” (Trump, p. 25)

As Donald watched his father criticize his older brother Fred, Jr., he “adapted his nature to avoid displays of sadness, weakness or kindness.” 

drawing of stacked boxes

Most of us continue to develop our understandings of ourselves by interacting with others of differing points of view. Even so, when we are faced with evidence that our mental models about the world are wrong, we can find it deeply unsettling. We can experience this as an attack on our “Box,” whether we live within a “Manhood” Box,a “Womanhood”Box, an “Evangelical Christian” Box, a “Democrat” Box, or a “Winner box.”

In fact, according to science journalist Will Storr, “Incredibly, the … person with merely differing views becomes a dangerous antagonist, a force that’s actively attempting to harm us.”

In response, our brains work to deny them. For Barry, anything that challenged his “Manhood” Box” challenged him as surely as if the neighborhood bully had called him out to physically fight.

drawing by Marion Kroell on Unsplash

Neuroscientists Jonas Kaplan, Sarah Gimbel, and Sam Harris conducted a study using functional MRI scans (fMRI), so they could see which areas of the brain were activated by different stimuli. When they gave their subjects evidence that contradicted their political beliefs, the areas of subjects’ brains that reacted were the same areas as when someone is physically threatened. Subjects’ brains responded similarly to how they’d respond if they were “walking through the forest and came across a bear,” Gimbel explains. “‘Your brain would have this automatic fight-or-flight [response, as if what you experienced] were a threat to your very existence.”

When we were kids, my father would repeatedly yell at Barry that he was “stupid, selfish, and lazy.” In response, Barry’s Box became an “Act Like A Smart, Selfless, Hardworking Man” Box. Yet when were kids and played Monopoly or Double Solitaire together, Barry often cheated, and when I accused him, he’d scream, ordering me out of his room, and sometimes picking me up and throwing me out. He yelled at me because my accusation threatened his Box.

Barry was one of countless children subjected to domestic violence who learned to respond violently to a perceived mortal threat. Some people commit domestic violence, while others commit violence in society, and others, like Trump, commit violence to our political system. I believe a fight-or-flight response to a perceived mortal threat is what’s behind this week’s armed mob at the Oregon capitol in Salem; behind the fires set last week to historical Black churches in Washington DC; and by the provocations and responses by the violent wing of the Antifa movement. Unfortunately, examples abound.

Our mental models are merely our ideas of reality. Yet they seem so self-evident that we perceive anyone who claims to see things differently as “insane, lying or evil.” This is the dynamic Donald Trump tapped into when he created “fake news” to split our country into two factions: those who get their news from MSNBC, CNN, the New York Times and the Washington Post; and those who  rely on FoxNews, Newsmax, or One America News Network.

photo credit: Politusic, 2018 

I’m reminded of Benjamin Disraeli’s 1845 novel Sybil, in which he wrote of “two nations; between whom there is no intercourse and no sumpathy; who are as ignorant of each other’s habits, thoughts, and feelings, as if they were dwellers in different zones, or inhabitants of different planets.” Sounds depressingly like the U.S. in 2020.

I believe that Trump simply cannot picture himself as a loser. From a young age, his mental models have told him that he’s a winner. According to Michael Cohen, the lawyer who spent ten years enacting Trump’s defenses, Trump’s “fragile ego will not allow him to acknowledge … that he lost the election to Joe Biden.”[8] Cohen also believes that Trump won’t concede because to do so “tattoos the stamp of loser to his forehead.”[9]

Trump has acknowledged the impact losing would have on his self-image. Nearly three weeks before he lost the election by seven million votes and by seventy-four electors, polls showed him well behind rival Joe Biden. Trump could feel the impending threat to his “Winner Box.” He mused aloud to his followers at a rally in Macon, Georgia, “Could you imagine if I lose? My whole life—what am I going to do? I’m going to say I lost to the worst candidate in the history of politics.  I’m not gonna feel so good.  Maybe I have to leave the country.”

Trump’s thinking about power plays a role in his refusal to concede that he lost. One lesson that his time at the military academy reinforced his belief that: “the person with the power (no matter how arbitrarily that power was conferred or attained) gets to decide what was right and wrong. Anything that helped you maintain power was by definition right, even if it wasn’t always fair.” (Trump, p. 53) This anti-democratic notion is driving Trump’s incredulity at the election outcome: his disbelief that so many people could have voted against him; his astonishment that Brian Kemp, Republican governor of Georgia, won’t overturn the selection of electors in that state; his frustration that judges and justices whom he appointed aren’t supporting him in his hour of need; his disbelief that an invitation to the White House and his personal charisma were insufficient to convince Michigan state legislators decertify the election, and award their state’s electoral college votes to him. 

Trump is not just fighting for his political life, he’s lashing out to protect his very identity as a winner. By pointing his finger at others, saying that “they” cheated, committed fraud, counted thousands of ballots twice, hid suitcases full of ballots, and packed the courts against him, Trump is engaging in “counter-attack/blame,” one of six types of defensive strategies identified by Sharon Ellison, Director of the Institute for Powerful Non-Defensive Communication (PNDC). I’m not a loser—you cheated. I’m not a liar—you’re a liar.

small, oblong cardboard box with lid

“The brain defends our flawed model of the world with an armory of crafty biases. When we come across any new fact or opinion, we immediately judge it. If it’s consistent with our model of reality our brain gives a subconscious feeling of yes. If it’s not, it gives a subconscious feeling of no. These emotional responses happen before we go through any process of conscious reasoning.”

  photo credit: Christopher Bill on Unsplash

The fact that this process happens in everyone, plus the fact that it’s pre-cognitive, happening in the split-second before thought, should dispel anyone’s ideas of moral superiority. If we all can acknowledge that we have created mental models of what it means to be a good person, then perhaps we can acknowledge that other people’s models are probably different, and yet may have equal validity. 

Barry, my late brother who has served as our object lesson, learned about his “Act Like A Man” Box when he was court-ordered to attend a domestic violence prevention program. He learned that his ideas about himself were merely ideas, and that a challenge to his thinking was not a fatal threat. 

Barry had a speech impediment. His whole life, he couldn’t pronounce the sounds made by the letters l and r, no matter how hard he tried. We had a bantering, teasing relationship, often playing practical jokes on each other. I’d poke fun at him, demanding, “Barry, say ‘mortal peril.’” He’d retort, “Sandy, that’s crrr-u-elll.”

Maybe if we all learn to loosen our grip on our mental models, and examine them at arm’s length as Barry did, we can soften our defenses. Maybe they–the folks we imagine to be on the other side of our political divide–will do the same. 

kitten in a box, spotlighted against dark background

photo credit: iam-os on Unsplash