How the Republican brain plays defence

Republicans restrict people’s right to vote, then accuse Democrats of doing it when they’re actually trying to stop it.

The Romney campaign is so filled with lies, "it's impossible to keep track of them all" [EPA]
The Romney campaign is so filled with lies, "it's impossible to keep track of them all" [EPA]

“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

“President 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,” read a post on Mitt Romney’s Facebook page on August 4. 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 is so filled with lies, 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 “evenhanded” mainstream journalism to deal with – what Rosen calls “a story that’s too big to tell”.

Rejecting scientific evidence

But maybe it can be told by those outside the mainstream – those capable of seeing that lies are now commonplace, and 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 defence 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 Defence, but some of the most common of them have long been recognised in popular culture. 

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The expression, “the pot calling the kettle black”, for example, refers to the defence 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 defence mechanisms as well. 

While no one has a monopoly on ego defence 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, a vicious circle that inevitably makes the use of ego defense mechanisms increasingly attractive as time goes on. While empirical studies of defence mechanisms in politics have yet to be done, it would hardly be surprising to find them much more commonly on the right than the left.

Which brings us back to where we started. Here is a list of some common ego defence 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, this list can help you make sense of what’s going on, organise your understanding of the lies being told, and preserve your sanity, giving structure to your gut feeling that “they’re the crazy ones, not me!”

But don’t be surprised if one lie seems to fit the pattern of more than one defence mechanism. Defence mechanisms can overlap, reinforce one another, or layer on top of each other. So don’t despair at the dire worldview you’ll see on display. Instead, enjoy the challenge of figuring out which lies belong to which of these different defence mechanisms. Make a game of it.

Defence mechanisms

Denial: Claiming/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 rationaliased as “skepticism” (see entry on rationalisation, 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.

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.

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”. 

 Inside Story: US 2012 – Is Mitt Romney too
rich for US voters?  

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 the US safe.

Splitting: Separating negative and positive impulses, emotions, ideas, etc. Splitting is arguably the most primitive defence mechanism. It underlies other defence mechanisms such as Dissociation: Separating oneself from parts of your life – and Compartmentalisation: 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 prosecuted, we’re told, deprived of their freedom of religion. But Muslims should not be able to build mosques anywhere in the US. Government spending is always wasteful, unless it’s supported by conservatives.

We can never spend enough on defence – 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.

Fantasy: Escaping reality in order to resolve inner and outer conflict. For many Republicans – particularly conservatives – the idea of a 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.

Rationalisation: Creating logical reasons for bad behaviour. 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 rationalisations – protecting against potential fraud, protecting “the integrity of the vote”, etc.

Opposition to gay marriage is rationalised 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 rationalise by calling it “skepticism”. But genuine skeptics would not repeat arguments that have been conclusively refuted – as virtually all “global warming skeptics” do.

Regression:Returning to a child state to avoid problems. During the 2008 election, we witnessed a widespread undercurrent of juvenile, even childish behaviour, which only expanded further with the Fox News-fuelled growth of the Tea Party Movement. 

“Opposition to gay marriage is rationalised in terms of supporting “Biblical marriage” between one man and one woman – even though the Bible is chocked full of other kinds of marriages.”

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 healthcare 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 organised regression.

Acting out: Not coping – giving in to the pressure to misbehave. This is another way to characterise the behaviour 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 behaviour (a teenager sucking his/her thumb during an algebra test), and acting out need not be immature. But much of the Tea Party disruptions in August 2009 were both.

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 US 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 5-6 per cent of the world’s population, but 25 per cent of its prison population, yet the end result is not a particularly low crime rate.

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 they are propsed for. (“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.

Of course Democrats aren’t blameless, either – particularly when they try to be more like Republicans. But just use this list for both conventions, and see for yourself which party is most mired in its own defences.

Paul Rosenberg is the senior editor of Random Lengths News, a bi-weekly alternative community newspaper.

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