While watching the most recent Trump rally in Arizona I recalled this slice of a nature documentary about European paper wasps and their most unwelcome parasite, as told by Wired magazine:
“Early in summer, when a hive is busiest, the infected wasp leaves and travels, as if under command, to some unknown but predetermined place. Other parasitized wasps converge there, too. When enough have gathered, mating begins – not for wasps, which now have shrunken and non-functional ovaries, but the parasites.
Male X. vesparum [the parasites], now fully grown and winged, wriggle from their hosts’ stomachs. They copulate with females, which remain mostly inside their hosts, poking only one end of themselves outside.”
I can’t say how much copulating is going on at Trump rallies, but several parasitic “brain viruses,” I contend, follow that crowd wherever they go, and they further infect, to some extent, a broad swath of the larger American electorate today.
Let me state here that I grew up in conservative Jerry Ford Michigan (we didn’t know his name was Gerald until he became Vice President), and I use as my baseline a 1960s Republican party that voted for civil rights while taking rational-yet-conservative stances on budgets, foreign policy, and social cohesion. Corruption existed in both parties, but it was usually more the old-fashioned kind of trading off money for power, and usually surprisingly petty.
I define the current Republican Party as having split into three factions, not on ideological groupings as in the past, but on three grades of rationality. Half of the party regulars, by many counts, have been “infected” with an “irrational exuberance” for the man Donald Trump, and appear to blindly accept whatever he says as gospel. “Republican policy” is whatever Trump says it is.
A minority of party regulars like Liz Cheney and Adam Kinzinger have openly rejected Trump while clinging to traditional “vectors” of more rational conservative ideology. Finally, you have many elected Republican office-holders who had made a Machiavellian “deal with Devil” in 2016, primarily in order to get conservative judges named, and who now cannot unfasten themselves from Trump’s chains without the risk of being primaried. Hell has a special place for these guys.
We return now to our story about viruses and other parasites…
The parasite that infects the European paper wasp is actually another insect, but recent events have shown that other kinds of parasites, such as the coronavirus, can also infect and “control” their hosts in strange ways. They embed. They replicate. They destroy.
The term meme has unfortunately itself become an overused meme, but the concept originated in Richard Dawkins’ 1976 book The Selfish Gene to describe a piece of “brain information” that takes on some characteristics of genetic material. Memes are ideas or behaviors that replicate and spread with fecundity, not unlike, say, that coronavirus. Susan Blackmore expanded on this virulence of memes in her 1999 book The Meme Machine, and she demonstrated how they are integral to how the brain learns and functions.
Humans often get consumed by fast-replicating memes with little greater meaning, ranging from anything as simple as a food craze like avocado toast to something as sinister as a QAnon conspiracy. These memes can overwhelm our normal attempts at rational reasoning. Stephen Pinker’s excellent new book, called Rationality: What it Is, Why it Seems Scarce, Why it Matters (Viking, 2021), carefully dissects what human rationality is in reality. The author notes that part of being human is to have our emotions and our “gut feelings” overrule (sometimes rightfully) those attempts at objectivity processing going on in other parts of our brains. But blatant irrationality is another matter entirely. Pinker has an entire chapter on irrationality entitled “What’s Wrong with People?”
I will not spend any time on QAnon, which is so off the irrationality charts that it could reasonably be characterized as mental illness. Let me suggest, however, a few more insidious brain “viruses” that have replaced traditional Republican policy positions and stand squarely against a rational, objective worldview based on established facts.
The Michigan Republican Party of my youth in the 1950s and 1960s was very pro-science, embracing the space race and running successful campaigns on improving education availability and quality. I have written in the past about attending three Michigan universities almost for free under Governor George Romney’s protege and successor, William Milliken. Both governors had invested huge sums in secondary and post-secondary education during the late 1960s and early 1970s to meet the baby boomer demand and to support Michigan industry.
Some parts of the United States have been hostile places for science in public schools since before the 1925 Scopes trial in Tennessee. However, I trace the current form of Republican anti-science sentiment to the expansion, during the 1970s and 1980s, of literalist interpretations Christianity into the North and West. Concurrently we saw a slow demographic decline in the mainstream denominations that had either come to terms with, or simply ignored, the teaching of dinosaurs and evolution in public schools. Literalist Christians have long been subject to Tertullian’s dictum of “Believe because it is absurd,” but the absurdity gap has clearly grown in recent years.
I remember during the mid-1970s how a friend tried to convince my spouse and me of the “Biblical truth” of “Hollow Earth Theory.” At least these folks recognized that the Earth was not flat. Conservative Christians then tried to re-write Biblical “six-day Creationism” into a “science” concept they called intelligent design. Testimony in the Kitzmiller v. Dover Area School District court case in 2005 demonstrated the clear sectarian religious intent behind intelligent design and the Creationists lost that important case. However, the attacks against science teaching in public schools has scarcely abated, especially in states like Texas which have a centralized and highly politicized process for textbook selection. K-12 science teaching has, as a result, been rendered as politically unobjectionable as possible throughout most of the United States at the cost of comprehensive accuracy.
I assert that this anti-science “virus” that has infused the Republican party has contributed to an assault on public education in general, and has now bled over into overt “anti-history” in the several efforts to halt any discussions of race-based history and its social impacts in school classrooms.
The antivax wars
On the margins, there is often a rational case to be made to refuse a vaccination. Since the first risky smallpox vaccinations by Edward Jenner in the early 19th century (as well as George Washington’s forced vaccinations for his Valley Forge troops in 1777), vaccinations have always been a bet. There is a very small risk of initial harm, more frequently some unpleasant side effects, but almost always a dramatic reduction in the probability of you getting a serious illness, perhaps leading to death, from the targeted disease.
In the case of the coronavirus, the data all along this probability matrix have become more stark. After now billions of vaccinations, the risk of serious harm from the vaccine itself has proven nearly negligible and the odds of it preventing your death from Covid, barring other contributing health-threatening conditions, approaches 100%. Vaccines have long been part of the “social contract” in the United States in order to minimize the spread of communicable disease, and to protect the more fragile citizens who can live long lives unless some jackass (cough, cough, Justice Gorsuch) refuses wear a mask or vaccinate. Multiple vaccines have long been required for entry into school and the military without objection because of this rational social contract.
Where the irrationality hits here is not even so much in overblown fears over vaccine safety. Instead, “true believers” have been chugging a host of social-media-spread “preventatives” and “cures” that have had far, far less testing, and which have documented evidence of far more probable harm, than the vaccine itself. None of this passes any rationality test. Yet irrational antivax belief is likely now here to stay, firmly embedded into future Republican Party dogma.
No other developed country in the world replicates the obsession with guns found in the United States. By good estimates, there are over 120 guns owned for every 100 people in the U.S.. When you realize that this fetish is almost entirely an adult male thing, those numbers go even crazier. I have called this a genetic disease. Half the population, most carrying X-X chromosomes, will likely never suffer from it, although women are disproportionately the victims of its consequences. If this were any “normal disease” with its annual fatality/injury rates and easy-to-identify demographic at risk, we would long ago defined gun fetishism as a dangerous mental illness.
While many Democrats own guns, the odds heavily weigh toward a person owning three or more guns as voting Republican. Our children die in their schoolrooms as a result of our failure to recognize this irrationality as a mental illness requiring intervention.
A laundry list of brain viruses
I could go on, but you get the drift. Irrationality and brain viruses are plentiful in the Republican Party. You may assert some irrationalities in the Democratic Party, but it is hard to come up with anything as destructive as these noted. Here are more examples that have embedded themselves deeply into Republican voters, with party elders taking no steps in challenging:
- The “stolen” 2020 election.
- Climate change denial.
- The lingering “lost cause” of the Confederacy (at one time a Democratic “virus”), expanding into Northern states (e.g., Confederate flag waving).
- “The Wall.”
The aforementioned Stephen Pinker does offer several answers to his own question, “What’s wrong with people?” One of the most relevant is this comment:
“Whether they are literally ‘true’ or ‘false’ is the wrong question. The function of these beliefs is to construct a social reality that binds the tribe or sect and gives it a moral purpose. Call it a mythology mindset.” (Pinker, Rationality, p. 300)
And…we are back to those zombie wasps gathering in order to replicate.
- Rescuing moral probity
- The shape-shifting political gospel of conservative Christianity
- Believe because it is absurd?