A Nation of Grasshoppers

Last Saturday, I joined the Women’s March in New York City with my two daughters. I went because I believe in the stated mission. I went with a vision of the Civil Right marches and Dr. Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream Speech.” I went because I felt that we had a responsibility to stand up for what we believed. Though I think the rally was an amazing event, I left feeling like we were missing something big.

Earlier this week, I read an article by Andres Miguel Rondon, who grew up in Venezuela under Chavez (https://www.caracaschronicles.com/2017/01/20/culturejam/). It is an amazing article that put into words what we were missing and what needs to happen. I found myself needing to further explain his suggestions based on the science of the brain. In this article, I use the Resilient Mindset Model to provide that understanding.

The Resilient Mindset Model (see www.centerforresilientleadership.com for a visual) serves as a framework for understanding the brain. The idea behind the model is that by becoming consciously aware of what is happening in the brain, we are empowered to make more mindful, intentional choices.

There are three parts of the model.

The Four Ss of Resilience:

Our response to any challenge is determined by the way that we think about the four Ss found on the dragonfly’s wings (self, situation, supports, strategies). Therefore, we can use those Four Ss as a framework to prepare for, handle, and reflect on any challenge. This use of that framework offers our brain a consistent map supporting the formation of more resilient brain pathways.

The Four Characters of the Brain & REACTS

The model uses four characters to represent different structures and functions of the brain. Specifically, we look at how they respond when the brain faces challenge. One critical concept in this is that while we think of decisions as good or bad, our brain actually interprets them as as long term vs. short term.

The ant lives in the cortex/ frontal lobe and is in charge of our long term decisions: going to the doctor, studying for the test, waking up early to exercise. He carries the tools for optimum brain performance. When those are in place, we are better able to make decisions that benefit us in the long term.

The grasshopper lives in the limbic system, the emotional center of the brain, and is in charge of our short-term decisions/ short-term survival. He doesn’t care what happens in the future; he is only concerned about what is happening right now. The grasshopper is fast and strong and is always on the lookout for threats and rewards.

The glowworm lives in the amygdala, a special part of the limbic system that is in charge of looking out for threats (for amample, a car coming toward us.) When she sees an immediate threat, her job is to automatically switch control of the brain from the ant to the grasshopper, who can get us out of the way of danger.

The brain interprets physical threats and social threats in the same way, so REACTS is an acronym that outlines the social threats and rewards to the brain. When any one of those threats is present (respect, equity, alliances, control, territory, or similarity), the glowworm responds by switching control of the brain from the ant to the grasshopper for fight/flight mode.

The dragonfly lives in the prefrontal cortex, which house our executive functions. She serves as the “CEO” of the brain and is in charge of mindfulness, self-awareness and situational awareness. She has the Four Ss on her wings because she uses them to guide her choices in response to challenge. It is her job to understand when to override the glowworm.

So What?

Why is this important? Because it helps us to understand what is happening in the current poilitcal climate and guides our response.

Donald Trump is a grasshopper. Not only that, but he has matered the art of triggering the glowworms/ grasshoppers in others. This is true of both “sides” because he is so adept at triggering the glowworm.

He recognized that he had two contingents of people who might vote for him. The first is from the “forgotten middle” of the country. For them, he has empathized with their pain (respect, equity, alliance, control), stoked their fears of immigrants and foreign workers (respect, equity, similarity, control), highlighted the media and liberal democrats’ contempt for their pain (similarity, respect, equity, alliances) and emphasized their nationalism (territory). In every way, he has drawn them in. As Rondon states:

The recipe is universal. Find a wound common to many, someone to blame for it and a good story to tell. Mix it all together. Tell the wounded you know how they feel. That you found the bad guys. Label them: the minorities, the politicians, the businessmen. Cartoon them. As vermin, evil masterminds, flavourless hipsters, you name it. Then paint yourself as the saviour.

For this group, Trump was able to paint himself as a savior because he drew on primary threats to the brain.

The other contingent who he drew in is the group who despise Hillary Clinton and typically tend toward conservative economic values, though many are socially liberal. For them, he highlighted Clinton’s liberal economic plans, which stoked fears of increased taxes and debt increases (equity). As a business man rather than a lifelong politician, he promised that he would shake things up in Washington and drain the swamp (alliance, similarity). Though many in this group disagree with the rhetoric of the campaign, they were able to convince themselves that some of the things that Trump said were so outrageous that he would not follow through with them when he got into office. This is actually based on the amazing ability of the brain’s defense mechanisms to deal with cognitive dissonance. Cognitive dissonance occurs if we have a mental conflict. Because cognitive dissonance makes us feel uncomfortable, we use defense mechanisms (in this case denial) to minimize that conflict.

For those who did not support Trump, he also mastered the art of triggering the glowworm/ grasshopper, which reinforced the creation of the enemy that he needed. All of his comments, all of his lies, all of his hateful rhetoric pokes at liberals brains’ need for respect, equity and, most of all, control. They served to divide the nation, tearing apart alliances and highlighting differences rather than similarity.

So what is the result of this Nation of Grasshoppers? Division. Grasshoppers want to fight. That is their job: fight or flight. And fight is usually our first choice.

And that is exactly what fueled the Women’s March. The problem is, that is exactly what reinforces Trump’s strategy. The Women’s March mobilized the people who do not support Trump, but it further alienated those who do not.

Calling it the “Women’s March” alienated some (alliances/ similarity).

Refusing to allow “pro-life” marchers alienated some (respect, equity, alliances, similarity).

The pussyhats alienated some (respect, similarity).

Negative signs and speeches alienated some (respect, equity, similarity).

The media coverage magnified those feelings.

And those who were alienated are more poised than ever to fight.

Where do we go from here?

The strategy on the left is rational: pull together, gather number, tell the facts about the “long term implications” because that has seemed to work in the past. The problem is, many of Trump’s supporters don’t care about long term implications, they are living in the emotions of here and now. Here are their “facts:” many have lost their jobs, many work hard and still can’t put food on the table, many are afraid of what will happen to their families, many have deep held religious beliefs that they feel are threatened. When we have an immediate threat, the grasshopper controls the brain. That is survival.

Until we recognize that reality and find common ground, the divide will deepen and fear will prevail. Compare the speeches given at the Women’s March with Dr. King’s “I Have a Dream.” Dr. King looked to the future and tried to find common ground. That is the type of tactic that we need to employ. Remember, the primary threats to the brain are also primary rewards (respect, equity, alliances, control, territory, similarity). We can use that knowledge to soothe the grasshopper. We need people to feel respected. We need them to feel like they are getting their fair share. We need to find alliances across difference by seeing our similarities. We need people to feel like they do not need to protect their territory.

President Trump is driven by his grasshopper’s love of power and admiration. To him, the greatest grasshopper food is an adoring crowd (which fuels his need for a dopamine rush), and his glowworm is on high alert to anything that threatens “respect.” His immediate response to threat is to fight–through enacting revenge. The more he is threatened, the stronger his response, which is why his resolve to follow through on all of his campaign promises has strengthened during the last week. Remember, his grasshopper is only focused on what feels good right now. Therefore, part of the challenge is to work with President Trump, not against him. If what is good for the country aligns with his need for power and admiration, he will be more likely to move in that direction.

I believe that Rondon had some solid advice:

Recognize you’re the enemy they need; show concern, not contempt, for the wounds of those that brought Trump to power; by all means be patient with democracy and struggle relentlessly to free yourself from the shackles of the caricature the populists have drawn of you.

It is only through soothing the grasshopper that we can get the ants back in control to work toward makng America great for everyone.

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