COVID-19 through the Lens of Terror Management Theory

As I write this (on April 22, 2020), the United States has been ravaged by COVID-19: over 827,000 confirmed cases and over 45,000 deaths. Though the U.S. comprises just 4.2% of the world’s population, it has 32% of the world’s confirmed COVID cases and 25% of COVID deaths worldwide. The especially heavy toll COVID-19 has exacted on the U.S. can, of course, be largely attributed to the egregiously poor leadership displayed by Donald Trump. Trump initially dismissed the COVID threat as a “Democrat hoax” ginned up by his political opponents to embarrass him. Many precious weeks were wasted in inaction until Trump was forced to bow (somewhat) to the reality of exponential COVID infections and deaths. Even so, the government response to date has been haphazard and ineffectual, as evidenced by woefully inadequate testing and a scandalous lack of ventilators and PPE supplies. But it wasn’t Trump’s infantile narcissism alone that rendered American society especially susceptible to the COVID pandemic. The patient, if you will, was already saddled with a number of preexisting conditions that made the sickness much worse: rampant income and wealth inequality that has left tens of millions of Americans extremely vulnerable to the economic disruption caused by forced sequestration; a costly and inefficient for-profit health care system ill-equipped to handle a pandemic; an outmoded system of employer-provided health care insurance that has rendered millions of the suddenly unemployed also without any medical coverage. Obviously everything is still in flux right now but it’s clear that COVID-19 will take a devastating toll in lives while it lays waste to the economy. What isn’t clear is how this new plague will play out socially and politically.

COVID’s storm clouds may contain some silver linings. However long it lasts, the near-total shutdown of the consumerist rat-race that is late-stage consumer capitalism will put a temporary dent in the production of greenhouse gases and might even be a watershed moment for progressive change. It’s already altering existing conditions and perceptions in ways previously unimaginable. For example, here in the U.S., it is dramatically highlighting the crucial but underpaid work of nurses, truck drivers, food producers, grocery workers, teachers, etc., versus the dubious “work” of obscenely over-compensated CEOs, Wall Street speculators, TV personalities, sports and pop stars and their ilk. The pandemic has forced suppressed class-consciousness to the surface and made the ordinary heroic and the glitzy expendable. In doing so, it has revealed the upside-down nature of the capitalist pseudo-meritocracy in ways too obvious to ignore or neutralize through the usual corporate media propaganda: a phenomenon that could empower millions of prols to think of themselves differently, i.e., as worthy of respect and a living wage, which might bode well for a revived labor movement. COVID-19 has likewise brought the desperate precariousness of life in America into sharp relief. Tens of millions of low-paid blue-collar workers, mostly in the service industries, are losing their jobs, frantically applying for unemployment benefits, and cueing up at food banks: glaring evidence that the vaunted U.S. economy was, in actuality, a flimsy house of cards for 80% of its adult citizens, who live paycheck to paycheck, are deeply in debt, and have less than $1,000 in savings.

As the pandemic rips the camouflage off the vast inequities and injustices of American society, it serves to deepen a legitimation crisis already well underway in recent years. A sizeable and growing portion of the populace is well aware as never before that the system is thoroughly corrupt and pathetically inadequate at addressing real human needs, e.g., decent jobs and affordable housing and medical care. It’s obvious to anyone with a modicum of awareness that the game is rigged against working people in favor of the nation’s owner-rentier class and that the country is financially, morally, and spiritually bankrupt. But disillusionment can cut in opposite ways. Many among the growing legions of the disaffected – especially educated young people – are embracing progressivist alternatives to the dead-end of Neoliberalism. But given America’s hyper-individualist ethos, the sorry state of public education, unrelenting survival pressures, the efficacy of corporate media propaganda, and a vapid mass culture encouraging escapism, a much larger bloc of the disaffected, mostly the poor and unlettered, are either beyond the reach of politics altogether – more than 100 million eligible voters didn’t bother to vote in 2016 – or have glommed onto Trump’s vicious, self-centered nihilism because his worship of money and boorish anti-intellectualism nicely align their own talismanic thinking about the almighty dollar and an abiding contempt for the highly educated, credentialed and privileged members of the professional-managerial class, whom they perceive (both rightly and wrongly) as (1) dismissive of the common folk and (2) in cahoots with a system that oppresses the have-nots.

The COVID-19 pandemic may bring about positive change but it’s just as likely to make the already fraught and divisive political situation in the United States much more dangerous and perverse. Here I invoke the thinking of Ernest Becker (1924-1974), author of The Denial of Death (1973), a Pulitzer Prize-winning work in psychoanalytic theory and cultural anthropology that spawned Terror Management Theory (TMT) some years later. Becker’s basic argument is that human beings are unique among animals in that we know we’re going to die. As Sheldon Solomon (psychology professor at Skidmore College and one of the founders of Terror Management Theory) puts it, the human imagination “renders us uniquely aware of the inevitability of our demise … [and] the explicit awareness that you’re a breathing piece of defecating meat destined to die, ultimately no more significant than, let’s say, a lizard or a potato is not especially uplifting.” According to Becker, this nagging awareness of ultimate annihilation causes deep-seated (albeit subconscious) anxiety that humans allay by splitting the self into two entities: the physical self – which will eventually die – and the conceptual self, which tries to nullify or at compensate for mortality through a variety of means. Becker calls an individual’s compensatory behavior his/her “immortality project.” Smart, talented, ambitious individuals strive to leave a mark on Earth and bolster self-esteem (which provides a buffer against death-related anxiety) in all the well-established ways: securing wealth, power and fame, or writing books, creating art, mastering a craft, excelling in sports, fighting for a cause, etc. The majority, however, manage subliminal death terror in more pedestrian ways. They place heavy emphasis on family and relationships (prima facie, a good thing). They also tend to embrace the supposedly comforting dogmas and rituals of extrinsic religiosity (not such a good thing). Some find meaning and distraction in work but most don’t. In off hours, the masses tranquilize themselves with the trivial (to borrow a phrase from Kierkegaard), i.e., the usual, state-sanctioned pursuits – shopping, sports, home improvement, work-outs, TV and video games – and/or resort to the usual addictions: sex, drugs, alcohol, porn, gambling, guns, hoarding, etc. Still, for many Americans, none of these expedients work. The United States has the highest level of mental illness in the world and U.S. suicide rates have seen a sustained increase in recent decades. As for politics, most Americans are not deep thinkers; it’s not part of the culture. They largely eschew the political as beyond their ken or otherwise embrace a bitter cynicism that dismisses any sort of political discourse as automatically suspect and irrelevant to their actual lives – hence those 100 million who skipped the last election, plus the 60 million who voted for Donald Trump.

But this is where it gets interesting. According to Terror Management Theory, a death-dealing catastrophe – natural or man-made – will remind people of their mortality in a startling visceral way, something TMT calls “mortality salience.” The common reaction to increased mortality salience is a hardening of attitudes, a closing of the ranks, an intensified meanness and anger against a perceived Other that is a defensive reaction to increased existential dread. One can easily see how spikes in mortality salience have operated in modern American history. After the global death trip of the First World War and the Spanish Flu pandemic that immediately followed, America was convulsed by reactionary violence, as evidenced by the first Red Scare (resulting in the Palmer Raids, i.e., a government purge of labor unions and foreign-born radicals) and the Red Summer of 1919 (white supremacist terrorist attacks in over three U.S. dozen cities). The Second World War resulted in the deaths of some 60 million people – suffice to say that nagging mortality salience reigned supreme after the war, though it was largely pushed beneath the surface so it came out in oblique ways. Rather than reveling in victory and a hard-won peace, the United States sank into a second Red Scare, marked by political paranoia, severe government repression, and meek societal conformity. Then there was another spike in mortality salience when the Soviet Union exploded its own atomic bomb in 1950. The national reaction was to embrace McCarthyism and scapegoating, culminating in the execution of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg on atomic espionage charges in 1953. Ten years later, mortality salience hit hard and suddenly with the assassination of President Kennedy. Soon thereafter, the country plunged into the quagmire of Vietnam. The terrorist attacks of 9/11 provide yet another stark example of a national mortality salience event. Tellingly, George W. Bush’s initial advice to the American public was to reaffirm the national religion of consumerism and exhort the people go out and shop. Later, the government response – largely supported by the populace – was to further militarize American culture and seek vengeance, by invading Iraq on false pretenses and by waging a seemingly endless war in Afghanistan: misguided and futile actions that have resulted in the emergence of a high tech surveillance state, tens of thousands of deaths, and trillions of dollars in wasted capital.

Though very little blood was shed, the Great Recession of 2007-09 was another mortality salience event in terms of the mass existential turmoil it caused. When the grossly inflated housing bubble burst, the economy nearly collapsed. Millions of Americans lost their jobs, homes, and retirement savings and anxiety levels skyrocketed. The government responded with tax-payer-subsidized bank bail-outs but the resulting “recovery” was largely jobless and the bankers and Wall Street operators who precipitated the crisis were never brought to justice. One might intuit that such a massive capitalist failure – rife with greed and reckless corruption resulting in tremendous social damage – would have pushed public sentiment to the Left. Nonetheless, in keeping with TMT premises, the opposite occurred: an inexorable shift to the Right in the years that followed. The Democratic Party, already Wall Street-identified since the Clinton era, has become ever more conservative and hidebound in forsaking its working-class roots and resisting progressivist alternatives at all costs.

For its part, the benighted, gerrymandering, voter-suppressing Republican Party has devolved into a quasi-fascist death cult – fanatically authoritarian, pro-Big Business, anti-labor, anti-immigrant, anti-intellectual, virulently racist and hatefully bigoted across the board: a “party” financed by right-wing billionaires, touted by Fox News, and subscribed to by hordes of would-be petty capitalists, evangelical know-nothings, and angry yahoos. Though there was no discreet mortality salience event immediately preceding the election of Donald Trump in 2016, one had been developing in slow motion for most of the previous decade as the deteriorating state of working-class America during the supposedly halcyon Obama years gave rise to Trump’s ascendance. Mr. Obama had eloquently promised “hope and change” but, for the vast majority of Americans, he delivered neither. During his watch, drone strikes, deportations, the further consolidation of corporate power and the growth of income and wealth inequality all proceeded at a dizzying pace. Blue-collar America, already on the ropes since 2008, reeled toward the canvas. As the aforementioned Dr. Solomon observed in “Fatal Attraction,” a recorded lecture posted on YouTube on Election Day 2016, Trump won because the agitated state of the republic favored a supposedly charismatic game-changer, not a dull Establishment apparatchik – never mind that Trump is a woefully ignorant, self-centered confidence man with the impulse control of a toddler and the attention span of squirrel. Apart from anti-Obama racists bent on white vengeance, a large segment of working- and middle-class America wanted a means to blow up the existing order, which had done them no favors. Speaking about the citizenry of the U.K. and the U.S. that respectively backed Brexit and Trump, British filmmaker Adam Curtis put it this way: “They’re angry, and they were given a giant, big button that said ‘Fuck off’ on it, and they pressed it.”

So now we’re in the midst of the ultimate mortality salience event, a combination of the Great Depression and the Spanish Flu: a massive human die-off and economic meltdown of biblical proportions, here and abroad. If Terror Management Theory is correct – and, granted it’s only one theory among many – American society will react to this unprecedented catastrophe in the way it has always reacted, by becoming a meaner, more oppressive, and more unequal society. What this will bode for the coming election in November is still anyone’s guess, however. Donald Trump’s colossal ineptitude in dealing with COVID-19 may well cost him those crucial swing states and the election. But maybe not; Trump’s Democratic opponent, Joe Biden, is a weak, uninspiring contender. He’s old and increasingly dotty and inarticulate, a passionless center-right corporatist hack burdened with a rape allegation and a long history of groping. But perhaps it doesn’t matter. Nobody who votes in November will be voting for Biden; they’ll be voting against Trump. Terror Management Theory suggests that Trump’s mortality salience-aroused base will become all the more fanatical in their support, thus intensifying the almost unbearable politico-cultural divide that paralyzes this society. If Trump loses in November, his constituents will go ape. We’ve already seen signs of this in the reprehensible anti-sequestration “protests” launched by armed right-wing groups in Michigan and elsewhere – and egged on by Trump. The only way to reduce the subliminal mortality salience that haunts half the populace is to overthrow unfettered American capitalism and create a just, equitable, and sanely managed society: an unlikely prospect given the almost limitless power of Big Money.

Robert Niemi is a professor of English and American Studies at St. Michael’s College, Colchester VT.