Thank heavens for the people at NBC News, keeping me informed in the most bizarre of ways.
On Thursday, during their post-debate coverage, they played host to a presidential historian who told me my beloved country had a “lizard brain.” I was slightly confused — but I needn’t have feared, because a quick search on the term pointed me toward a 2019 video from NBC News explaining the concept.
The “lizard brain” is a pop-psychology way of referring to the more primitive parts of the human brain.
While the term and the theory has been kicking around for a while, it took swellheaded hustle-prattler Seth Godin — one of the most redundant individuals in our modern pseudo-intellectual TED talk-level cultural dialogue — to put it into cultural circulation.
“Wild animals are wild animals because they only have a little tiny brain, and that little tiny brain keeps them alive. It’s about fear and revenge and reproduction and anger and ‘let’s go,'” Godin told NBC News.
“And human beings have that same brain, but we evolved to have this other brain in front, the one that does ballet, the one that does big ideas. But that brain is slow compared to our wild animal brain, our lizard brain. The lizard brain is right next to our spinal cord and it can go like that. And it floods our brain with chemicals instantly.”
My lizard brain is making me mildly annoyed that this guy — a marketing guru whose only product is self-promotion — plays an actual part in the intellectual conversation in the English-speaking world. In other news, my anguished, white-guy lizard brain is also apparently making me vote for Donald Trump.
So says Jon Meacham, a presidential historian and commentator on MSNBC. Say what you will about what transpired Thursday night, Meacham is an accomplished, respected author.
He’s best known as the scribe behind the mostly not-terrible Pulitzer Prize-winning “American Lion: Andrew Jackson in the White House.”
At the very least, the book is coherent. On Thursday, Meacham wasn’t.
“Well, it was remarkable to watch it in person,” Meacham said regarding his impressions of the debate. “I’ve never seen a general election debate actually in the room. And one man was running for president of the United States, and the other man was auditioning for a show on Fox.”
Ho ho. I see what you did there. He seemed to realize this wasn’t exactly Pulitzer-winning presidential historian material, because then: “And that may sound like an attempt at glibness, but it was the innate reaction I had to watching the president, who dwells in this wilderness of mirrors, to borrow a phrase from the Cold War, where there are these code words.”
You may not have seen what he did there: “The wilderness of mirrors” was a phrase used by former CIA Counterintelligence chief James Angleton to describe disinformation campaigns by the Soviets.
As The Intercept notes, the intelligence operative — who was disgraced for domestic spy operations against domestic activist groups during the 1960s and 1970s — said that it described a “myriad of stratagems, deceptions, artifices, and all the other devices of disinformation which the Soviet bloc and its coordinated intelligence services use to confuse and split the West … an ever fluid landscape where fact and illusion merge.”
Now, what did this mean? Something Russia, something disinformation, blah blah coded language, and, therefore, Trump is evil.
According to a transcript of the coverage from the Media Research Center, Meacham then launched into a strange discussion regarding how Trump’s performance was an exercise in reaching out to his base. Well, I think that’s what he was getting at, anyway.
Meacham would tell MSNBC viewers that “the reason for the triumph of the cult of Trump in the Republican Party has been the number that has been showing up … that not just the Republicans in their states or districts that support the president but that strongly support the president. That adverb — these are adverb-Republicans, I sometimes think of them.
“They’re stunned to see that if you’re with Trump, by God, you’re with him … it may just be that demography is destiny here,” he continued.
“There aren’t enough of them. But I’ll say this tonight, and I had this reaction. It may have been watching it in person as opposed to the way it was experienced for the country, there is a lizard brain in this country.
“Donald Trump is a product of the white man’s, the anguished, nervous white guy’s lizard brain. And there could be a twitch there that, ‘You know what, we sent this disruptive figure, Biden, maybe that 47-year thing helps a little bit.’ I don’t think there are enough of those folks, but I think just as an observer of this — I think Trump did himself good with his base tonight. The question for America is how big that base is. “
You have to give it to Seth Godin: I understood what he was saying. It may have been thin, “Who Moved My Cheese?“-level brain food gruel for people who find Tony Robbins engrossing, but I understood it.
To the extent one fully understands exactly what Meacham was saying Thursday night (actually early Friday morning — something that might have accounted for the fact Meacham wasn’t at his Pulitzer-winning best), it was basically this:
- Biden is presidential, Trump appeared to be like a Fox News host.
- Trump was using Soviet-era disinformation tactics, or something.
- Trump has a cult of supporters so large that it surprises — “adverb Republicans” — but there aren’t enough of them to win.
- “There is a lizard brain in this country.”
- Trump’s supporters are basically part of “the anguished, nervous white guy’s lizard brain,” but “[t]he question for America is how big that base is.”
In short, if you’re a Trump supporter, you’re a racist Fox News-watcher with a lizard brain.
It may not surprise you to learn that MSNBC didn’t bring on Meacham because he was a disinterested observer or an “undecided voter.” In fact, if you recognized him, it’s likely because he was a featured speaker at the Democratic National Convention in August.
Given that he’s an accomplished author who was working from prepared remarks at the DNC, he was able to imply Trump supporters were racists in more couched, coherent terms, asking “whether we will continue to be prisoners of the darkest of American forces or will we free ourselves to write a brighter, better, nobler story.”
He invoked Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s paraphrased quote, “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice,” because of course he did: Bending that arc requires all of us. It requires we, the people, and it requires a president of the United States with empathy, grace, a big heart and an open mind.
For liberals like Meacham and Godin, Joe Biden will be such a president. With our voices and our votes, they cry, let us now write the next chapter of the American story; one of hope, of love, of justice. If we do so, they say, we might just save our country and our souls.
And save us from the lizard brain, apparently.
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