Proud Boys provide security for the World Wide Rally for Freedom in Raleigh, NC, March 2021. Photo by Anthony Crider, Flickr CC.

fight-or-flight for america

When was the last time anger or fear got the best of you? A jump scare, a close call, a confrontation? For most of us, most of the time, fight-or-flight events are memorable because they are rare. But in studying Christian Nationalist youth in the United States, Pew research associate Michael Rotolo found a more long-term and hard-wired sense of being under constant attack. This enduring threat perception, Rotolo writes in a recent issue of Sociological Forum, has both deep emotional underpinnings and severe political consequences.

Using a combination of interviews, ethnography, and surveys, Rotolo demonstrates that young Christian Nationalists’ biographies are often marked by the sorts of traumatic childhood experiences that lead to heightened, chronic states of rage or fear. As they enter early adulthood, these emotional states harden into a dominant belief that their cultural identity is perpetually precarious, which in turn shapes how they view contemporary social and political issues. The author argues that those with a disposition toward rage develop a “fight-for-America” emotional system that supports tribalism, nativism, and racialized sentiments, while those with a disposition toward fear develop a “flight-for-America” emotional system characterized by anxiety, passivity, and indifference.

Through his “fight-or-flight for America” framework, the author shows how the development of particular emotional dispositions throughout childhood, or “affective conditioning,” plays a fundamental role in shaping cultural and political attitudes in adulthood, especially among distinct cultural groups such as Christian Nationalists. This can have severe political consequences when the affective condition of a particular group is empirically associated with racist, sexist, and xenophobic attitudes and actions. To shift these enduring emotion systems, Rotolo suggests exposing people to unfamiliar -emotional stimuli, but also encourages us to look further upstream to the cultural contexts in which they were developed.