Daniel Greenfield, a Shillman Journalism Fellow at the Freedom Center, is an investigative journalist and writer focusing on the radical Left and Islamic terrorism
Brainwashing isn’t a secretive event that takes place in hidden rooms. No hypnotists or vials full of chemicals are required. It takes place every day on a massive scale across the United States.
Unlike Raymond Shaw in The Manchurian Candidate, brainwashing does not turn people into hypnotized zombies who would be ready to kill a presidential candidate at a command. Instead, it transforms them into the sort of people who would be willing to kill someone for political reasons.
The distinction is why so few people understand the sources of political radicalism and violence.
Brainwashing isn’t magic, but it can look like magic. The sleight of hand that causes us to think so is our firm belief in our reason and free will. It’s easier to believe in changing minds through hypnotism and drugs, than to understand, what the successful practitioners of brainwashing do, that the human mind is more malleable than we like to think, and that the subconscious is more powerful than the conscious.
The art and science of brainwashing is well known. We don’t know it because we choose not to.
Brainwashing happens every day. It doesn’t have to mean a complete transformation of identity. On the simplest level, it means compelling someone to believe something that isn’t true.
It’s as simple as two cops browbeating an innocent suspect into believing that he’s guilty. The officers and the suspect won’t see their interaction as brainwashing. The officers can honestly believe in his guilt. And, at the end of the process, the suspect will also believe that he committed the crime. He will even be able to describe in great detail how he committed it. That’s common, everyday brainwashing.
The key elements of brainwashing are present in that cold room with the peeling paint on the walls. Those three elements are control, crisis and emotional resonance. To successfully brainwash someone, you have to control their environment, force a crisis on them, and then tap into core emotions, fear, love, guilt, hate, shame, and guide them through the crisis by accepting and internalizing a new belief.
The belief can be anything, but the pseudo-religious ritual taps into an emotional core requiring them to believe that they were bad people, and that by accepting this new belief, they are now good people.
This false conversion is the essence of brainwashing and of leftist political awakening narratives.
The human mind, like the human body, adapts to a crisis with a fight-or-flight response. Brainwashing forces the mind into a flight response. Once in flight mode, the mind can rationalize a new belief as a protective behavior that will keep it safe. Even when, as in the case of the suspect, the new belief will actually destroy his life. Fight or flight mode inhibits long term thinking. In panic mode, destructive and suicidal behaviors seem like solutions because they offer an escape from unbearable chemical stresses.
There’s a good biological reason for that. Our minds stop us from thinking too much in a crisis so that we can take urgent action, like running into a fire or at a gunman, that our rational minds might not allow us to do. But that same function can be ‘hacked’ by artificially putting people into fight-or-flight mode to break them down and shortcut their higher reasoning functions. Decisions reached subconsciously in fight-or-flight mode will then be rationalized and internalized after the initial crisis has passed.
When that internalization happens, then the brainwashing is real.
Almost anyone can be compelled to say anything under enough stress. Many can be forced to believe it. The acid test of brainwashing is whether they will retain that belief once fight-or-flight mode passes.
Cults, abusive relationships and totalitarian movements maintain ‘total crisis’, shutting down higher reasoning, creating a permanent state of stress by triggering fight-or-flight responses unpredictably. This leads to Stockholm Syndrome, where the captive tries to control their fate through total emotional identification with their captor, pack behavior, loss of identity and will, and eventually suicide or death.
Total crisis leads to burnout, emotional exhaustion, detachment from friends and family, and violence.
How do you brainwash a nation?
Control the national environment, force a crisis on the country, and tap into their fear and guilt. And then you can outlaw planes, cows, skyscrapers, straws, plastic bags and the rest of the Green New Deal.
The environmental crisis is just one example of how leftist movements can brainwash a nation.
The growing number of millennials who say that they will not have children because of environmental panic is an example of how brainwashing can make suicidal behavior seem like self-preservation.
Since the Left still lacks total control over the United States, it relies on repetition, itself a form of control and stress, to create fear and panic. It makes up for its lack of physical control by bombarding Americans with messages meant to inspire fear, love, hate and guilt through the media, through the educational system, through entertainment and through every possible messaging channel.
Global Warming panic is one of a succession of manufactured leftist crises in America that began with a class crisis. transitioned to a racial crisis, and then to an environmental crisis.
Each of the crises claimed that society was on track to an inevitable apocalypse, that the nature of the crisis, economic, racial or environmental, had been verified by experts, that we were all complicit in the crisis, and that the only solution was radical change administered by the crisis experts.
The panic over Trump is a micro-crisis of the sort that leftists detonate in the political opposition, but the fear, anger, terror, stress and violence on display are typical of the crisis mode of fight-or-flight.
The “Resistance” isn’t a political movement. It’s a political cult whose crisis was the 2016 election. Its irrational belief that Trump is a Russian agent is typical of the conspiratorial mindset of cults. Its inability to understand that its convictions are completely irrational show how brainwashing works.
The 2016 election inflicted on its members a loss of control. Trump became the crisis embodying their loss of control. Their fear, guilt and anger induced stress that altered their behavior and beliefs.
And, within the very recent past, millions came to believe that Trump was really working for Moscow.
This is brainwashing on a timescale so immediate that we can easily recall it. Yet most of us have trouble understanding how it works and why it works. And that lack of understanding is holding us back.
How can smart people fall for minor variations of the same lie in generation after generation?
Smart people make the best brainwashing targets. Cults recruit bright students on college campuses, they target aspiring executives looking for leadership training, and dissatisfied professionals searching for meaning. Cults are rarely made up of stupid people. They’re made up of smart, vulnerable people.
Human beings don’t behave rationally. We rationalize our behavior.
The more people rationalize, the more they can be brainwashed. Your old Casio digital watch can’t be hacked. Even if it were hacked, there’s not much it could be made to do. Your smartphone can be hacked and made to do more. Your desktop can be hacked and made to do even more. Intelligence doesn’t make us less vulnerable to being manipulated, it leaves us much more vulnerable.
The political brainwashing campaign in this country targets the upper class and the middle class. The best subjects for brainwashing are intelligent and emotionally vulnerable. They’re easier to manipulate by using the gap between their emotions and their reason, and their emotional instability makes it easier to force them into crisis mode. The ideal subjects are in their teens and their early twenties. In modern times, that’s a period in which identity is still developing, and can be fractured and remade.
That’s why the Left aims most of its brainwashing efforts at high school and college students. It’s why it prioritized control of the educational system and the entertainment industry above all else.
Both of these have become highly profitable brainwashing industries: one sugar-coated, and one bitter.
Classrooms and campuses provide physical control over students for nearly two decades of their lives. That control was initially used for simple dogmatic preaching. Then it escalated to cult behavior with classroom role-playing rituals encouraging mass expressions of love and hate, transformations of sexual and gender identity, detachment from friends and family, and violent displays of pain and rage.
The modern American identity politics campus looks a whole lot like Jonestown or a Hitler Youth rally.
Exploiting sexuality, triggering guilt and shame in children, to transform their identity was usually the work of the lowest savage tribes and the vilest cults. It’s now the American education system.
The techniques aren’t new. They’re as evil and old as time itself.
Like every cult, the modern campus claims to serve an educational purpose, helping students find meaning and purpose, but insisting that they must first be cured of the subconscious evils such as white privilege and toxic masculinity that are holding them back through a process that deconstructs their barriers, encourages confession, expressions of trauma, shame and guilt, to create new identities.
This isn’t education. It’s not even dogmatic lecturing. It’s the same basic set of techniques used by any major cult in the country. Once colleges began trying to cure their students of subconscious evils at closed sessions, under the guidance of unlicensed therapists associated with a movement, there was no longer any difference between them and that of any cult, except billions in taxpayer dollars.
The sessions at which white privilege or toxic masculinity can be cured, or at which students are put in touch with the trauma of their oppression as minorities, duplicate cult indoctrination in every regard.
They’re the successors of consciousness raising groups whose name even signaled their cultish nature.
Despite attempts to wrap leftist politics in the objective garb of the expert, the scientist, the scholar and the bureaucrat, its heart lay in its spiritual narrative of a struggle between an altruistic good and a materialistic evil, the inevitable historical triumph of progress over reaction, and the pseudo-religious induction of new recruits into the gnostic revelation of our oppressive world with its layered conspiracies of capitalism, sexism and racism. The original ‘red pill’. Or, ‘little red book’.
To non-cult members, it’s brainwashing. To cult members, it’s revelation. The distinction may seem like a matter of perspective between believers and non-believers, but it lies in the question of consent. Brainwashing always relies on removing control from the victim. The control may be taken openly, by force. It can be taken covertly through manipulation and deceit. But there is always a loss of control.
The victim does not understand the process by which they are being taken apart and put back together until much later. And if the process works as intended, he or she may never realize it happened at all. Brainwashing’s cruelest trick lies in using the intelligence of its victim as its greatest ally in building a trap for its own ego and its consciousness that it cannot escape from without a great deal of determination.
Like drug addiction, the aftermath of brainwashing transforms the mind into a convoluted maze of rationalizations for self-destructive behavior that are guarded by biology and the subconscious. It cannot be escaped without breaking down the defense mechanisms that were put into place to avoid reexperiencing the original trauma, and without examining the emotions behind the mechanisms.
Brainwashing can create new ideas and realities, but it can’t create new emotions. All it can do is amplify them and use them to induce in its subject a new belief in an altered reality. It doesn’t create guilt, shame, fear, love or hate. It amplifies, exploits them and uses them as tools to create stress, force a crisis, and then transform a single belief or an entire identity.
That is why the Left cannot be defeated through policy debates and intellectual abstractions. It is a belief system. Though it traffics in seeming abstractions, these are a language, but not the meaning. The esoteric languages of policy and pop culture in which it speaks are vehicles for a deeper language of primal emotions. Behind the theories and manifestos is a great darkness of fear and terror, of love and hate, of emotional instability and vulnerability on which its lies and propaganda are built.
And it is within that primal darkness out of which all evil is born that the brainwashing does its work.