I was driving to class last week, and I pulled up behind a little white Nissan with bumper stickers plastered haphazardly all over the back of the car. As soon as my eyes focused, it was clear that the little guy crouched over the steering wheel had amassed the most disturbing collection of hateful bumper stickers I have ever seen. He was anti-Obama, anti-abortion, anti-Muslim, anti-immigrant, anti-government: this poor old man was anti-everything. Well, almost everything. There was a great big NRA sticker next to the American flag in the rear window.

A few days later my wife and I were having breakfast at The Frontier and I ended up picking a table next to three grey-haired white dudes. I had to move to another spot when they began spouting off Ditto-head code words and loudly complaining about the damage “Hanoi Jane” Fonda did to the country. I mean, come on: her fitness videos were not that bad, were they? It was a long time ago. Let it go.

It occurred to me that there are a lot of really scared people in this country. They are terrified of women and homosexuals; they fear science, diversity, Hispanics, Natives, Blacks — or even worse — mixed race people like that socialist Muslim in the White House. Most of all, they fear change.

They are worried that America will soon be unrecognizable, and they want to take back the country. They do not like the fact that over half the population is non-white, and they are afraid that their religious freedom is somehow under threat. Angry, embittered people such as Mr. White Nissan and the Frontier Dudes fear the inevitable. They are scared little children, grasping feebly at something that is already slipping away from them. They long for the good old days when minorities and women were in submissive roles, and the Bible was the immutable edict of morality.

Fear drives the worst in human nature. Scared people lash out angrily and irrationally. They willfully do harm to others, thinking that the damage is justified, or that it is their place to teach others a lesson. They rationalize horrific acts, believing them to be defensive. They lose the capacity to see just how absurd their claims of victimization truly are. More troubling is the fact that these people think they know what is best for everyone. They have all of the (simple) answers for everything.

A growing body of research confirms that incompetence robs people of the ability to recognize their own incompetence. In other words: dumb people are too dumb to realize it. The Dunning–Kruger effect derives from a cognitive bias study conducted at Cornell University in which unskilled individuals were shown to suffer from the illusion of superiority, mistakenly rating their abilities much higher than was really the case. This bias is attributed to the inability of the unskilled to recognize their ineptitude.

The study demonstrated that humans find it intrinsically difficult to get a sense of what we do not know. Whether an individual lacks competence in critical thinking, emotional intelligence, or a sense of humor, they still tend to rate their own skills in those areas as being above average. This disconnect may be responsible for many of society’s problems.

Most of us have been forced at some point to interact with prejudiced, spiteful people whose hostility towards other human beings raises serious doubts about their own humanity. In America, there is been an outpouring of malevolence towards others, based on all manner of bigotry. But bigotry alone cannot explain the desire of some Americans to increase the suffering of their fellow citizens.

Republicans typically support policies that favor wealthy donors and mega-corporations over human beings, but it would be a mistake to ascribe the growing hostility towards middle-America strictly to the GOP’s reverence for the undeserving, parasitic rich.

There is a deeply-rooted malice among the GOP’s Ayn Rand-inspired neocons and their Christian Fundamentalist allies which is not based on economics, and it reinforces the notion that the Tea Party is made up of callous individuals, apparently driven by abject fear, ignorance and a loathing of people who are not exactly like them. Republicans have tapped into this paradigm and promulgated it among their supporters for political expediency.

Americans are witnessing the culmination of years of extremist propaganda inciting fear of change and a profound hatred of their fellow citizens. Their minds have been poisoned by incessant fear-mongering and endless attacks on the others: those who represent a changing America. They prove it with every proposal to repeal the Affordable Care Act, every attempt to obstruct the rights of women, gays and minorities and every piece of draconian austerity legislation they try to pass. Still, they could never attempt such inhumane measures if a large segment of the population did not share the same contempt for humanity. Sad.