Editorial: Trump and the seeds of fear

Published: 8/11/2019 9:00:10 AM

Nothing is more persuasive than the exploitation of fear. Politicians have long known this to be true. To stir up fear and then promise deliverance is to secure votes and collect dollars with minimal effort, and so it is an indispensable tool.

Few leaders in American history have leveraged fear more effectively than Donald Trump, but it is the regularity with which he employs the tactic that makes him truly unique.

His supporters might argue that that makes him smarter than his predecessors and opponents, that he figured out the game. But there’s a reason why others have avoided going to that well too often. Fear is unpredictable and uncontrollable – even for the one who stirs it up.

Trump didn’t create racism in this country, but he is the bellows on a glowing ember. He isn’t the cause of the climate crisis, but he sows economic fear to assure inertia. He is not the shooter, but far too often he pushes the buttons that incite hatred.

When fear becomes violence, he denies responsibility – and perhaps even believes in his own innocence. That’s because he sees fear as a method to achieve his aims rather than as the unstable force that it is. He and many of his supporters are incapable of or unwilling to connect their own dots.

All who are alive today have their ancestors’ fear instinct to thank. Without their abilities to sense and avoid danger, at least until they reached sexual maturity, your branch on the human family tree would have broken and you would not exist. It is in that spirit that parents of every generation have relied on cautionary tales to improve the chances that their children would survive into adulthood. From a very early age humans learn the power of fear in shaping behavior. They understand, at least on a subconscious level, that they, too, can use fear to dictate the actions of others.

Fear is simultaneously our salvation and our curse. It can save, and it can destroy.

Donald Trump is more illusionist than statesman. He doesn’t need the myths – an invasion by bad hombres at the southern border, an influx of terrorists masquerading as Syrian refugees or a House of Representatives controlled by women of color who hate America – to become fact. He only needs supporters to see the world as falsely as he does and to act in accordance with their fears. It helps, of course, to have a small supporting cast of powerful and influential people who help project those illusions and cultivate, exploit and profit from that fear.

And when fear explodes into bloodshed, it’s easy to walk it back. It’s the easiest thing in the world. You profess love, compassion and respect for black people, immigrants, refugees, women, children, whoever. You say hate has no place in America. You say you don’t have a racist bone in your body.

You say anything because the words don’t matter anymore. The seeds have been planted and the fear has taken root. Like an invasive weed it will spread, uncontrolled and unstable.

During his first inaugural address in 1933, Franklin D. Roosevelt famously said, “The only thing we have to fear is fear itself.” In the decades since, those words have served as a call to national bravery, courage and fortitude. But in these times, and under this president, we know those words should be understood in the simplest, most literal way.

Donald Trump wants you to be afraid, needs you to be afraid, because fear itself is the sole source of his power.

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