United States: Return to a Cycle of Fear?

The tragedy of Pulse seems to mark the awakening of a “culture of fear” that is part of American history, from the fear of communism during the era of McCarthyism, or of Islam, after the attacks of 9/11.

‘Fear Is the Foundation of Most Governments.’ – John Adams

Monday, two separate tragedies seemed to affect Americans. Reading The New York Times and the progressive press, or listening to the statements of President Obama, the theme was the worst U.S. mass shooting in the history of the country, a crime inspired by homophobia and made possible by easy access to firearms. But reading the conservative press or the remarks by Donald Trump, one could believe that there was a return to international terrorism linked to Islam. The soon-to-be Republican nominee even called for the resignation of the president for not saying the term “radical Islam.” Following this, the slogan of his campaign evolved from “Make America Great Again” to “Make America Safe Again,” as if the United States were no longer precisely a safe country. The fear of terrorism had, however, ceased to occupy the mind of Americans, as Hunter S. Thompson described in his work with the evocative title, “Kingdom of Fear” (2003).

Trump knows that the electoral map does not favor him. He has a large handicap in the 11 battleground states notably due to his lack of support among women or among minorities. To beat the odds, he has to impose his themes on the campaign. Moreover, he must bet on emotional dynamics in order to find a way around the vote projections.

The Democrats have feared for several weeks that an outside event would occur that would support Trump’s strategy: insistence on a threat, identification of a clear and shared enemy, proposing an authoritarian solution in order to destroy it. Marc Hetherington and Jonathan Weiler, authors of “Authoritarianism and Polarization in American Politics” (2009), are of the opinion that the Republican base has been seeking a leader who will enforce a straightforward order in a world in which the United States is no longer explicitly dominant. Karen Stenner, in “The Authoritarian Dynamic” (2005), concludes that all citizens, in the context of threats, develop an aspiration to political authoritarianism.

Confidence is one of the drivers of the country’s history. We think of the founding fathers who put “the pursuit of happiness” into the heart of institutions, the optimism at the forefront in the conquest of such a vast territory (the “Go West, young man” of Horace Greeley) or the “new frontier” of John F. Kennedy. But cycles of fear have also traversed the history of the country. Fear of communism during McCarthyism (the “Red Scare”) or, always, fear of Islam after the attacks of 9/11. Barack Obama oriented his 2008 presidential campaign precisely to overcome these fears and the errors that followed them in the context of foreign policy (the invasion of Iraq in 2003), repeatedly citing Franklin D. Roosevelt’s phrase, “The only thing we have to fear is fear itself.” More recently, in his State of the Union address, he called on Americans to again topple “this wall of fear,” stating that there was no longer an “existential threat” to the United States, as opposed to the Cold War era. He responded to Republican leaders who, speaking of the Islamic State, invoked the possibility of a third world war.

Corey Robin and Patrick Boucher, in their book “The Exercise of Fear: Political Use of an Emotion“ (2014), remind us that “being afraid is preparing to obey.” They rightly stress that fear can be used as a pretext for lasting transformations of institutions, as was the case with the USA PATRIOT Act, enacted Oct. 26, 2001.*

The fear that Trump seeks to create around the Muslim community is written into a long tradition that reaches back to the fear of Catholics in the 19th century (the Pope was suspected of plotting to undermine the foundations of the American democracy) and more generally the fear of recent arrivals (Irish, Germans, Italians, and Chinese), accused of not sharing the country’s values. According to a survey by the Brookings Institution on Nov. 4-5, 2015, 61 percent of Americans have a negative view of Islam (56 percent of Republican voters even believe that the values of Islam are incompatible with Western values). A survey of the same type conducted in 1940 revealed that 17 percent of Americans considered Jews to be a threat to America.

The paradox of the rise of a “culture of fear” is that Americans are experiencing day-to-day security measures that have never been equaled in the history of the country. But political discourse, associated with 24-hour news channels, is able to maintain a heightened level of tension around dramatic current events (kidnapping alerts, for example, were more anxiety-provoking during the abduction of Lindbergh’s child, which had already shaped the opinion of the country in 1932). Barry Glassner** confirms that the culture focuses attention on “major threats” to the detriment of “minor threats” of daily life. To take the same example, the abduction of a child is rationally less feared than letting him ride a bike without a helmet. Though the statistics show that there is greater risk of being killed by lightning than by a terrorist, it is not certain that this type of truth is heard in an election campaign. It is the politics of fear, as Mark Vernon said, gambled on an assumption that people cannot bear the uncertainties associated with a risk that is always possible. The question of politics, in this context, is knowing which of the candidates can best deliver “the illusion of control.”

*Editor’s note: The full title of the USA PATRIOT Act is the Uniting and Strengthening America by Providing Appropriate Tools Required to Intercept and Obstruct Terrorism Act of 2001.

**Editor’s note: Glassner’s remarks are quoted from his book “The Culture of Fear: Why Americans Are Afraid of the Wrong Things” (1999).

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