Here’s what I’m afraid of. While fear has always been a tool of the vested interests to retain power, make money, and keep us under control, things may be slipping off the rails. The basic political post-war strategy of the United States power block has metastasized. The old fears deployed — the Commies, the Terrorists — were reliably a fire only a few key people could easily feed fuel into, or cool down, as needed. There was an element of control, evil and insidious, but one that maintained a balance. After all, you want enough fear to make people compliant but no so much that they end up chasing each other with pitchforks. Or driving cars through crowds of protesters.
It is too easy now for too many people to put fuel into the fire. The establishment media, which once thrived on trading information for viewers, now trades on promoting anxiety. Confirmations of our fears no longer show up in scratchy black and white only when the president addresses the nation. They rocket 24/7, unfiltered and unfettered, tailored to match what scares us most. Then we retweet them to like-minded others, to validate our fears and form bonded communities. These are deep waters; imagine an episode of Black Mirror where a device that algorithmically learns your deepest fears falls into the wrong hands.
There’s a history to all this. We first got really scared just as we were emerging as the predominant power on the planet, armed with the world’s only atomic bomb. It seems an odd set of circumstances to have been frightened in, more like one where we would have sat back and enjoyed ourselves. Yet we near-demanded a succession of presidents build the most massive national security state ever known to make us feel safe.
We were instructed to be afraid of all sorts of stuff — communists in government and Hollywood, domino theories, revolutionary movements, a whole basket of Bond villains. Those who supported peace were labeled as working for the enemy. Pretty much anything the people in charge wanted to do — distort civil liberties, raise taxes to pay for weapons, overthrow governments, punish Americans for things they wrote or said — was widely supported because we were afraid what might happen otherwise. Most people now realize the fear was overblown. Almost every American who died from the Cold War died in a fight we picked, inflamed, or dove blindly into. Cancer and car accidents took more lives than Dr. Strangelove. Fear justified terrible actions in our name.
Then we got really scared following September 11, 2001, more than we ever were of the Russians. The terrorists lived among us. They were controlled by masterminds, simultaneously unpredictable and devious plotters playing the long game. They could turn our children into jihadis via MySpace. Pretty much anything the people in charge wanted to do — distort civil liberties, raise taxes to pay for weapons, overthrow governments, punish Americans for things they wrote or said — was widely supported because we were afraid what might happen otherwise. Some people now realize the fear was overblown. Diabetes and ladder falls took more lives than Bin Laden.
For a long time we’ve been acting like a shelter dog when the Bad Man comes into the room. The difference is that we were mostly afraid of the same thing, a mass driven by anxiety more or less in the same direction, a straight line that could not be anything but purposeful.
The nasty twist for 2018 is we live in a world of mainstream media with barely screened ideological bias, backed up by social media of barely contained mental stability. At the same time, we are ever more diverse and equally ever more separated, divided into a thousand incommunicado sub-reddits. It isn’t practical anymore for us to have common fears.
Fear is powerful. A sound triggers a memory that sets off involuntary, subconscious processes: the heart rate jumps, muscles twitch, higher brain functions switch to fight-or-flight. Exist in this state long enough and you end up with Post Traumatic Stress Syndrome, the inability to control your reaction to certain stimuli. Imagine a whole country that way trying to make good decisions, where fear trumps rational thinking.
Looking at a blog post from a few years ago about what we were afraid of then, there are some familiar names. Putin was going on to invade Europe and Kim Jong Un was going to start a war over a Seth Rogin comedy called The Interview. But there were no mainstream claims the president was unfit at his core; people who feared that were pushed aside as conspiracy theorists, crazy themselves, and made fun of as “birthers.” There was no widespread anxiety democracy was teetering; people who talked about coups and the Reichstag burning were mocked on reality TV as preppers. There was a kind of consensus on what to be afraid of we subscribed to in various degrees of earnestness.
Now there is a fear for everyone. We’re afraid Trump’ll start a war with North Korea (Kim is the sane one). We’re also afraid he won’t start a war and they’ll get us first (Kim is the crazy one.) We’re afraid Trump’s a Russian spy slipped into the White House (end of democracy) and we’re afraid the Democrats are using Mueller to overturn a legitimate election (end of democracy.) We’re worried the fascist government is taking away free speech and we’re worried the government isn’t doing enough to suppress free speech to stop hate. There are too many guns for us to be safe and not enough guns to protect us. Elect more women or women’s rights are finished. If we do elect more women (or POC, LGBTQ) the rest of us are finished.
Bad things no longer just don’t happen, they just haven’t happened yet, and there is never a time when we can exhale. So while the story used to be the tamping down of tensions on the Korean peninsula, the headline now is a mentally ill Trump might just push the nuclear button anyway, maybe even tonight (better check Twitter.) Whatever matters to you — transgender toilet rights, abortion, guns, religion — is under lethal attack and you are not just to help decide how we live in a plurality, but to determine whether we survive at all. It is always condition yellow, fight or flight. Fear is primitive; it doesn’t matter what we fear, as long as we remain afraid.
Trump is not the demagogue you fear, just a cruder version of what has been the norm for decades. The thing to be scared of is what emerges after him. As such, there is still time. His bizarre ascension to the world’s most powerful office could become the argumentum ad absurdum that pulls the curtain back, Oz-like, on the way fear has been used to manipulate us. The risk is Trump may also represent a wake up call of a different sort, to even worse and much smarter people, who will see the potential to cross the line from manipulation into exploitation (the real burning of the Reichstag scenario), from gross but recognizable stasis into chaos.
Frightened enough, people will accept, if not demand, extreme and dangerous solutions to problems whose true direness exists mostly within their anxieties — remember the way fear of invasion following Pearl Harbor led us to unlawfully imprison American citizen shopkeepers and farmers of Japanese origin? Now that’s something to really be afraid of.
Peter Van Buren, a 24 year State Department veteran, is the author of We Meant Well: How I Helped Lose the Battle for the Hearts and Minds of the Iraqi People and Hooper’s War: A Novel of WWII Japan. @WeMeantWell