Trump, GOP Exploit Fear
Tony Schwartz, Donald Trump’s ghostwriter for “The Art of the Deal,” knows him very well. He has an article up in The Guardian describing how Trump is driven by fear and exploits fear in others.
Fear is the hidden through-line in Trump’s life – fear of weakness, of inadequacy, of failure, of criticism and of insignificance. He has spent his life trying to outrun these fears by “winning” – as he puts it – and by redefining reality whenever the facts don’t serve the narrative he seeks to create. It hasn’t worked, but not for lack of effort.
In his first year in office, Trump has lambasted any facts he dislikes as “fake news”, while making nearly 2,000 false or misleading claims of his own – more than five a day. In a single half-hour interview with the New York Times in late December, he made 24 such claims. This is the very definition of gaslighting – lying until you get people to doubt their own reality – and it is both frightening and disturbing. Because the office Trump now occupies makes him the most powerful man on Earth, his fears, and the way he manages them, have necessarily become ours.
We fear Trump because he is impulsive, irrational and self-serving, but above all because he seems unconstrained by even the faintest hint of conscience. Trump feels no more shame over his most destructive behaviours than a male lion does killing the cubs of his predecessor when he takes over a pride.
Trump did not invent exploiting fear for political gain. The Republican party has been stoking the fear and resentment of voters to rally support for essentially unpopular policies (tax cuts for the wealthy, rolling back consumer protections, militaristic foreign policy) since Nixon’s “Southern Strategy.” Trump is both the logical result and an amplifier of decades old trends in GOP politics.
Take a look at Fox News with the sound off. Notice the bright, glaring colors. See the eye candy on-air “talent.” Take in the quick camera cuts, sound bite editing and sheer amount of visual stimulus (a constant “crawl” of content at the bottom, time, ads and stock quotes in the corners). BUSY!
Combine all of that stimulation with alarmist, often anger/fear stoking content and the preferred state of the viewer is clear. Fox wants its viewers riled up. So do Trump and the Republican Party.
Trump has made fear the dominant emotion of our times. This, I believe, is his primary impact on the body politic after a year in office. He began his campaign by describing immigrant Mexicans as rapists, Muslims as terrorists, and more recently all black and brown people, and entire countries, as inferior. Trump skilfully exploited the fears of supporters who felt powerless and disenfranchised by presenting himself as their angry champion, even though the policies he has since pursued are likely to make their lives worse.
About the only thing Trump truly has in common with his base is that he feels every bit as aggrieved as they do, despite his endless privilege. No amount of money, fame or power has been enough to win him the respect he so insatiably craves. His anger over this perceived injustice is visceral and authentic. Trump’s unwinding of government programmes such as Barack Obama’s Affordable Care Act will fuel yet more fear among the millions of people will lose their health care in the year ahead. The tax plan Trump pushed through most benefits him, his family and his fellow billionaires and provides the least relief to those who need it most. In both cases, the victims of these policies will include millions of his supporters who may find someone else to blame, but whose suffering will inexorably increase.
In the face of fear, it is a physiological fact that our most primitive and selfish instincts emerge. Control of our behaviour shifts from the prefrontal cortex to the emotionally driven amygdala – sometimes referred to as “fear central”. As we move into fight-or-flight mode, we become more self-centred, and our vision narrows to the perceived threat, which in the modern world is less to our survival than to our sense of value and worthiness. We lose the capacity for empathy, rationality, proportionality and attention to the longer-term consequences of our actions.
This is the reactive state Trump has tapped into with his followers and which he has prompted in his opponents. It serves none of us well. Think for a moment about the immense difference between how you feel and behave at your best and your worst. It is when we feel safest and most secure that we think most clearly and expansively. It’s also when we are most inclined to look beyond our self-interest, and to act with compassion, generosity, consideration and forgiveness.
Trump and his Republican enablers will never be talked or reasoned out of this madness. The only route to making our politics more that of “compassion, generosity, consideration and forgiveness”–in short, sanity–is their defeat at the polls in November. Democratic campaigns are beginning canvassing and phone banking now to identify, contact, motivate and get our voters to the polls.
Let’s do this.
Cross-posted from The Sensible Center