Fear Was the Path That Trump Took to the White House

(Photo: Jupiterimages / Getty Images)(Photo: Jupiterimages / Getty Images)

The following are two excerpts from Jumping at Shadows: The Triumph of Fear and the End of the American Dream, including indications of how fear paved the path to a Trump presidency.

In 1964, Richard Hofstadter published The Paranoid Style in American Politics. In it, he detailed how American politics had, over the generations, produced a discouraging number of profoundly paranoiac movements and individuals. The paranoid style, Hofstadter believed, brought in its wake a self-contained worldview: history didn’t just sometimes generate conspiracies — plots, say, such as that which led to Julius Caesar’s assassination, or the secret gatherings of revolutionary agents in 1848 Vienna or pre-1917 Russia — but was actually at a core level shaped by conspiracy. In such a world, conspiracy became the driving force behind all of the vast political, economic, and cultural changes shaping modernity.

Thus, in the decade after the end of the Second World War and the onset of the Cold War with the Soviet Union, for the John Birch Society any and every change was the product of an international Communist conspiracy, one that roped in not just the usual lefty suspects on campuses and in art circles but even senior Republican Party figures. Birch Society founder Robert Welch went so far as to name President Eisenhower as being a part of this conspiracy. In the best-selling book None Dare Call It Treason, the author John Stormer asserted that the US Congress was complicit in a planned Communist takeover of the United States. Senator Joseph McCarthy talked ominously about Communists infiltrating the top levels of government, academia, and media. The House Un-American Activities Committee held hearings to root suspected leftists out of their positions as producers of popular culture in Hollywood.

“Political fear,” wrote the political scientist Corey Robin, in his 2004 book Fear: The History of a Political Idea, “depended upon illusion, where danger was magnified, even exaggerated, by the state. Because the dangers of life were many tand various, because the subjects of the state did not naturally fear those dangers the state deemed worth fearing, the state had to choose people’s objects of fear. It had to persuade people, through a necessary but subtle distortion, to fear certain objects over others.”

Fear has, at various moments in history and in various countries around the globe, come to occupy a disproportionately large role in shaping cultures and polities. In fourteenth-century Europe, for example, as the bubonic plague swept through countries, killing a vast proportion of the population, local leaders whipped up mobs against scapegoat populations: Jews, lepers, and purported witches were tortured and killed by the thousands, as populaces sought an explanation for the calamity that was befalling them. Not having a germ theory of disease, they looked to Satanic dealings, conspiracies of poisoners, outsiders seeking to pollute and contaminate the communities in which, however precariously, they lived. Albinos in parts of Africa have long been hunted down and killed by neighbors terrified of the dark forces they supposedly represent. Six hundred years after thousands of Jews were burned to death in towns throughout the Germanic lands, paranoiac, barbarous, totalitarian regimes in Germany and in the Soviet Union unleashed the unspeakable horrors of religious Holocausts and forced famines against populations they feared were undermining the coherence of the state. Fear of racial “contamination” led to the abominable regimes of Apartheid South Africa and, in the United States, the Jim Crow South. Fear of spreading Communism was used to justify the bloodthirsty actions of military juntas from Indonesia to Honduras, Chile to Greece.

A generation after Hofstadter highlighted the role of the paranoid style in American politics, and decades after the state had marshaled its full resources to teach Americans to fear anything and everything even vaguely linked to Communism, in the 1990s the sociologist Barry Glassner wrote a book titled The Culture of Fear. Glassner’s premise was simple: increasingly, we were fearing things that really oughtn’t cause us great alarm, and that fear was one of the few common, shared experiences that tens of millions of Americans could relate to. Fear was, as the seventeenth-century political philosopher Thomas Hobbes had predicted it would be, the glue binding the various institutions and individuals contained within the modern state together. It was a foundation on which entire political and cultural projects were being built; on which the worldviews of countless individuals rested. A problem that Hofstadter had located in the realm of politics, and one that had, generally, been kept to the fringes of the political process, had, now, spread into the broader realm of mass culture, affecting daily decisions and individual priorities at least as much as it influenced national political choices.

A generation on, again that culture of fear has flowered. What Glassner glimpsed as something in embryo is now ripening, or metastasizing, into maturity. There are companies that market bullet-proof backpacks for children, so that their parents can send them off to school with slightly more confidence that, if they were caught up in a school shooting, they would escape unhurt. There are anti-ebola hygiene kits marketed to suburban American families. There are tiny, waterproof GPS tracking devices that go into kids’ bags and allow parents to track exactly where their young children — children too young to carry smartphones—are at every minute of every day, the nuts and bolts of a surveillance systems now so omnipresent that, were George Orwell himself, creator of the modern dystopia 1984, to be resurrected he would surely keel over again in shock at the extent to which his nightmares had been realized and even improved on.


In December 2015, researchers at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, had sampled 1,800 voters about their political preferences. They found that the more a person defined themselves as authoritarian and the more fearful they were of terrorism were the two best predictors as to whom they would vote for. Forty-three percent of Republicans, they found, considered themselves to be strongly authoritarian in inclination. Those men and women were more likely to be Trump supporters. Fear of terrorism also pushed people who didn’t always consider themselves as authoritarians down that road as well. “Take activated authoritarians from across the partisan spectrum and the growing cadre of threatened non-authoritarians, then add them to the base of Republican general election voters, and the potential electoral path to a Trump presidency becomes clearer,” the study’s architect, Matthew MacWilliams, wrote in Politico. “From pledging to ‘make America great again’ by building a wall on the border to promising to close mosques and ban Muslims from visiting the United States, Trump is playing directly to authoritarian inclinations.”

Copyright (2017) by Sasha Abramsky. Not to be reposted without the permission of Nation Books, an imprint of the Hachette Book Group.