Trump And Republicans Tell Voters: The Only Thing You Have To Fear Is Everything
The GOP, French National Front, German AfD, and every other far-right populist movement have the same thing in common. At their core, they’re all high priests of fear.
When French presidential candidate Emmanuel Macron sat down to debate Kremlin-backed populist Marine LePen, he quipped “I’m sitting across from the High Priestess of Fear.” It was a perfect summation of both LePen’s platform, and the rhetoric of every far-right movement in the West, so the pithy mock honorific stuck. Macron went on to receive nearly twice the popular votes his opponent did, decisively winning the presidency despite WikiLeaks’ and hackers’ best efforts to derail him. And while his title for LePen may have been more or less forgotten, it gives us a great deal of insight into the minds and political culture of the Western right, especially in light of Republicans’ midterm messaging, and deserves to be revisited.
As Vox’s Dylan Scott explains, after nearly two years in charge of basically everything, the GOP can only point to a massive, unnecessary tax cut that’s going to send the deficit skyrocketing, and nominating judges to fight their culture war battles while gutting workers’ rights. But the tax cuts have been losing already tepid popular support since the beginning of the year, and voters haven’t noticed the meager increases in their paychecks, so the only thing Republicans have left to run on are culture war issues. In other words, fear and conspiracy theories, which in the GOP world are basically one and the same as illustrated by President Donald Trump’s recent warning to religious leaders that the nefarious forces of the left will “very quickly and violently” overturn everything he’s doing.
Crime across the country may be at its lowest in a quarter century. Illegal border crossings in 2016, the year Trump hyperventilated about a supposedly unprecedented flood of evildoers into the country, might have been at 40-some year lows and on a significant downward trend since their peak around 2000. Legal immigrants may be assimilating quite well and netting American taxpayers a profit. But none of that matters to the perpetually outraged and threatened right. Seeing darker skinned people who may exchange a few words in a different language while they pick out apples at a grocery store has become #WhiteGenocide, resulting in videos of angry xenophobes berating immigrants or their children going viral almost weekly.
The sun never shines in Republican Land because the Satanic Reptilian Pedophile Muslim Illuminati Deep State is out to get them with MS-13 shock troops surging past our unguarded borders, and if they don’t vote for Republicans, the country will instantly crumble under a wave of violence and oppression that has never happened before and has absolutely no basis for happening in the future, since every indicator of a looming crisis with crime, immigration, and public attitudes is pointing in very much the opposite direction.
But today’s GOP has no use for statistics and facts, only fears from more than half a century of hyperventilating chain letters, then emails, about dire, impending threats to America, reliably ending in a plea for money to fund another think tank or buy a book selling more apocalyptic visions of the future. It’s a vicious and profitable cycle that the right has chosen to embrace. It’s lucrative for those producing the hysterical pulp, and it got voters to the polls, overriding their concerns about far more pedestrian issues.
With the base huddled around the conspiracy and fear-mongering Fox News and Breitbart, that fear is really the only thing they can run on and expect to win because nearly all of their policies are widely reviled by the majority of the public. This may be in part why GOP lawmakers in the House are trying to threaten tech companies into cramming more conspiracy theories down their users’ throats. After all, fear is what animates their base. Fear of change. Fear of competition. Fear of being made obsolete by machinery. Fear that they’ll lose their supremacy and control over the national dialogue. Fear that there will be consequences for disparaging their fellow citizens as lesser humans. This is why the Nazi marchers in Charlottesville chanted about not being replaced with such fervor.
Because time is a function of entropy, it keeps marching on, and change is creeping into the cozy little enclaves the Western right built for themselves. Whether it’s due to generational differences, automation, or, yes, climate change, their world is being reshaped, and they really don’t like it. And instead of offering solutions on how to cope with the change and harness it for a productive future, as well as how to deal with obvious bumps in the road, the politicians they favor take the easy way out. They preach gloom and doom with the same zeal as preachers painting lurid visions of Hell and promise that faith in them will restore “the proper order” and stop all this evil change.
They grow stronger as their followers come and worship at the altar of fear while they deliver their sermons, but the fundamental truth is that past that fear, they have nothing. Should they lose the battle with automation, time, climate change, and other forces far beyond their control, they will scapegoat and shirk responsibility. The best they can do is delay them by a few years or keep trudging on despite the obvious and painful consequences. Embracing new ways of thinking and working is not an option you can just decline. Change will come for you sooner or later and fearing it does nothing more than set you up to be steamrolled by it as you surrender control to your gut feelings. Making it work in your favor with tough choices and education is how you survive it and thrive.
In embracing their despair, the right is choosing to surrender control and live their lives in a mental prison of their own making, ripe for exploitation by charlatans, snake oil salespeople, and kleptocrats who see easy marks and an almost effortless path to power. President Donald Trump’s platform is the same as the platform of every populist right movement. Surrender to your fear. Vote for us. We alone can fix it. And if we can’t, it’s not our fault because there’s a sinister conspiracy against us. Come worship with us at the Temple of Panic while we continue to terrify you out of your wits. Why? Because we know you’ll keep on voting for us as long as we can find something to scare you.
Fear is also one of the reasons why geopolitics is such a mess right now. The world’s three most influential powers, the United States, China, and Russia, are being steered by petty old men who believe the world is a zero sum game and in order to win, someone must lose. The idea of mutually beneficial agreements does not exist in their minds, nor do alliances based on something more than immediate material gain. Trapped in this mindset, every negotiation they begin is inherently in bad faith because they’re afraid that if someone else doesn’t lose at the end of the day, they’re the ones who did. Is it any wonder we’re struggling to maintain what in diplomat-speak is known as a rules-based, mutually beneficial order?
The nations currently best positioned to maintain it are effectively saboteurs at these summits instead of wielding their powers wisely. And unless they change course, others may take is as a challenge to replace them as the world’s power brokers and finally get things done. This is why rejecting far-right populism is more than just standing up to racism and bigotry. It’s refusing to cower from the challenges the world throws at you and pretending that if you ignore them, find someone to blame, or play short-sighted little games to settle petty scores instead of coming up with real solutions, all the problems coming at you now or looming over the horizon will just disappear or resolve themselves. You’ll only hurt yourself in the process.
We have to embrace that the only way to fix what ails us is to roll up our sleeves, get to work, dream big, and live without fear of imaginary concerns given to the fearful as useful distractions from real issues. We cannot prostrate ourselves before the high priests of fear and aid in our own stagnation and decline. They won’t help us build a better future. That’s a job only taken on by those who aren’t afraid to do things differently and refuse to find excuses for doubling down on failed and outdated ideas, the people whose only fear is cowards dragging us backward in the face of inevitable change.