As reports flow in of raids and roundups of immigrants in the name of public safety and law and order, let’s pause to talk about fear—that most primal of human emotions, the one President Donald Trump seems determined to stir up in the breast of the American psyche. It is an effort that in my mind is so quintessentially un-American that it is destined to fail. Or at least I hope it fails… but even if it does, so much havoc and sadness will be wrought. It has already begun.
We are prone to fear for a reason. Fear of danger can keep you alive. But fear is a fickle beast that can distort and damage as much as protect. Fear prevents exploration, undermines growth and can poison society. Fear can be a great motivator, but also can be a great destroyer. Leadership decisions based on fear among a people seized by fear can lead to the decline and fall of nations. This has been known since at least the time of the ancient Egyptians and Greeks.
Mr. Trump is using fear of terrorism and lawlessness—real and legitimate fears—to advocate hurried, massive, radical changes to our immigration policy, indeed to our very self-identity. It was this fear, and the President’s methods for trying to use it, that the Appeals Court recently struck down, using our Constitution as a bulwark for their ruling, just the kind of check on power our Founding Fathers envisioned.
Those who founded our great nation were not fearful people. They literally put their lives on the line in the service of freedom. Those pioneers who forged into the frontier were not fearful people. Neither were those who fought to safeguard our liberty on foreign battlefields. Or those who marched for civil rights, facing down bigotry, dogs, and firehoses. For sure, many individuals felt personal terror – but the movements that made our country what it is today was built on improbable hope, courage that conquered fear.
Every American president I can think of relied on the rhetoric of hope more than fear – until now. Yes Franklin Roosevelt famously said in his First Inaugural Address, “the only thing we have to fear is fear itself.” But you will find that spirit echoed in the speeches of those who followed.
To be sure, many demagogues in our past – including elected officials – have paved their path to power on fear. Race was a favorite target – but also religion, gender, sexuality, country of origin, social status and so many more. The purpose of these campaigns of fear was to divide America, not to solve our problems.
And that is just what is happening now. If we were to better calibrate our fears to our challenges, we would also be talking about the threat of homegrown extremists such as Nazi-inspired White Nationalists and the Klan, about gun violence, climate change, antibiotic resistance, Russian interference in our election, and so on. There are many important topics about which to worry. Terrorism spawned by violent, extreme Islamists is on that list. Rational, well-thought out, organized and Constitutional adjustments in policy to deal with it may be advisable. But it is not the only threat we face – far from it.
And when you add the fear-mongering Mr. Trump has done around immigration (especially of the undocumented or illegal variety, depending on your point of view), or these supposedly gang-ridden cities, or the fake high murder rate, it is plain what is going on. Mr. Trump is playing to his base, with lies and half-truths that seek only to further his political ends. While he attempts to ignite new levels of fear in what he hopes will be a majority of Americans, he shows no regard for the fear struck in the minorities most affected. For example, the fear he is stirring in men, women, and children who are living in this country as peaceful and contributing members of society but without legal status. Again, for clarity, this problem of good people without legal status needs to be address. But not with sudden roundups and raids that are designed to spread fear.
I think – I fervently hope – that these tactics and the whole strategy of fear-mongering will fail over time. Our history argues that, in America, the pendulum almost invariably swings back to common sense and tolerance after the fever breaks. But in the meantime, much damage can be done. In the present case, lives have already been broken. Anxiety and unease—and yes, downright fear—seeps into if not sweeps over so many.
But as I’ve said before, and I believe bears repeating: courage is being afraid but going on anyhow.