Hannah Arendt wrote that terror is the foundation of totalitarianism. The regimes of Adolf Hitler and Joseph Stalin bound individuals into a single quivering mass through which terror coursed unhindered. Some say money is the root of all evil. I say fear is a more likely bedrock.
Fear was an important, primal reaction that helped our ancestors survive – and we are all descended from the same; all races can trace their lineages back to the same primate forebears – in a dangerous world. But human collectives have evolved faster than the human mind. The neural circuits that helped primitive humans live, hunt and kill in a thoroughly threatening environment remain within us. In contrast, our globalised society, and all the complexities it holds, has arisen in only a few hundred years – a blink of an eye on the evolutionary timeline. The societal structures that humans have created are constructed in such a way as to enable those seeking power to co-opt an evolutionary instinct for their own ends.
Donald Trump’s electoral success and, as is increasingly apparent, his administration, are founded upon fear. Fear of those who look different, fear of those who think differently. His refugee ban is only further evidence of this.
This transformation of the American presidency, this shift to a man utterly unafraid to deploy fear as a tool in cultivating popular support, only bodes ill. His invocation of fear has tilled the ground for his administration to cite “alternative facts” and to whip segments of the American population into supporting an absurd border wall that will do little to cure the true ills that plague this country. To appropriate the phrase of one particularly spineless congressional leader, Donald Trump, with all his talk of carnage and tombstones, offers naught but “A Darker Way.”
Fear prevents us from thinking rationally. Fear stimulates impulses that we can barely control. Fear makes us think of a singular goal – survival. Rationality wilts and withers in the face of fear.
While fear will harm America, it seems that it is the very tool by which Donald Trump’s advisors – Stephen Bannon chief among them, who this week labelled the press the “opposition party” and instructed it to “keep its mouth shut” – are manipulating their infantile charge into enacting their will. His fear of appearing weak, of lacking a mandate (evident in the idiotic row over his inauguration crowd), his craving for an image as the powerful strongman, as the schoolyard bully, underpin a wider ploy to spread fear among Americans. A fearful man, a puppet on the strings of those with sinister motives, occupies the White House like never before.
By manipulating Trump’s access to information, people like Bannon can paint the world in such a way as to further their own goals. The ill-considered refugee ban – which was so hastily thrown together that even the White House Office of Legal Counsel did not review it – looks to have been penned by a hand at the end of one of Bannon’s strings. And just yesterday Trump appointed Bannon, someone with little to no security or international relations expertise (though I’m sure possessing sufficient Nazi regalia can probably substitute for that, right?), to the National Security Council. Why?
As I’ve written before, I don’t believe Trump possesses the cognitive capacity to make it through his four-year term. His non-existent impulse control, his TV obsession, his inability to use any writing implement that isn’t a Sharpie all suggest the intellectual fortitude of a small child. With Trump unable to keep all the presidential plates spinning, it seems that those who surround him, those who understand him, will use him to pursue their own ends, to the detriment of the American people and America’s standing in the eyes of the world. The refugee ban is only the first beginning.
Under Donald Trump, fear threatens America’s constitutional republic. It threatens to provide a justification for the confiscation of liberties and rights that Americans once held to be self-evident. It also jeopardizes the very structures through which America has secured the international system over the past century and, by extension, secured to more and more people around the world the opportunities to enjoy life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.
One may consider my writing hyperbolic. One can even attack me for deploying precisely the same baseless fear-mongering tactics as the man I profess to despise. I can only hope that it proves so.
Alex Davies is a senior in the College of Arts and Sciences. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Have I Got News For You? appears alternate Tuesdays this semester.