“The only thing we have to fear is…fear itself,” famously said President Franklin Roosevelt, in his first inaugural address on March 4, 1933. “Nameless, unreasoning, unjustified terror,” he continued, “paralyzes needed efforts to convert retreat into advance.”
In 1933, no one could deny America was in trouble. In the wake of the Great Depression there was a lot that needed fixing, and that, FDR knew and said, was going to require national consensus and collective effort. To get there, Roosevelt knew, a nation frightened by the collapse of Wall Street and the economy it served, and the failures of the government elected to serve the people, had to get past its fears.
Fear is a selfish weakness. Fear breeds anxiety to defend territory, family and most of all self. Fear’s goal is survival. Start with that. Let me live. Then, maybe, when it’s safe, you and me, we can build something. When it’s safe.
The only things fear builds are walls, separators that protect through isolation. Otherwise, fearful people don’t invest; they wait, hoarding what they have for more propitious times. Fearful people don’t collaborate, the risk of being hoodwinked by a potential enemy preempts co-operation with a potential friend.
Tribalism is all about fear. Tribes provide protection by extending the frontiers of fear from just one person to a select few. But the principle remains the same: us against them. Defensive separation is the essence of tribalism, bonds that unite a few families or clans to fight off a world of fearful outsiders.
Tribalism has its comforts, but its self-imposed limitations wall off the world. And the world, filled with challenges and surprises, is the only place where growth and progress can occur; where real information and meaningful understanding can be acquired, if fear can be overcome.
Fear is President Donald Trump’s favorite tool. A frightened nation will endorse anything that helps it survive. Tariffs, he says, aren’t about bullying for trade advantage, but national security. Cheaper BMWs are a mortal threat to you and me. Selective enforcement of immigration laws to suppress Muslims may betray the ideals of the Statue of Liberty or the first proscription of the First Amendment, but terrorism is so scary! And of course, the biggest of the big fears — of immigrants, of outsiders breaching our borders and penetrating the very fiber of our society. They are rapists, drug dealers, gangstas, he says,…fear them, fight them, keep them out, build that wall. Then America can be great again. After it changes its underwear.
Trumpism and its endless flogging of fear go on trial November 6, and for the President and his frighteners to the win the verdict of voters will require them to continue bleating their anxieties till the last polling place turns off its voting machines.
Nina Burleigh is Newsweek’s National Politics Correspondent. She is an award-winning journalist and the author of five books. Her last book, The Fatal Gift of Beauty: The Trials of Amanda Knox, was a New York Times bestseller. In the last several years, she has covered a wide array of subjects, from American politics to the Arab Spring. Her new book, Golden Handcuffs: The Secret History of Trump’s Women will be published October 16.