For our times we can update Samuel Johnson’s famous remark about patriotism: fear is the last refuge of a scoundrel.
If historians were looking for a label to characterize the dominant theme in our public discourse these days they could do no better than call it “The Age of Fear.” It may be true that crime rates in most parts of the country have generally fallen, and that the chances of being the victim of terrorist attack are less likely than getting struck by lightning. Nonetheless, we live in an age where too many voices in our political and news-gathering systems depend on fear as their most reliable theme. Acts of terrorism like the recent attack in Manchester England are sufficient for cable news networks, among others, to go into narrow and repetitive coverage. Jerky cell phone videos add all of the video they need to endlessly mull the imagined ghosts in the room, with the added effect of overstated conclusions that we are not safe and terrorism is rampant.
The same thread is endlessly recycled by the President, who uses much of his public rhetoric to focus on threats allegedly coming from undocumented immigrants, Syrian refugees, Muslim extremists, Mexican drug smugglers, Chinese banks, Australia, Germany, to mention just a few from his long list. We learned that we were in for a three-alarm Presidency when Donald Trump broke tradition in his inaugural address to rehash warnings that were endlessly recycled to his followers on the campaign trail. He talked of the “American carnage” of too few jobs, insecure borders, abuse at the hands of our allies and more. The speech was significantly out of the norm: less a ritual celebration of the transfer of presidential power than a victim’s list of grievances against others. And it surely resonated then as it does now with too many Americans with who have little patience to deal with the complexities of modern life. They do not know that the world is generally more understandable and actually less threatening if understood in 2000-word clarifications rather than 20-word rants.
Because we are hardwired first for survival, we look for threats before opportunities; self-preservation before self-actualization.
We can update Samuel Johnson’s famous remark about patriotism and reset it in our times: fear is the last refuge of a scoundrel. It’s easy if not responsible for a demagogue to conjure malevolent ghosts in our midst. This is the rhetorical thread that connects figures from the margins of our civil life as diverse as “Pitchfork Ben” Tillman, Huey Long, Joe McCarthy, George Wallace and any number of public figures who built a political base by motivating concerns about “Them.” Using this thread usually provides an unearned advantage. Those nameless others inside and beyond our borders are almost always portrayed as immoral, unclean or dangerously powerful. The irony is that most Americans have no right to claim a nativist ideology. Our ancestors came from somewhere else. Even so, it thrives.
Fear appeals gain a natural advantage from the human impulse to fantasize about what we do not fully know or understand. Fear always builds from the predicate of potential harm we can imagine. Because we are creatures hardwired first for survival, we look for threats before opportunities; self-preservation before self-actualization. As any lover of film-noir knows, another person’s shadow is all we need to envision the worst. It follows that verbalizing threats against survival is easily rewarded. The beneficiaries may be political scoundrels, cable news companies, and various agents who have seemingly simple solutions to sell: everything from home security alarms to firearms to grotesque projects like a massive border wall.