Fear and Loathing in Washington

Few emotions are more powerful than fear. Laughter must be prompted and happiness must be induced, whether by an environment or another person.  But fear—fear can overtake you the way a wave swallows up a sandcastle.  It can consume you in an instant, raise your heartbeat, cause you to set aside rationality, and instantly numb any other senses so that the body may form a response to the fear-inducing stigma.

In nature this has served humans well—it is what has allowed us survive as a species for millennia.  Normally fear subsides when the stimulus vanishes.  Unless, that is, the stimulus is a six-foot-two figure with wispy blonde hair wearing a red tie and white dress shirt bearing down on your from your flat screen. 

For the all the things Donald Trump is not, he is certainly clever – albeit in a very Machiavellian way.  He has tapped into our most primal sensation and kept his foot on the gas, blinding us and denying us the ability to take a step back to rationally analyze the situation.  Because in nature, if you step back to analyze… you’re dead.

The good news is we’ve come a long way from those primordial days.  For the most part we are sitting comfortably on a couch when this fear creeps into our life.  We are in a state where we ought to be able to set fear aside for even the briefest of seconds in order to ask ourselves what kind of danger we are truly in.

In the final Republican debate of 2015, several candidates once again presented the outright fallacy that the fight against ISIL is a clash of civilizations that only ends with one man standing. 

Let’s get something straight: as President Obama said  in his State of the Union address, the United States of America is the single most powerful nation the world has ever seen.  We have more naval power idling domestically than most other nations have en masse.  We can project enormous power to any corner of the globe within a matter of days, if not hours.  ISIL is a band of desert-dwelling ideologues whose most advanced weapon of war is a used Toyota with a gun mounted in the bed.

By contrast, during WWII the United States sacrificed nearly half a million of its sons to defend our way of life in a true clash of civilizations, the advent of Nazism and fascism that was swallowing up Europe.  At this point in the fight against ISIL, the United States is primarily committed to aerial bombardments and to this date has lost one soldier.  In the famous words of John Paul Jones: We have not yet begun to fight.

Yes, self-radicalized individuals within our borders have killed our fellow citizens in dastardly attacks at our strip malls and education centers.  But that is nowhere near what a clash of civilizations looks like.

Which brings us back to the element of fear.  Could you be killed the next time you leave your house by an AR-15 wielding terrorist? Sure.  But you are much more likely to be killed in a car accident, or struck by lightning, or killed by a falling tree. 

It is no more reasonable to ban every refugee or tourist from Syria than it is to deforest our lands, or to build underground bunkers for every time a thunderstorm rolls in.

Despite that rationale, the candidates this election cycle preach that we are as likely to be the next victim of terrorism as we are to be the “millionth user” of that website giving away free laptops.  And it is working.

According to Public Policy Polling, 56% of Americans either believe or are still deciding if Trump is correct in wanting to institute a blanket moratorium on Muslims entering our country.  By this logic we ought to ban white males from our schools.

With all the comforts of modern life, the fear we face is not one of immediate threat, but one of the unknown.  The language of the 2016 election has invoked fear of the “other” and brought out the worst in people, who as David Frum pointed out in the The Atlantic, are “irked” when asked to specify which language they would like to use when they call Comcast. 

These feelings are not new.  They have been simmering beneath the surface of the American psyche since before the ink of the words “all men are created equal” had dried. 

In the 1800s we banned the Chinese.  In the 1940s we interned the Japanese. And throughout that entire time and into the 1960s, we discriminated in every possible way against African Americans.  We – the white man – were afraid that the contributions of others may exceed those of our own, that they may create an environment in which we were not the richest, smartest, or most powerful person in the room.

What is different about today is that politicians—those who by raw definition we entrust to be our leaders—are addressing that fear not to raise the conversation above the din, but rather to lift themselves, propelled by the surge of this rising tide.  

Trump has mastered the ability to add to this wave in a way that a surfer could only dream of.  He has fueled his supporters’ fear while pitching himself as the only sensible savior.  Mexicans are rapists.  Muslims are terrorists. Republican leaders are weaklings.  Democrats will take your guns away.  The insinuation is clear:  This country is slipping away and Trump is the only one who can save you.

The good news in this madness is that the election is still more than 10 months away.  No matter how terrified one is, the ability to keep fear alive over that period of time is a task that even the grandiose and bellicose Donald Trump may have difficulty pulling off. 

At the end of the day, fear will always be surpassed by hope.  Hope may now be a tired promise of elections past, but as the sun rises after a nightmare, the light of hope will always outshine the shadow of fear.  Sometimes that shadow just takes longer to vanish.

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