Fear is in the air, and fear is surging. Americans are more afraid today than they have been in a long time: Polls show majorities of Americans worried about being victims of terrorism and crime, numbers that have surged over the past year to highs not seen for more than a decade. Every week seems to bring a new large- or small-scale terrorist attack, at home or abroad. Mass shootings form a constant drumbeat. Protests have shut down large cities repeatedly, and some have turned violent. Overall crime rates may be down, but a sense of disorder is constant.
Fear pervades Americans’ lives — and American politics. Trump is a master of fear, invoking it in concrete and abstract ways, summoning and validating it. More than most politicians, he grasps and channels the fear coursing through the electorate. And if Trump still stands a chance to win in November, fear could be the key.
Fear and anger are often cited in tandem as the sources of Trump’s particular political appeal, so frequently paired that they become a refrain: fear-and-anger, anger-and-fear. But fear is not the same as anger; it is a unique political force. Its ebbs and flows through American political history have pulled on elections, reordering and destabilizing the electoral landscape.
This week, Trump delivered a speech on immigration that depicted outsiders as a frightening threat. “Countless innocent American lives have been stolen because our politicians have failed in their duty to secure our borders,” he said. His acceptance speech at the Republican National Convention similarly made clear the extent to which his message revolves around fear. “The attacks on our police, and the terrorism in our cities, threaten our very way of life,” Trump thundered. “Any politician who does not grasp this danger is not fit to lead our country. Americans watching this address tonight have seen the recent images of violence in our streets and the chaos in our communities. Many have witnessed this violence personally; some have even been its victims.”
Notes of uplift were few and far between in the convention speech, and commentators were duly shocked by its dark tone. (The conservative writer Reed Galen called Trump’s convention “a fear-fueled acid trip.”) Trump summons fear in the conventional way, by describing in concrete terms the threats Americans face. But he also, in a more unusual maneuver, summons fear in the abstract: There’s something going on, folks. [Continue reading…]