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Donald Trump and the Politics of Fear

Trumps candidacy relies on the power of fear. It could be the only way for him
to win.

Vlue / Shutterstock / Joe Raedle / Getty / Zak Bickel / The Atlantic


SEP 2, 2016 | POLITICS

eople are scared, Donald Trump said recently, and he was not wrong.

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 livesand 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.

ear and anger are often cited in tandem as the sources of Trumps
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 ows through American political
history have pulled on elections, reordering and destabilizing the electoral

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 t 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 Trumps 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: Theres something going on, folks.

The critics who accuse Trump of cheap fear-mongering may be failing to

recognize that the fear percolating in society is real, and somewhat justied;
politicians who fail to validate it risk falling out of step with the zeitgeist. They
are likely right, however, that ratcheting up fear helps Trump. This is the way
fear works, according to social scientists: It makes people hold more tightly to
what they have and regard the unfamiliar more warily. It makes them want to be
protected. The fear reaction is a universal one to which everyone is susceptible. It
might even be the only way Trump could win.

If the normal categories hold in this electionthe patterns of turnout, the states
in play, the partisan and demographic dividesit is almost impossible for Trump
to prevail. The current polls show him losing in just such a predictable way,
dogged by his oenses against various groups. But fear, history shows, has the
power to jar voters out of their normal categories.

Trump paints a fearful picture, and events validate his vision. This is what
happened in the Republican primary: When back-to-back terror attacks hit Paris
in November and San Bernardino in December, he pointed to them as proof that
his warnings about Muslims were justied, and voters ocked to him, boosting
and solidifying his polling lead in the nal stretch before primary voting began.
Trumps standing in the polls rose about 7 percentage points in the aftermath of
the attacks, buoying him to the level it would take to win primary contests.

Now, Trump is again leaning into voters unease. So far, it doesnt seem to be
working, but events could yet change the equation; this is why many pundits and
political scientists believe a large-scale terrorist attack on the eve of the election
would redound to Trumps electoral favorby validating the fearful vision he has
You know what, darling? Youre not going to be scared
anymore. Theyre going to be scared.

Trump supporters, recent polling has shown, are disproportionately fearful.

They fear crime and terror far more than other Americans; they are also
disproportionately wary of foreign inuence and social change. (They are not,
however, any more likely than other Americans to express economic anxiety.)

I used to y a lot, but now I dont get on an airplane unless I have to, Pat
Garverick, a retired tech worker, told me at a recent Trump rally in Northern
Virginia. Theres that little voice in the back of your head that says, Is this safe?
I try to stay away from crowds. There are so many people trying to hurt us or stir
up violence.

Not all the Trump supporters I have asked in recent months say they feel afraid.
One woman told me, Im not scared; Im pissed o. Others cited less
immediate fears: They say they are afraid for their country or their childrens
future. But many cited a visceral sense of insecurity. I am terried, conded
Jonnianne Ridzelski, who I met at a Trump rally in Alabama in April. She had,
she said, been making preparations for disaster, including stocking up on canned

What, exactly, was she afraid of? She couldnt say, and that was perhaps the most
frightening thing of all. I dont know whats going to happen, she said.

While anger makes people aggressive, prone to lash out, fear makes them cower
from the unfamiliar and seek refuge and comfort. Trump channels peoples
anger, but he salves their fear with promises of protection, toughness, strength.
It is a feedback loop: He stirs up peoples latent fears, then oers himself as the
only solution.

Frightened people come to Trump for reassurance, and he promises to make

them feel safe. Im scared, a 12-year-old girl told the candidate at a rally in
North Carolina in December. What are you going to do to protect this country?

You know what, darling? Trump replied. Youre not going to be scared
anymore. Theyre going to be scared.

o the seasoned political practitioner, fear is a handy tool. Fear is
easy, Rick Wilson, a Florida-based Republican ad maker, told me
recently. Fear is the simplest emotion to tweak in a campaign ad. You
associate your opponent with terror, with fear, with crime, with causing pain and

Wilson has plenty of experience. In 2002, he made a commercial that criticized

Democratic Senator Max Cleland, who had lost three limbs in Vietnam, while
showing images of Saddam Hussein and Osama bin Laden. In 2008, Wilson
made ads attacking Barack Obama by showing the incendiary statements of his
former pastor, Jeremiah Wright. I wanted to scare the living shit out of white
people in Pennsylvania and Ohio, Wilson said. Today, they would all be
Trump voters, Im sure.

Fear-based appeals hit people on a primitive level, Wilson said. When people
are under stress, the hind brain takes over, he said. Trump, Wilson believes, has
expertly manipulated many peoples latent fear of the other. Fear of Mexicans,
fear of the Chinese, fear of African AmericansDonald Trump has very
deliberately stoked it and inamed it and made it a centerpiece of his
campaign, he told me.

A majority of Americans now worry that they or their families will be victims of
terrorism, up from a third less than two years ago, according to a survey by the
Public Religion Research Institute. Nearly two-thirds worry about being victims
of violent crime. Another poll, by Gallup, found that concern about crime and
violence is at its highest level in 15 years.
Trump supporters are more concerned than most. According to data provided by
the Public Religion Research Institute, 65 percent of Trump supporters feared
being victims of terrorism, versus 51 percent of all Americans. Three-fourths of
Trump supporters feared being victims of crime, versus 63 percent overall.
Trump supporters also disproportionately feared foreign inuence: 83 percent
said the American way of life needed to be protected from it, versus 55 percent
overall. Two-thirds of Trump supporters also worried that they or a family
member would become unemployed, but this was not much dierent than the
63 percent of non-Trump supporters who had the same concern. Economic
anxiety, while widespread in America today, is not a distinguishing characteristic
of Trump supporters; other anxieties are.

Trumps audience of conservative-leaning voters may be particularly susceptible

to fear-based appeals. Researchers have found that those who are more sensitive
to threats and more wary of the unfamiliar tend to be more politically
conservative. The common basis for all the various components of the
conservative attitude syndrome is a generalized susceptibility to experiencing
threat or anxiety in the face of uncertainty, the British psychologist G.D. Wilson
wrote in his 1973 book, The Psycholog y of Conservatism. In other words, an
innate fear of uncertainty tends to correlate to peoples level of conservatism.

Subsequent experiments have conrmed this idea. In a 2003 paper reviewing

ve decades of research across 12 dierent countries, the psychologist John Jost
and his collaborators found the psychological management of uncertainty and
fear to be strongly and consistently correlated with politically conservative
attitudes. (This fear of threat, however, is not the same as anxiety in the sense
of neuroticism, which correlates strongly with liberal political attitudes.)

In study after study, the characteristic most predictive of a persons political

leanings is his or her tolerance for ambiguity. The more intolerant of ambiguity
you arethe more you seek control over your surroundings, certainty, clear
answers to thingsthe more you tend toward conservative preferences, Anat
Shenker, a liberal communications consultant and cognitive linguistics
researcher, told me.

Peoples concern about terror was a very good predictor

of their voting habits.

But it is not only conservatives who are susceptible to fear. Almost all of us exist
somewhere on the continuum between the extremes of totally averse to the
unfamiliar and totally enthusiastic about the unknown. Experiments nd that
everyones political views become more conservative when they are provoked to
become more fearful. In one study, liberal subjects who had just been
confronted with a threat immediately reported more conservative views on
abortion, capital punishment, and gay rights.

If fear is strong enough, it can accomplish something exceedingly rare: It can

override peoples preexisting partisan commitments. This happened in the wake
of the September 11 attacks: Political scientists say Republicans success in the
2002 and 2004 elections can be largely attributed to Americans increased fear
of terrorism. There is evidence from 2002 and 2004 that peoples concern
about terror was a very good predictor of their voting habits, even apart from
partisanship, Shana Gadarian, a political scientist at Syracuse University and
the author of The Politics of Threat: How Terrorism News Shapes Foreign Policy
Attitudes, told me. (Democrats, Gadarian notes, also use fear to push their
agenda on issues with which theyre associated, like climate change and health

Shenker makes the case that the world is changing these days more quickly than
any of us are inherently equipped to handle. The modern condition of life is
pretty much an assault on our brains, she told me. Were experiencing change
and ambiguity at a rate unprecedented in human history. Think about how long
it took to get from the agricultural revolution to the industrial revolution. And
now all of a sudden the climate is changing, women are becoming men, Im
talking to you on a little sliver of plastic and metal. We have change in every
dimension faster than our brains have evolved to deal with it. In studying
Trump voters on behalf of, Shenker found that they responded
strongly to the idea that he would bring order and control to a chaotic world.

Gadarian, the political scientist, said, When people feel anxious, they want to
be protected. Trumps policies, she pointed out, are a literal answer to this
desire: protectionist economics; a wall that physically protects the country from
outsiders. How do you overcome the threat of terror, of crime, of immigration?
You say, We will protect the country by building a wall.

ere is a case study in the power of fear in politics. Immigration reform
has seemed ripe for bipartisan compromise ever since George W.
Bush tried to pass it in during his second term. Majorities of voters
consistently say they support allowing undocumented immigrants to become
citizens and oppose mass deportation. Yet the policy has been derailed by
intense, concentrated, visceral opposition. Meanwhile, the reaction to mass
migration has upended the politics of virtually every European nation, from
Brexit to France to Scandinavia.

Frank Sharry, a proponent of immigration reform who heads the group Americas
Voice, has worked on the issue since the 1980s, but the rise of Trump forced him
to revise his understanding. What had always seemed to him like a policy dispute
now strikes him as something more profound and primal, he told me.

Ten years ago, when [John] McCain and [Ted] Kennedy were working together
on comprehensive immigration reform and George W. Bush supported it, I really
thought this was a rational policy disagreement that was headed toward a logical
compromise, Sharry told me recently. Now, I see it as deeply cultural. Its
racially charged, its tribalism, its us-vs.-them. Its a referendum on the face of
globalization, on a moment of demographic and cultural change.

There are legitimate policy arguments against increasing immigration or

legalizing the undocumented, but Sharry came to believe that they were not the
drivers of opposition to the issue. Once you see fear as an axis, it resonates across
any number of political debates. The fearful mind sees immigrants as an
invasion force, refugees as terrorists, rising crime as a threat to ones family,
drugs as a threat to ones children, and social change as a threat to ones way of
life. Almost everyone is somewhat susceptible to fears appeal; those naturally
inclined to be conservative somewhat more so. But it takes a particular type of
politician to push the buttons in human nature that activate these fears.

Some peoples sense of who we are as a country is threatened to the core,

Sharry said. Trump speaks to our id, something latent in all of us to dierent
degrees. This is not a political campaign. Its an identity campaign.

ear as a political force comes and goes, ebbing and owing in American
history. Politicians have always played to it: Lyndon B. Johnsons
Daisy ad envisioned a Barry Goldwater presidency leading to nuclear
war; Richard Nixon emphasized law and order as a counterweight to the riots
of 1968; fears of crimewith racial overtonesproduced the Willie Horton ad
in 1988 and the lock-em-up mania of the 1990s. Ronald Reagans 1984 Bear
adThere is a bear in the woods Isnt it smart to be as strong as the bear?
was echoed by a 2004 George W. Bush ad featuring prowling wolves.

Fear is present constantly in American politics, David Bennett, a historian and

the author of The Party of Fear: The American Far Right From Nativism to the
Militia Movement, told me. The most persistent fear in American life, he said, has
been fear of outsiders.

People need to displace and project their anxieties, their concerns about their
own lives and the lives of people they care about, onto some other, he said.
Often they are susceptible to politicians who tell them that the wrong kinds of
people are responsible for threatening them or their loved ones.

From colonial times to the early 19th century, the pervasive, virulent fear was of
Catholics, who were seen as inferior, unassimilable, and in thrall to a foreign
dictator (the Pope). The mass immigration of Irish Catholics in the 1830s and
1840s ratcheted up the panic and convulsed American politics, with the Whig
Party collapsing and the anti-Catholic nativist Know-Nothing Party briey
becoming Americas second-largest political party.

After the Civil War, a new inux of Italians, Slavs, and Jews from Southern and
Eastern Europe prompted a new nativist upsurge. By the 1920s, the Ku Klux
Klan had millions of members. But in the 1930s and 1940s, this wave of
nativism largely subsided. What happened? I argue that the nativists won,
Bennett told me. New federal legislation in the early 1920s closed the golden
door and shut o the spigot of migrants.

These fear-based movements have tended to be

conned to the fringe, not take over major political

Many have argued that fear and nativism in politics are driven by peoples
economic insecurity, as struggling members of the majority nd themselves in
competition with immigrants for jobs and wages. But Bennett does not believe
that to be the case. Nativism, he notes, was relatively low during the Great
Depression, and rises in nativist sentiment havent generally correlated with
periods of economic strain. Rather, they have correlated with large-scale
increases in foreign immigration, which natives tend to view as a threat to the
nations safety and culture. (Recent studies have also found a strong correlation
between increases in anti-immigrant sentiment and increases in immigration.)
Its not desperation that makes people turn on the otherits diversity.

Right now, Americas foreign-born population is at a historically high level due

largely to the surge in Latin American immigration of the last couple of decades.
But as some conservative writers have noted, with both the Republican and
Democratic establishments ocially pro-immigration and pro-diversity,
peoples anxieties about this fact had little expression in mainstream political
discourseuntil Trump came along.

Another form of fear also runs through American politics in the 20th century: the
fear of foreign ideology, from anarchism to fascism to Marxism, that solidied
into the Cold War fear of communism. Bennett believes that Trump has
combined the fear of foreign ideology with fear of foreign immigration in a novel
way, with his twin emphases on Islamist terror and Mexican migrants. This, he
says, may be why Trump has done better than many fear-fueled politicians.

I asked Bennett if he believed appeals to fear had the power to realign American
politics. These fear-based movements have tended to be conned to the fringe,
not take over major political parties, he said. But the fact that Trump is the
Republican nominee makes him wonder whether that historical pattern still
holds. This is whats making me so nervous, he said. I dont think we know.

here is a nal punch line to the analysis of Trump as the candidate of
fear. His opponent, Hillary Clinton, is now campaigning on a fear-
based appeal of her ownthe fear of Trump.

Clintons speech accepting her partys nomination presented her as the

candidate of hopefulness and pluralism, a contrast to Trumps gloom and doom.
But it also sought to sow alarm about the prospect of a Trump presidency,
depicting him as erratic and thin-skinned, apt to start a war on a whim. A man
you can bait with a tweet is not a man we can trust with nuclear weapons, she
said. At every turn, she and her aides have portrayed Trump as a risky choice
with a temperament that could lead to dire consequences. It would not be
surprising to see her campaign cut an updated version of the Daisy ad.

In research conducted for MoveOn, Shenker, the linguistics consultant, found

that the idea of Trump as a threat was the most persuasive case against him
among swing voters. The single most damning case against Trump, across the
various measurements and using his own words and actions as evidence, is that
as President he would escalate the likelihood of catastrophic violent conict
from without and within, posing a serious threat to the future of the United
States, her team wrote in a memo outlining their ndings. This message, they
noted, was far more eective than emphasizing Trumps misogyny or
depicting his economic record as bad for working people.

But Shenker told me that she worries that the Clinton campaign has not done
enough to oer a positive vision as an alternative to Trumps alarmism. Every
time Clinton says, Trump is dangerous, what people are hearing is, The world
is dangerous, its dangerous, its dangerous, she told me. It just plays into the
message of chaos. And the more chaotic the world feels, the more people may
look to Trump for comfort.


MOLLY BALL is a staff writer at The Atlantic, where she covers U.S. politics.

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