Fear in the U.S.A.

Photo by Darron Birgenheier

One glance at my Facebook feed right now tells me that a lot of people have a lot of opinions about the executive orders President Trump has signed in his first week on the job. We have people protesting at JFK airport. We have memes popping up left and right. It seems that our new president’s policies, while popular with a certain segment of the population, are deeply unpopular with another segment of the population.

What I personally find most concerning is not the particular policies that are being put in place by the Trump administration, though we could certainly debate all of them to death. What is most concerning is the thing that lies at the root of all of this: fear.

The Definition of Fear

Now, we kid ourselves if we think that we don’t all operate in a framework of fear. I myself know it all too well, having dealt with periods of diagnosable anxiety ever since I was in the college. One thing this has caused me to realize is that there is a difference between fear in a biological sense and fear in a more philosophical sense.

Our bodies are designed to respond to stressors. In the most extreme case, we have what is commonly referred to as a “fight or flight” mechanism. If certain stressors are introduced, your body will immediately begin pumping your system with adrenaline. Your heart rate can double in the space of a breath. Your muscles become tensed – your breathing labored. Your mind immediately enters a defensive mode, attempting to process all of the stimuli it is receiving and arrive at a workable solution. That is the biological reality of fear, and to a certain extent, it is beyond our control. This is all meant to help us survive. There are real dangers in the world, and our bodies need to respond to them. Having an anxiety disorder simply means that this healthy fear grows out of control and the body begins to treat perfectly normal things as if they were dangers.

That is not the kind of fear I am talking about in the context of politics. This is a philosophical fear: a mode of operating. Much as an anxiety disorder causes the body to see harmless things as dangers, so philosophical fear inflates the danger and blows it out of proportion. More than this, it causes a person to make decisions on the basis of fear rather than measured logic. It gives in to the fear rather than fighting against it.

A screenshot from Obama’s speech at the 2004 Democratic National Convention. Not a gray hair to be seen!

In 2008, Barack Obama ran his presidential campaign under the slogan of “hope”. How real this hope was and whether or not he delivered on it is certainly a matter of personal opinion, and like every man who has sat in the Oval Office, the legacy that Obama left behind was mixed. However, Obama’s use of the phrase “the audacity of hope” – both in his keynote speech to the 2004 Democratic National Convention and as the title of one of his books – speaks to a kind of deep truth that is not bound by political party. To choose hope over fear does require a certain amount of audacity, or to use a better word, courage. Courageous people are not unaware of the real dangers in the world. They are not completely free of fear. Rather, they see the danger, analyze the situation, and arrive at a measured response, striving when possible to operate from a framework of hope rather than fear.

This kind of thinking seems completely alien to our country at the present time, and not only to our country, but to most of the Western world. Rather than taking bold action, we have become reactionary. Rather than looking outward, we have become insular.

President Trump is a populist. The ideology of populism has shown up many times throughout history in many places, and it looks a bit different each time. However, the following elements are typically present:

  • Populists portray themselves as the champions of the common man.
  • Populists make broad promises to improve the financial situations of average people.
  • Populists declare themselves to be the defenders of traditional values.
  • Populists have little respect for institutions or institutional ways of thinking.
  • Populists eschew foreign influence and tend toward nationalism or even nativism.
  • Populists tell people what they want to hear – but perhaps not what they need to hear.

Huey P. Long was a populist in the depths of the Great Depression. Mahmoud Ahmedinejad was a populist at a time when Iran was facing international sanctions and becoming a pariah state. If you look at those six aspects of populism that I mentioned – not all of which are present in every populist movement, but all of which are certainly present in Trump’s populist movement – you see how many of them, at the root level, are about fear: fear of a changing global economic situation, fear for one’s own economic livelihood, fear that the culture is becoming corrupted, fear that all-powerful institutions are controlling everything, fear of foreign encroachment or a decrease in global standing, and fear of hard truths.

Fear of Globalization

I honestly don’t believe that President Trump, in his heart of hearts, views globalization (that is, the expansion of free trade and global commerce) as the great evil that he has claimed in his speeches. Why would I say this? Because he has built his entire business empire through globalization. He understands how international trade works, and he has worked it to his own advantage. I do not think that Donald Trump is a stupid person by any means, so he surely understands that the United States will never be able to produce products cheaper than Vietnam, because thank God, our level of development and standard of living is better than that of Vietnam.

If you take a standard economics course at any college in America, you will likely hear about “absolute advantage” or “comparative advantage”. In layman’s terms, this means finding out what your business (or in this case, your country) can do better or cheaper than anyone else, and then choosing to invest in and pursue that thing. This is the secret to economic success. Attempting to bring every job back to the United States is first of all impossible, because foreign companies will go wherever their financial benefit is greatest, and we cannot make things more cheaply than developing countries. In the case of American businesses, yes, you may be able to force industries to operate in the United States. You can demand that every form of job – even those that can now be done by machines – be done by an American human being. You can be like the people in New Jersey and forbid people to pump their own gasoline, supposedly for safety reasons, but really in order to protect jobs­­.

What you then become is France. In the interest of protecting its native industries, France has put in place a vast array of regulations. However, those underperforming industries can only be propped up through government subsidies, which means – you guessed it – higher taxes. Protectionism is very expensive to the taxpayer. More to the point, the French economy is not particularly healthy. Therefore, it defies logic to think that President Trump can reverse free trade and globalization, restore all the native industries, and yet not increase taxes, expand the size of government, or hurt our economic bottom line. It just doesn’t work!

Photo by Gage Skidmore

As I already suggested, I think our president is wise to all of this. He graduated from an Ivy League business school. He has been exposed to these concepts and lives his life by them. However, I think he really, really wants to be president, and like so many politicians before him, he has resorted to populism as a means of getting elected. He has not been brave enough, or honorable enough, to tell people what they actually need to hear: that the world is changing, globalization is here to stay, and we need to adjust. He has taken advantage of a climate of fear that has been brewing for some time, particularly following the financial crisis of 2008.

I do not deny that we need to have serious discussions about the wide reaching effects of globalization. My natural preference would be to spend government money on better education and career training (or retraining) rather than attempting to prop up failing industries. I believe this not because I am in the pay of big business, nor because I am opposed to all government regulation, but because I honestly believe that such a policy will lead to a stronger and more profitable economy, not only for those at the top, but also for those at the bottom.

Globalization and industrialization have been steadily progressing since the 18th century. Because we have now come through that process and are essentially on the other side, we have perhaps become ignorant of its benefits. That ignorance of history has blinded us to the benefits of these long-term forces. There has been no greater reducer of poverty in world history than the opening and integration of the global economy, but I think the average person is unaware of this, and those in power have no interest in disabusing them of their notions.

Fear of Immigration

The climate of fear is not only about the economy, but also about immigration. Nobody is opposed to all immigration – at least, no one that I have met. Yet, two issues related to immigration are at the center of Trump’s agenda: illegal immigration across the southern border of the United States, and the admission of asylum seekers from Muslim countries. There are some important differences between these two issues, and one very important similarity.

With the undocumented Hispanic immigrants (about half of whom are not actually Mexican, but from Central or South America), the concern is largely an economic one: they will take jobs that ought to go to citizens, or they will not pay taxes, or they will use a lot of government services. I do not intend to attack each of these points in depth, but suffice it to say that all the research I have ever seen suggests that those fears are overblown on three counts. 1) The jobs that illegal immigrants take are low paying and not the type of positions being sought by most unemployed or underemployed American citizens, and they may actually help to raise wages. 2) Many illegal immigrants actually do end up paying some kind of taxes, whether that be sales tax or tax on their wages that is taken out automatically (and they don’t want to correct their employer for obvious reasons). 3) The amount of “handouts” they are getting from the government are minor, as they are unlikely to collect Medicare or Social Security, which are by far the two biggest government expenditures in the area of social welfare.

Consider that every time an illegal immigrant (or undocumented migrant, if you prefer) is deciding whether or not to apply for a government service, they must weigh the benefit of the service against the very real possibility that their status might be revealed and they will be deported. Exactly how many government services would you apply for under such circumstances? You would have to be pretty darn sick to risk going to the emergency room.

An anti-Trump protest in San Francisco. Photo by Pax Ahimsa Gethen

There is a case to be made for revamping the U.S. immigration system in the interest of promoting law and order and making things much more efficient, but we need to have a lot more compassion and a lot less fear. The vast majority of us will never be in any imminent danger as the result of an illegal immigrant, and the fact of the matter is that many immigrant families are a mixture of those here legally and those here illegally. The picture is much more complicated than politicians will lead you to believe, and it is only for their own selfish reasons that they stoke panic, portraying all immigrants as criminals and rapists. This is nothing new in American history! Immigrants from Eastern Europe and Ireland, among others, were the target of vicious discrimination when they first arrived here in large numbers. Legal status notwithstanding, the fear element is the same in each case: fear of “the other”, fear of foreign ideas, and fear of lost economic opportunities.

These fears are not limited to the United States. British voters chose last year to leave the troubled European Union, and a large part of the concern had to do with immigration. (To be fair, Brits have never been that crazy about the European Union, and a vote in the 1990s might have had the same result – it’s hard to say.) In France, the National Front headed by Marine Le Pen has experienced a sharp rise in popularity over the past five years or so, spurred on no doubt by fears about terrorism. In Germany, Angela Merkel has been just as pilloried domestically for her open immigration policy as she was internationally for her more hardline position on the Greek debt crisis. Across Europe, far-right politicians and those of a more populist bent have risen to the fore.

What has really caused the issue to heat up in the past two years is the rise of ISIS in the Middle East. The ideology of ISIS (or ISIL, or IS, or Daesh, or what have you) is not particularly new and it is not a particularly pure form of Islam. Rather, it is a kind of apocalyptic cult that is hoping that its war with the Western heathens will bring about the end of days. It attracts young men from around the world by giving them free reign to rape, smash things, shoot people, and generally feel powerful. Among those who are disenchanted and have little to lose, this kind of message is particularly appealing, especially given how much savvier ISIS is with its internet marketing than any terrorist group that has come before it.

Now, as both a student and a researcher, I have studied Islamic theology, Islamist political ideology, and Islamist terrorist groups. I really think we need to differentiate between those three things. We also need to realize what kind of threat ISIS truly poses to world order. For those living in the Levant, there is a definite military threat. Those who have had the misfortune to live under this brutal and thoroughly unprincipled regime can speak to the real, immediate danger. However, ISIS is not truly that strong of a military power. They are taking advantage of a political vacuum created by the weak regimes in Iraq and Syria. Until those two national governments are strengthened, we will not be able to stamp out the influence of ISIS completely, yet we must try, for their brutality is on a level that cannot be allowed. More to the point, we cannot accept the legitimacy of a bunch of thugs seizing territory at will – and President Trump would do well to remember that when he speaks with the Russians about Crimea.

But what threat does ISIS pose to the West? We have seen a number of different terrorist attacks by people claiming to be associated with ISIS. In many of those cases, no firm connection to ISIS can be established. Rather, much as everyone used to attribute their terrorist actions to Al-Qaeda, they are now attributing those actions to the new hot thing in town. I am going to tell you right now: short of turning the United States into a police state and abandoning the Bill of Rights completely, there is no way to keep a single disgruntled person from walking into a public area and starting to shoot people. I hate to put it this way, because I have no desire to minimize the suffering endured by people in Boston or Orlando, but in terrorism terms, that is a risk we are going to have to accept if we are to continue as a free society.

Flag of ISIS…or ISIL

We need to focus our time and resources on how to prevent catastrophic attacks like what occurred on September 11, 2001. The fact of the matter is that if you had told me back in 2001 that we would be sitting here in 2017 with less than 100 Americans dead on American soil from terrorism, I would probably have said, “Wow, we did a lot of things right!” We lose far, far more people as the result of normal gun violence than we do because of terrorism.

But what is terrorism but an attempt to cause terror? It is the nature of such an attack rather than the actual number of casualties that instills fear in the populace. ISIS has succeeded in causing us to fear, and with very little effort on its part beyond putting out propaganda videos online. They have made us afraid to admit refugees from Syria and other Muslim nations: vulnerable people fleeing violence and simply searching for a better life. We fear to admit them, because we suspect them of being covert sympathizers with the terrorists. We fear that they come to our shores only to bomb or shoot us.

I ask you now, who has suffered at the hands of ISIS more than those very refugees? One of the big knocks against Islamist terrorists – whether it was good old-fashioned Al-Qaeda or Al-Qaeda in Iraq or now ISIS – is that they end up killing a lot more Muslims than non-Muslims. They bring misery to the people they claim to help. The people that might have the most sympathy with ISIS are not those fleeing the destruction in the Middle East, but isolated young men who have grown up in the West, feel alienated by the culture, and then go online and hear promises of a magical land far away and a chance to become something great. That is the group we really need to be worried about: not the new immigrants.

More to the point, my study of Muslim groups worldwide has shown me time and again that the Muslim community here in the United States is far more integrated and “moderate” than that in Europe, where most of the ISIS-inspired violence has occurred. I am not saying there are not bad apples here in the United States, but the Muslim populations in countries like France are far larger and in general more segregated from the main population. The greater skepticism toward religion of all kinds in Europe helps to create some of this climate, but it also has to do with where the immigrants came from originally. Many Muslims in Europe immigrated there due to the connections of old colonial empires. North African Muslims went to France, Pakistanis and Bengalis to the United Kingdom, etc. Many of these people came because they were in poor economic straits, and they brought with them in some cases a more radical form of Islam.

The majority of Arabs in the United States are Christian, not Muslim. Even those who are Muslim tend toward a more conciliatory position with other religious groups. They came here mostly from places like Lebanon or Egypt, where they were fleeing civil war or religious oppression. I have visited mosques and Islamic communities in both the U.S. and U.K., and I have always felt more at ease with the ones in the U.S. Our tradition of religious pluralism and being a melting pot has helped these people to integrate with the main population, and thus to feel that they have a place here. The ideology of ISIS is less well represented, and the physical difficulties of crossing an ocean make it harder for genuine ISIS fighters to make it here.

Therefore, the policy put in place by President Trump to block asylum seekers from the Middle East is based on ignorance of the actual situation. Following an attack like the one in Orlando last year, Trump would portray himself as the Winston Churchill who saw the threat clearly. He lent legitimacy to the belief that Muslim immigrants cannot be properly vetted, and that immigrants were sure to turn bad. I do not deny that the Boston bombers were immigrants, but keep in mind, they were not recent immigrants. They had been living in the U.S. for a long time, and their attack had nothing to do with ISIS. Those who attacked us on 9/11 were mostly from Saudi Arabia, a supposed ally. The Orlando nightclub shooter seems to have had a rather complicated set of motivations, as he had frequented that gay friendly establishment and reportedly engaged in homosexual relationships. There may have been a self-hating element to what he did, or a desire to disguise or gain redemption for his own actions.

I do not deny that immigration is more of a problem in Europe, and the event that showed this more than anything was the mass attacks on women in the city of Cologne, Germany on New Year’s Eve, 2015. But do keep in mind that the situation in Europe was much worse to begin with, and they are also closer to the Middle East by proximity. The ideas put forward by the Trump administration are based on fear and not logic. He takes the worry we all feel when we watch the news and uses that worry to craft policy rather than building it on reason.

Therefore, in the case of both illegal immigration and asylum seeking, the threat has been overstated. We need to realize that when people stoke those fears from behind a megaphone, they have an ulterior motive for doing so. They want us to look past their flaws and support them out of fear of “the other”. We must be smarter than that.

The reporter Edward R. Murrow being interviewed in Germany in 1956. U.S. Defense Department photo

A Warning from the Past

In the year 1954, the Cold War was at its height, and fear of Communism – particularly the Soviet Russian brand of Communism – had taken hold in the United States of America. It must be said that the threat posed to the United States by the Soviet Union and its allies in that hour was immensely greater than any of the military threats facing the United States today. There was a very real possibility of nuclear war. Not only backwater portions of failed states, but powerful governments were falling to this wave of ideology.

Yes, there was certainly fear in the U.S.A. in that hour. Senator Joseph McCarthy and the House Un-American Activities Committee were intent on rooting out subversive elements within the United States. They began to see a Communist behind every corner, and civil liberties were often set aside in favor of prosecuting those who (supposedly) held the wrong ideas. The veteran journalist Edward R. Murrow, host of the program See It Now on CBS, decided to devote an episode of his program to criticizing McCarthy. This was somewhat controversial, as newsmen at the time (and yes, they were pretty much all newsmen) were supposed to eschew opinion in favor of hard facts. (Imagine that!) Murrow only proceeded with his criticism because he felt the facts were so strongly against Sen. McCarthy.

What is relevant to us now is not so much the details of that controversy, but the closing comments Murrow made in that broadcast, which are a classic of American rhetoric. Here they are:

We will not walk in fear, one of another. We will not be driven by fear into an age of unreason, if we dig deep in our history and our doctrine, and remember that we are not descended from fearful men — not from men who feared to write, to speak, to associate and to defend causes that were, for the moment, unpopular. This is no time for men who oppose Senator McCarthy’s methods to keep silent, or for those who approve. We can deny our heritage and our history, but we cannot escape responsibility for the result. There is no way for a citizen of a republic to abdicate his responsibilities. As a nation we have come into our full inheritance at a tender age. We proclaim ourselves, as indeed we are, the defenders of freedom, wherever it continues to exist in the world, but we cannot defend freedom abroad by deserting it at home. The actions of the junior Senator from Wisconsin have caused alarm and dismay amongst our allies abroad, and given considerable comfort to our enemies. And whose fault is that? Not really his. He didn’t create this situation of fear; he merely exploited it — and rather successfully. Cassius was right. ‘The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars, but in ourselves.’

“A Report on Senator Joseph R. McCarthy”, See It Now, 9 March 1954

Here Murrow took aim at the climate of fear and declared it to be at odds with America’s founding ideals. He also points to the fact that politicians like McCarthy and Trump are not the only ones responsible for creating the situation of fear. Rather, they find a way to exploit the fear that is already there. They use it for their own advantage, without regard for how it harms the country in the long-term. Perhaps the most important words spoken by Murrow are the first ones that refer to a choice not to “walk in fear, one of another”.

Those of us living in the United States right now need to be very careful that we do not allow our fears, however legitimate, to dictate our actions. I have often observed that when I go through periods of anxiety, it is as if my mind turns in on itself. Right now, it seems like America is turning in on itself. In our fear, we are becoming insular, protectionist, and self-obsessed. We are in danger of stagnating. We are in danger of abandoning our founding ideals. Let us choose not to walk in fear. Let us be courageous enough to treat facts as facts, and not to cling to so-called “alternative facts”. Let us show compassion to our neighbor. Let us trust in what has brought us this far – in the kind of consensus that prevents war and leads to prosperity. And when leaders come along who try to tickle our ears, let us see them for what they are.

My friends, we are now entering the Year of the Rooster according to the Chinese zodiac. A better symbol for our president I could not possibly imagine, for he acts cocky but is truly a chicken. Let us not be fooled. Let us honor those in leadership while holding them to account. Let us never give in to fear.

One thought on “Fear in the U.S.A.

  1. LOVE this! Expanding on the theme of fear would include American’s love of guns. I see so many posts about their beloved weapons along with a love for Jesus. Methinks our savior may have had different thoughts on that…

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