Opinion

Fear is the monster in our closet that came out and took control

David Brooks is an opinion writer for The New York Times.
David Brooks is an opinion writer for The New York Times.

Another synagogue shooting. Another day of shock. Another lonely fanatic. Another cascade of insecurity and fear.

I wonder if we’ve fully grasped how fear pervades our society and sets the emotional tone for our politics. When historians define this era they may well see it above all else as a time defined by fear.

The era began Sept. 11, 2001, a moment when a nation that had once seemed invulnerable suddenly felt tremendously unsafe. In the years since, the shootings have been a series of bloody strikes out of the blue.

It’s been an era when politicians rise by stoking fear. Donald Trump declared an “American carnage” and made it to the White House by warning of an immigrant crime wave that doesn’t exist.

Fear also comes up from below, in the form of childhood trauma and insecurity. It sometimes seems as if half of America’s children grow up in strained families and suffer Adverse Childhood Experiences that make it hard for them to feel safe.

The other half grow up in overprotective families and emerge into adulthood unready to face the risks that will inevitably come. Depression rates rise. Safe spaces proliferate. Collegiate mental health systems are overwhelmed.

We in the media have contributed too. Everybody is a broadcast journalist now, competing for ratings and page views. The sure way to win is to ratchet up the crisis atmosphere. All news is Breaking News!

We get to the point where the fear itself begins to take control. Fear generates fear. Everybody feels besieged – power is somehow elsewhere, with the malevolent forces who are somewhere out there, who will stop at nothing.

Fear puts a dark filter over everything. The fearful person is unable to hear good news, while any possible threat looms large. We are in the middle of one of the longest economic booms in our history, with wages finally rising again for the middle class. But nobody feels that because of the sense that it’s all about to come crashing down.

Fear runs ahead of facts and inflames the imagination. Ninety percent of the time we’re not afraid of what’s happening to us, but of some catastrophic thing our imagination tells us might happen.

Fear makes everything amorphous. Immigration is a phenomenon that has concrete advantages and concrete disadvantages. But for those in the grip of fear, immigration – or globalization, Silicon Valley, Wall Street or automation – are shapeless, insidious forces that are out of control. The inevitable reaction is overreaction.

Fear stokes anger, which then stokes more fear. Anger is the child of fear, philosopher Martha Nussbaum writes in her book, “The Monarchy of Fear.” The fearful person turns asocial, rejects any compassionate response to social problems and instead lashes out.

“Fear, indeed, is intensely narcissistic,” she continues. “It drives out all thoughts of others.” The fearful person doesn’t see particular individuals, just hateful shades who arouse disgust and can be blamed. Muslims are disgusting. Immigrants are disgusting. Republicans are disgusting. The irrationalities of disgust, Nussbaum continues, underlie many social evils.

Fear induces herding behavior. For my last column I went back and read some profiles of Joe Biden written in the 1970s and 1980s. I was stunned to see how little the authors were tied down by ideological rigidity and tribal mentality. I was reminded how much we’ve all clenched up, how much we all now seem to be members of this or that cult – fearful of saying something “wrong,” fearful of provoking a Twitter backlash.

Fear revives ideology. The 20th century saw a clash of iron-grip ideologies. Then, about 10 years ago, we seemed to be entering the age of the data wonks. The students in my classes didn’t have faith in all-explaining dogmas. Skeptical, they just wanted the evidence.

But now grand ideologies clash by night: white nationalism, populism, oppression studies. All trade in binaries between oppressor and oppressed, the struggle between the good groups and the menacing evil ones.

They say that perfect love casts out fear. And maybe there is at least one presidential candidate who will perform the role Franklin Roosevelt performed 86 years ago – identify fear as its own independent force and confront it with hope.

But I’m coming to think governance might be the cure. The simple act of trying to solve practical problems. Enough with charisma. Enough with politicians who treat each election as a matter of metaphysical survival, a clash of existential identities.

I’ve developed a hankering for slightly boring politicians who just get stuff done – Mayor Mike Duggan of Detroit, Gov. Larry Hogan of Maryland. I might agree or disagree with some of Elizabeth Warren’s zillions of policy proposals, but at least they’re proposals. At least they are attempts to ground our politics in real situations with actual plans, not just overwrought bellowing about the monster in the closet.

Fear comes in the night. But eventually you have to wake up in the morning, get out of bed and get stuff done.

David Brooks is a New York Times columnist.

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