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Against the Politics of Fear

Fighting Trump requires believing in the possibility that we can change our circumstances.

A rally outside the 2015 Republican debate in Milwaukee. Joe Brusky / Flickr

This is a confession.

In the last few days, I’ve gotten a lot of emails and comments asking me why I seem, in my Facebook posts and tweets, to downplay the threat of Trump. Why I resist the comparisons to Hitler and the Nazis, why I emphasize the continuities between Trump and previous Republicans, why I insist on attending to the fractures and cleavages within his coalition.

Now, of course, nothing I say is meant to downplay the threat at all; it’s all designed to get us to see it more clearly (clearly, of course, by my lights), and while I don’t see my posts or tweets primarily or even secondarily as organizing tools, I’d like to think they give us some potential sense of leverage over the situation. But let me not get too fancy or fussy in my response; let me simply take this criticism head on.

There are a lot of academic, intellectual, and scholarly reasons I could cite for why I say what I say about Trump, and you probably know them all, and they’re all relevant and important. But there is, I recognize, something deeper going on for me. And that is that I am fundamentally allergic to the politics of fear. That term is complicated (I explore it a lot in my first book), so forgive the very truncated, simple version I’m about to give here.

The politics of fear doesn’t mean a politics that points to or invokes or even relies on threats, real or false. It doesn’t mean a politics that is emotive (what politics isn’t?) or paranoid. It means something quite different: a politics that is grounded on fear, that takes inspiration and meaning from fear, that sees in fear a wealth of experience and a layer of profundity that cannot be found in other experiences (experiences that are more humdrum, that are more indebted to Enlightenment principles of reason and progress, that put more emphasis on the amenability of politics and culture to intervention and change), a politics that sees in Trump the revelation of some deep truth about who we are, as political agents, as people, as a people.

I cannot tell you how much I loathe this kind of politics. At a very deep and personal level. I loathe its operatic-ness, the way it performs concern and care when all it really is about is narcissism and a desperate desire for a fix. I loathe its false sense of depth and profundity. I loathe its belligerent confidence that it, and only it, understands the true awfulness of the world. I loathe the sense of exhilaration and enthusiasm it derives from being in touch with this awfulness, the more onerous citizenship, to borrow a phrase from Susan Sontag, it constructs on the basis of this experience.

And so if I have a weakness or a blind spot — and I genuinely see how it can be a blind spot — it’s to political discussions and mobilizations that repeat this kind of politics, even when they come from the left. I say it’s a weakness or a blind spot because in the course of trying to avoid this kind of politics, I may wind up, inadvertently, giving the impression that something is not as dangerous as it is. I may wind up overstating its familiarity and intelligibility. While I still refuse to believe that pointing out the precedents for a current danger somehow diminishes that danger, I know my Burke well enough to know that when we pare back the exoticism, novelty, and strangeness of a thing, when we try to make it more proportionate to our understanding, it can have the accompanying effect (and affect) of making that thing seem less dangerous.

In any event, among the many reasons the election of Trump has so depressed me, and why I’ve not commented much since the election and have mostly stayed off social media, is that it has given license to the politics of fear on the left. Particularly on social media. Once again, we have that sense that we are face-to-face with some deep, dark truth of the republic. Once again, we have that sense that those of us who insist the horribles of the world should not and cannot have the last word, are somehow naifs, with our silly faith in the Enlightenment, in politics, in the possibility that we can change these things, that politics can be about something else, something better. I find that sensibility deeply conservative (not in my sense of the word but in the more conventional sense), and I resist it with every fiber of my being.

I feel like how I imagine left-wing socialists in Europe must have felt in August 1914: having imagined — and readied themselves for the possibility — that the world was heading to a confrontation on their terms, they suddenly found themselves dragged back into what seemed like the most ancient of disputes. This is just not the kind of politics I believe in.

And while some will say, pfff, regardless of what you believe in, it’s the politics we have, I think their putative realism is as intoxicated with an ideal, a dream — the ideal that we traffic in dark and deep truths, that when the world is horrible, we suddenly know it for what it is — as mine is. More so. I want no part of it.

So while I won’t ever look away from what Trump is, I insist on looking upon him through the categories that I would look upon any other political formation. I insist on focusing on things like policy, law, institutions, coalitions, ideology, elites, and so on. (Matt Yglesias is quite good on this issue.) I insist on seeing in him the normal rules of politics and the established institutions of politics: it wasn’t the beating heart of darkness that sent him to the White House, after all; it was, in the most immediate and proximate sense of a cause, the fucking Electoral College.