My neighbor Rollo sports a white “Make America Great Again” hat. He’s sipping coffee from a Dunkin cup. I know the local Dunkin in Davis Square is closed and under construction so I ask him where he got his coffee. “I go to Medford,” he says, “they speak English over there.” Rollo is afraid Somerville is being taken over by immigrants.
Why are so many Americans gripped by fear? Fear of terrorism, fear of immigrants, fear of the deficit, fear that the government will take away guns, fear of socialism, gay rights, and women’s rights. Despite, the Boston Marathon bombings and the mass shooting in San Bernardino, America has not been attacked by foreign terrorists in fourteen years, yet the right is deathly afraid of terrorists. It’s their number one concern. Number two is the problem of immigrants even though America is a country of immigrants. Meanwhile, the deficit has shrunk to less than 3% of GDP yet Republicans claim the deficit is bankrupting the country. The right to own a gun is written into the Constitution, yet gun-owners are afraid background checks are a step down a slippery slope to government seizing their weapons. Trump claims Hillary will repeal the Second Amendment.
Why are so many Americans fearful? Perhaps it’s contagious. Charles Simic seems to think so in his poem entitled “Fear”: “Fear passes from man to man/Unknowing,/As one leaf passes its shudder/To another./All at once the whole tree is trembling./And there is no sign of the wind.”
Isn’t Trump’s slogan: Make America Great Again based on both a longing for the past and a fear of the future? Perhaps that is the greatest fear of the right wing—the fear of what is to come. This despite the fact that these Americans, mostly white, mostly male, are in a safe place. Their neighborhoods, their shopping malls, their sports stadiums, their urban centers are safe. Violent crime has gone down steadily since 1978. Cars are safer to drive. Our aging population is less likely to engage in violence. The poor have good reasons to fear violence yet they live in areas that white Americans avoid.
Are the marriages of those on the right so fragile they fear gay marriage? Since they believe that homosexuality is learned behavior, they think gay parents will raise gay children. They fear legalized drugs will addict them and their kids. They’re afraid sexual education classes will undermine their children’s morals, afraid intermarriage will lead to the extinction of the white race.
Of course they support the police because it is the job of the police to protect them against the poor, against minorities, against immigrants. They support the military because the military provides a bulwark against terrorism. This explains why they vote against their economic interests. Rather than support the party that provides them with social security and Medicare, they support the party that promises to fight to save America from the hordes and from itself. Fear trumps the economy; that’s the secret of Republicans’ success.
Americans are sill much more likely to die in a car accident than to be killed by terrorists, more likely to be shot by someone they know than a stranger, more likely to commit suicide or die of an overdose, than be attacked by ISIS, but you wouldn’t think so if you listened to Ted Cruz or Rush Limbaugh or the Donald.
In Between the World and Me, Coates argues that African-Americans live in fear in America. I can’t deny his own personal feelings but he seems to me to have the equation reversed. It is obviously whites who fear blacks. How else to explain locking up so many young, black males? Why else would police strangle, beat, and kill blacks? Perhaps the anxiety of the right wing is based ultimately on the uneasy feeling that the democratic experiment is failing because we’ve made a number of mistakes from slavery to foreign wars to cutting taxes on the rich, and the leaders we’ve elected to save us are just not up to the task.
Meanwhile, the problem with fear is that it often leads to anger. Here’s my fear: after Trump loses, there will be a lot of angry white men who will want to use their guns.