Fear makes us freeze. Anger makes us fight back.
“Intimidation is the most powerful tool of every would-be and actual tyrant.”
Plain old fear isn’t enough anymore, apparently. Since the election, dozens of headlines and essays have urged us to be terrified about the administration of Donald Trump.
A partial list of things that you must be terrified about includes: Steve Bannon’s influence, Trump’s unhinged optimism, Trump’s utter incompetence, Trump’s Cabinet picks, Trump, himself, just in general, and most of his actions since taking office, Trump’s impact on climate-change, Trump and the GOP’s plan to repeal Obamacare, the implications of Trump’s policies for women and his treatment of the press. One piece called Trump’s behavior not only terrifying but “petrifying,” which literally means fear so acute that it creates paralysis.
Trump’s behavior and agenda are hideous for these reasons and many more. But are terror and paralysis really what we should encourage? They’re understandable, but calling Trump and his cabal of charlatans, flunkies and lunatics “terrifying” gives them a certain perverse respect. And it plays right into their agenda. Intimidation is the most powerful tool of every would-be and actual tyrant. Better to be feared than loved if you cannot be both, as Niccolò Machiavelli advised.
The odd thing about the ubiquity of the “terrifying” mantra is that it cuts against what is maybe the most deeply ingrained truism in all of American politics: “The only thing we have to fear is fear itself,” as Franklin Roosevelt said in his first inaugural address, a warning that was repeated most recently, if less memorably, in Barack Obama’s farewell speech in early January: “Democracy can buckle when it gives in to fear … So let’s be vigilant, but not afraid.”
Compare the current drumbeat of fear-mongering with the Tea Party and its dominant emotion: anger. Tea Partiers were pissed. Outraged. As a New York Times writer noted, in mid-2010: “The seething anger that seems to be an indigenous aspect of the Tea Party movement … is already reshaping our political landscape.”
Indeed, it was. A 2013 analysis found that the movement was responsible for between 2.7 and 5.5 million additional votes for the GOP in the House in the 2010 election, in which Republicans gained control of that chamber by picking up 63 seats and created a fortress against progressive policies being considered, much less passed, for the remainder of the Obama administration.
There’s an established science and psychology to this. Fear clouds judgement and forces retreat, which is why Tea Partiers didn’t hold up signs telling each other to be terrified. They got angry and demanded that the government stay the hell away from their Social Security and Medicare.
Anger engages the mind and ignites more of the emotions that the “resistance” needs to cultivate right now. It “not only moves us toward what we want but fuels optimism, creative brainstorming, and problem solving by focusing mind and mood in highly refined ways,” as Psychology Today recently noted. “Brainwise, it is the polar opposite of fear, sadness, disgust, and anxiety—feelings that prompt avoidance … When the gall rises, it propels the irate toward challenges they otherwise would flee.”
The reasons to feel fear are plenty obvious. They don’t need to be encouraged. When you’re told to be terrified, be outraged instead. It’ll do you and the movement a lot more good, and go a lot further in producing the hope, creativity and determination that we need to meet the current challenges.
Theo Anderson, an In These Times staff writer, is writing a book about the historical and contemporary influence of pragmatism on American politics. He has a Ph.D. in American history from Yale University and teaches history and literature seminars at the Newberry Library in Chicago.