As the presumptive U.S. presidential nominees emerge, at least for now — Donald Trump for the Republicans and Hillary Clinton for the Democrats — more and more friends from abroad have started asking me to explain how a person like Trump could get so far, so fast, given utter lack of experience.
A few also ask questions about Hillary’s qualifications, mostly centered around the money flow from Wall Street, and the “donations” from foreign governments into the Clinton Foundation. Many from places where corruption is more surfaced recognize what is happening perhaps more clearly than Americans.
What I try to explain is that the success of Trump and Clinton, especially over the candidates they have defeated, is based on the same dark spot inside the American body politic now: our society is motivated by fear, and fear produced the 2016 versions of candidates Trump and Clinton.
For its faults — referring more to the American Soul than the American government — the pre-9/11 United States was a relatively hopeful place. Despite the underbelly of prejudices and the crushing of the middle class, there was a sense that things might get better, or at least not worse. War? The last big one was Desert Storm in 1991. Nobody would claim society was perfect, or even uniformly good, but it was different than now.
Then across the span of a day, September 11, 2001, America changed. We became, as a nation, afraid.
We were afraid of enemies most Americans had heard little about. We were afraid of what might happen next. We were afraid of an attack against the shopping mall, the school, the tiny place in our tiny town that didn’t show up well on most local maps, never mind one bin Laden might use. Our fears were carefully curated by opportunistic people in two successive administrations, who used that fear to manipulate democracy itself. They turned America’s vast spying apparatus inward, imposed a global gulag archipelago of torture sites and secret prisons, and institutionalizing the drone wars.
Amid the various causes and justifications, that it is all about oil, or empire, what it is all about at the root level is fear. Fear of the latest bogeyman, fear screeches of groups on YouTube are real, and that they are ready to strike what we now all call the Homeland. That word never existed in America prior to 9/11.
America lost its guts. We’re scared of scary things we can’t see and can only identify as monsters, like a child alone at night who hears every noise and assumes the worst.
So into that setting emerges the presidential candidates that had to emerge, our first true post-9/11 candidates, the ones who picked up on the fears of Americans as a predator catches a scent.
Donald Trump speaks pointedly to America’s fears — Mexicans swarming to take our jobs, trade agreements that will hand China the keys to the store (“They’re killing us!”), and weaknesses that allow Islamic State, Putin, the Iranians, and all the rest, to wait coiled on our borders. Afraid? Then you need Trump on that wall, you want him on that wall, for it is only because of rough men like him that you’ll be able to once again (“Make America Great Again”) sleep peacefully.
Trump’s form of fear-mongering is basically from the same toolbox every autocrat and dictator has used since government was invented. Trump plays on what one can call “positive fear,” fear of what will befall us if he is not there to stop it.
While Hillary Clinton is no stranger to calling up global demons, the biggest fear she plays on is American’s fear of change.
Clinton is well on her way to defeating Bernie Sanders by convincing Americans they do not want the same comprehensive health care system every other evolved nation on earth has, that they do not want the no-cost higher education most/all of Europe and Asia profits from, and that Americans do not want a political system less subject to influence buying. She told Americans she alone would continue decades of mediocrity, because there really was no other way. Convincing people to vote against their own self-benefit is not easy, but fear is a powerful motivator.
Clinton’s fear-mongering is more subtle than Trump’s. The fear she sells is not so much of something (Islamic State, Putin), but fear of the unknown, a kind of “negative fear.” So, despite the often ineffective health insurance provided under the Affordable Care Act, she tells supporters her opponent might even see that taken away if he reopens a debate with Republicans. She brushes off concerns about big money influence saying if it was good enough for Obama, then why change that?
The rest flows quite naturally. It is little surprise that both candidates are shaping a meme that while you may not like or even wish to support them actively, you should vote for them anyway, for fear that the other one will win.
Barring any unforeseen circumstances, either Trump or Clinton will take the White House, and fan the flames; fear requires regular booster shots, each one bigger than the last. And that should in fact make the rest of us very, very afraid.
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