David Shribman is the former executive editor of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette and winner of the Pulitzer Prize for coverage of U.S. politics.
The fear of violence. The fear of immigrants. Of economic dislocation. Of minorities. Of attacks in schoolyards and workplaces. Of books. Of disquieting discussions in university classrooms. Of gay and trans people. Of climate change. Of conservatives. Of socialists. Of political violence. Of Donald Trump.
As the United States prepares to mark Tuesday’s 247th anniversary of its Declaration of Independence, the country no longer conforms to the boast in its national anthem that it is the home of the brave. It is instead the home of the fearful.
There is the fear of a 16-year-old who went to the wrong house in Kansas City, Mo., and of a 20-year-old woman who went up the wrong driveway in upstate New York; both were shot. There is the fear that democratic values are in grave danger; the siege of the Capitol remains a vivid element of the American memory. There is the fear that is stirred in political advertisements; consultants say fear is a great motivator for votes.
Seldom – perhaps only in the Civil War, when the country was literally riven apart, or during the Cuban Missile Crisis, when the fallout shelters that were installed in public buildings and in Americans’ homes suddenly seemed to have utility – has the United States been gripped so tightly by fear, and by so many separate tendons of fear.
The country bravely mobilized to help win two World Wars, sent its military personnel overseas to blunt communist expansion worldwide, and launched its astronauts into Earth orbit and to the moon with neither hesitation nor qualm. And yet today its sanctuaries of worship and its civic squares are places of fear, its libraries stocked with materials deemed worthy of fear, its great scholars at the lecture podium accused of stoking the fear of undergraduates.
Ordinary events and life-cycle landmarks that once were unremarkable now are fulcrums of fear.
“This fear comes from a sense that things are out of control and that things are changing in ways we don’t understand,” said Christine Whelan of the School of Human Ecology at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. “Fear is normal, but the level of fear that people are experiencing now is not normal.”
Narrowly escaping shipwreck near a Carolina headland in 1585, the English privateer and explorer Sir Richard Grenville named the promontory Cape Fear. Today all America is Cape Fear.
“It seems as if there are fears lurking just around every corner in America today,” said Antoine Yoshinaka, a political scientist at the University at Buffalo. “We seem to need to make sure that the right kind of people move into our neighbourhoods, that the borders are closed, and that our children are safe from dangerous ideas. Life in the United States has become a non-stop loop of fear-inducing images, sounds and commentary.”
First of all, let me assert my firm belief that the only thing we have to fear is fear itself – nameless, unreasoning, unjustified terror which paralyzes needed efforts to convert retreat into advance. – Franklin Delano Roosevelt, inaugural address 1933, in a Depression-era echo of Michel de Montaigne, who said, “The thing I fear most is fear.”
And yet the country – armed to the teeth, equipped with constitutional guardrails designed to repel political tyranny, possessed of more weapons to intimidate rivals or stave off invaders than any nation in history – is not suffering from a kind of social hypochondria. The 32nd president may have spoken about “unreasoning” fear, but today there are reasons for the fear.
“There are lots of things to be afraid of these days – as the critical bends towards the catastrophic, with the apocalyptic around the next corner,” said David Scott Kastan, who teaches Renaissance literature at Yale.
An Axios/Ipsos poll released this spring showed that the greatest public-health fear among Americans is guns; at one point this spring there had been more mass shootings than days in the United States in 2023.
Racist and antisemitic incidents and language are so much more prominent than they were only recently that they seem almost unremarkable; the number of hate crimes climbed by 11.6 per cent between 2020 and 2021, according to FBI figures.
“Fear has become too frequent a regular emotion,” Rabbi Jeffrey Myers, who was leading prayers when 11 Jews were slain in 2018 at Pittsburgh’s Tree of Life synagogue, said in an interview. “My concern is that people won’t have the tools to recognize its presence and how to work with it. It’s probably one of the most powerful emotions that guides what we do. If your daily choices are based about fear, what does that say about what America has become?”
It says that the United States, once a nation of open minds, open neighbourhood doors and open gates for, as the poet Emma Lazarus wrote in words attached to the Statue of Liberty, the world’s “huddled masses yearning to breathe free,” is more shut in than ever. It says that the rituals of childhood have been altered and that elementary-school curriculums have been restricted. It says that American elections more than ever are conducted as contests between competing fears. It says that the national-security state operates in a nation of raging insecurity.
“One of the striking features about America these days is the sense of insecurity that permeates the society,” the journalist and commentator Fareed Zakaria told me.
“Perhaps because of the pace of change, perhaps because of ever-rising inequality and the fraying of community, Americans are more anxious, even fearful. That fear is easy to direct on the ‘other’ – whether Mexicans or Chinese or Muslims – and policy made from fear is usually a mistake.”
Days after the 2001 terrorist attacks in New York and Washington, Rev. James Green Somerville delivered a sermon to his congregation at the First Baptist Church of the City of Washington, D.C., titled “Fear Itself.” He argued that the presence of God was an antidote to fear and that the goal of terrorism was to paralyze us with fear.
“The two great motivators are fear and love, and we have seen in the days after 9/11 how people can use fear to get people to do things, and to do them quickly,” Mr. Somerville, now the pastor of the First Baptist Church of Richmond, Va., said in an interview.
“Love is the long game. Fear is quick and easy. Everywhere, and all the time, we have the fear that is quick and easy. Fear works on the visceral level – it is an ice cube in the belly – and it involves neither the head or the heart.”
Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil: for thou art with me; thy rod and thy staff, they comfort me. – 23rd Psalm
Fear is one of the most ancient of human conditions, appearing in the very beginning of the Old Testament when Adam says to God, in the first of several verses in Genesis that speak of fear, “I heard thy voice in the garden, and I was afraid, because I was naked; and I hid myself.” Later, Sarah (“for she was afraid”) and Jacob (“greatly afraid and distressed”) express fear. The God of Scripture offers both fear and comfort, and in Leviticus says, “I will give peace in the land, and ye shall lie down, and none shall make you afraid.”
In the long arc of history, American life has been animated by enslaved people’s fears of their masters’ violence and sexually predatory actions and the countervailing white fear of slave rebellions in the first half of the 19th century; the fear of the dissolution of the Union in the mid-century run-up to the Civil War; the fear of those whom Theodore Roosevelt described as “malefactors of great wealth” who, he said, were “curses to the country”; the fear of Germans in the two World Wars; the fear of communism in the 1950s; the fear of nuclear annihilation in the 1960s; Black fear of lynching and police brutality spanning decades; and the fear of terrorism in the late 20th and early 21st century.
Indeed, fear has been one of the leitmotifs of the country’s history. It was, for example, fear of American involvement in the Second World War that led the celebrated aviator Charles Lindbergh to argue that Jews were pushing the United States into the European conflict. It was fear of Black people that led the Ku Klux Klan to promulgate theories of white supremacy. And it was fear of communism that led senator Joseph McCarthy to lend his name to the Red Scare in the 1950s.
But in his 2004 book Fear: The History of a Political Idea, City University of New York political scientist Corey Robin argues that fear – which he describes as “the most electric of emotions” – “seldom yields, over the long term, the unity and energy so many hope to obtain from it.” That may be because, as Aldous Huxley wrote, “Fear casts out love. And not only love. Fear also casts out intelligence, casts out goodness, casts out all thought of beauty and truth.”
Some of today’s fears have roots in the country’s heritage, with its great promise and expectations exacting a terrible price – despondency, when today’s realities are measured against yesterday’s suppositions.
When FDR, in his 1941 State of the Union address, spoke of “four essential human freedoms,” he included “freedom from fear.” Today Americans are as free as they ever have been, and yet they may be more fearful than ever, especially university students, once regarded as the most fearless cohort in society.
“There is an epidemic of fear on the campus,” said Martin Meehan, a former Democratic member of the House of Representatives who now is president of the University of Massachusetts. “It’s far higher than when I was a student. They’re fearful about their safety, fearful about getting the support they need to get through college, fearful about paying for their tuition, even fearful about getting food. And they don’t have confidence that governments and institutions are going to protect them.”
That fear even permeates institutions such as St. John’s College in Santa Fe, N.M., which emphasizes a “great books” curriculum, forbids the entry of secondary materials in class, and prompts students to live “in the book” – surely a safe haven until fear-inducing ideas appear on the page – more than in contemporary life.
“Yes, students find elements of fear ‘in the book,’ " said Mark Roosevelt, the college president. “But all we do here is question modernity, and a lot of people here experience this stage of modernity as exacerbating parts of the human condition that are naturally full of fears.”
Outside the book – outside the classroom – the places where one can experience fear have expanded exponentially.
One of those places is the American neighbourhood.
“Today the prevalence of guns makes the reality of fear greater today than it was when I was growing up as a young Black boy in Flint, Michigan,” said Reggie Williams, a Cincinnati Bengals linebacker who was NFL Man of the Year in 1986. “The Klan was real when I was growing up but we still have to deal with George Floyd and so many other unfortunate martyrs.”
One of those places is in the environment. Fear of climate change is rampant.
“This is one of those places where fear is justified,” said Roy Scranton, the University of Notre Dame scholar who is the author of the 2018 book We’re Doomed. Now What? Essays on War and Climate Change. “It’s not the floods and fires and collapsing ice shelves that are really scary. It’s climate refugees, agricultural destabilization, resource wars and so on that are real sources of fear. This will completely transform the world we live in – and that is super scary.”
One of those places is the scene of mass shootings – including school grounds, where 140 people were killed or wounded last year.
These episodes of mayhem and death create instant fear. As residents of Charleston, S.C. (nine worshippers slain in Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in 2015); Buffalo (10 killed in a Tops Friendly Market last year); and elsewhere have found, the trauma and fear linger.
“It is inevitable that people, especially those with direct experience of the shooting, will have nightmares,” said Rachel Yehuda, professor of psychiatry and the neuroscience of trauma at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai Hospital.
One of those places is Americans’ chequebooks, as persistent inflation puts tremendous pressure on Americans.
“Given the past 15 years, Americans have good reason to fear the economically unexpected,” said David Wessel, an economics fellow at the Brookings Institution, a Washington think tank. “We keep experiencing economic maladies that we were led to think were extinct. Fifteen years ago, the global financial crisis nearly led to the collapse of the nation’s biggest banks. Then came Donald Trump with, among all the other things he did, boosted tariffs, which not only raised prices of goods Americans buy but threatened a trade war. Again, echoes of the Great Depression. Then we had a once-in-a-century pandemic that put the entire U.S. economy into a medically induced coma.”
One of those places is the school library, where culture wars have been fought over the presence of books that deal with race and gender.
In Florida, for example, Governor Ron DeSantis, a Republican presidential contender, has backed legislation that has led librarians to remove books from school shelves. The country has travelled a great distance since president Dwight Eisenhower, at the 1953 Dartmouth College commencement, said, “Don’t join the book burners. Don’t think you are going to conceal faults by concealing evidence that they ever existed.”
And one of those places is the art museum.
“Fear is the most fertile crop in America, and we are harvesting it in the museum,” said George Shackelford, deputy director of the Kimbell Art Museum in Fort Worth, Tex., where, like museums worldwide, there is fresh vigilance against vandalism directed to art as an expression of protest. “Up to now those people have been very careful to target works they couldn’t actually hurt. They get frames dirty but not the painting, for example. But I fear the copycat person who throws some tomato soup on a bare canvas instead of one that has Plexiglas on it.”
From America’s neighbourhoods to its galleries, fear abides, along with a sense of failed expectations.
“Americans have been sold a dream of material and emotional success – overachievement, really,” said Stewart O’Nan, a novelist who has written about the fear of being forgotten as a writer. “So we have a nearly unbearable fear of failure.”
The United States once was a country where everyone looked ahead. It has become a country where Americans look behind their backs.
“In my youth, we felt fear of nuclear attacks and I remember walking past nuclear shelters and being told to hide under our school desks to protect ourselves against nuclear blasts,” said William Taubman, the Pulitzer Prize-winning Amherst College historian and biographer of Nikita Khrushchev and Mikhail Gorbachev. “But because it was such a huge danger we didn’t worry about it. We didn’t think it could happen. Yet when I go into a mall today I look around. The fear of gunfire in the mall is a more realistic fear than the fear of a nuclear attack from the Soviet Union.”
People react to fear, not love; they don’t teach you that in Sunday school, but it’s true. – Richard Nixon
Ever since Andrew Jackson won the presidency in 1828 by raising the fear of the elites of the time, there have been moments when American politics has been dominated by fear. But since the 1960s, the politics of fear have become a permanent part of the American political landscape.
“What makes the current politics of fear really important today is the fact that the polarization that has set in has exacerbated it,” said Charles R. Hunt, a Boise State University political scientist. “More and more, Democrats and Republicans don’t live in the same places, are of different races and ethnicities and have more and more different values with each passing year. That means the average Democrat and the average Republican are as different from each other as they ever have been, and it becomes easier to pick out all the terrible things about them. It makes them fear each other.”
A decisive moment in the politics of fear came with an advertisement president Lyndon B. Johnson released in his campaign against Republican senator Barry Goldwater of Arizona, who was widely portrayed as a trigger-happy Cold Warrior. The ad opened with the image of a young girl picking petals off a daisy but was followed by an image of a nuclear bomb. Two decades later the Ronald Reagan re-election campaign produced an advertisement focused on a bear with the narration, “Some say the bear is tame. Others say it’s vicious and dangerous,” with the clear meaning that there is reason to be fearful of the Russian bear.
Advertisements stoking fear generally employ instrumental music with minor chords and discordant tones, Ted Brader wrote in his 2006 book Campaigning for Hearts and Minds, explaining, “They show grainy, black-and-white images or dark and muted colors. They show scenes of war, violence and crime, drug use, desolate landscapes, sewage, poverty and death.”
One of the most accomplished practitioners of the politics of fear was Richard Nixon. As a young member of the House of Representatives, he gained a reputation as a Red hunter, and as a Senate campaigner in the 1950s, he described his rival, Helen Gahagan Douglas, as “pink down to her underwear.” He won the White House in 1968 by pioneering a “Southern Strategy” that subliminally stirred white voters’ fears of Black people. One of his campaign slogans was a clear evocation of fear: This time, vote like your whole world depended on it.
“There’s no doubt that fear was a major part of his arsenal,” said John Aloysius Farrell, whose 2017 biography of the 37th president was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize. “He was the first president for decades, if not generations, to have the notion that Americans should be divided, and hate and be fearful of each other. It was the most despicable part of his life. And when he released television ads with National Guardsmen patrolling streets and buildings ablaze he intended to make people afraid that there’s this ‘other’ out there, that they’re coming to our streets, and to make them believe Nixon would keep them safe.”
Since the Democratic “daisy” ad, Republicans have been more eager to employ fear tactics, in part because their message is more likely to profit from fear.
Nicholas Rule, dean of University of Toronto Mississauga, was one of the four scholars in Canada and the U.S. who, in the journal Social Cognition, wrote in 2017 that “Psychological reactions to fear and threat thus convey a small-to-moderate political advantage for conservative leaders, parties, policies, and ideas.”
“There’s an ideological asymmetry,” Prof. Rule said in an interview. “Fear is more motivating to conservatives because conservatives by nature want to keep things the same. They’re more likely to endorse policies that would keep things the way they are – or send them back to the way they used to be. That’s why fear is an effective tool for stimulating support on the right.”
There were all kinds of things I was afraid of at first, ranging from grizzly bears to ‘mean’ horses and gun-fighters; but by acting as if I was not afraid I gradually ceased to be afraid. – Theodore Roosevelt
As the manoeuvring for the 2024 presidential campaign gets into gear, it is clear that the fight for the White House will be a struggle between competing fears.
“The fear stems from a lack of trust, and that stems from politics paying attention to the values underlying our politics,” said former Democratic governor Tom Wolf of Pennsylvania. “People have a great sense of mistrust, and if there is mistrust, it is easy to stoke fear. People don’t trust politicians, but they don’t trust anybody.”
Mr. Trump stirs fear of immigrants (speaking of “illegal immigrants pouring into our country, bringing with them crime, tremendous amounts of crime”), socialists (Joe Biden is a “Trojan horse for socialism”), and economic catastrophe (“We have really become, in many ways, a Third World country”). Mr. Biden in turn stirs fears of Mr. Trump (“semi fascism”).
“It’s not just Trump – he’s a symptom, not a cause,” said Robert Putnam, the Harvard political scientist known for his book Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community, published in 2000. “We’re not living in the equivalent of Weimar Germany or Nazi Germany – our situation today is different. It is not the fear of starvation – most Americans don’t have that. We are all projecting fears. We’re fearful in part because we are imagining what other people may do to us. A country that is so fearful is really in a pickle.”
One frightening result: The opposing party is much more frightening to Americans than it was decades ago. The more different we are from the other side, the more we fear the other side. That fear is both a motivating and unifying force.
As recently as 2016, about half of Republicans considered Democrats immoral; by last year about three-quarters of Republicans felt that way, according to a Pew Research Center study. About a third of Democrats in 2016 felt Republicans were immoral; it has since climbed to nearly two-thirds.
And yet in his book on the history of fear, CUNY’s Prof. Robin offers hope amid the fear. “It is freedom and equality that inspire us to oppose political fear,” he writes, “and it is freedom and equality that underwrite our struggle against it.” In a country that, in its all-men-are-created-equal Declaration of Independence, set equality as an explicit national goal, that provides at least a glimmer of hope for the land of the free that once was the home of the brave.
More from David Shribman on U.S. politics
The Decibel podcast
How did guns come to be such a passionate issue for many Americans? David Shribman tried to answer that question for The Decibel a year ago after a mass shooting in Texas. Subscribe for more episodes.