American politics today thrives on fear. Those afraid of Hillary Clinton made Donald Trump president. Those afraid of the president are mobilizing to remove him. Meanwhile, ICE, under Trump, actively and explicitly pursues a policy of fear, and according to Bob Woodward, fear courses through the White House every day. Aides to the president worry about what he might be willing to sign away—even to the point of snatching letters off his desk. That sense of something being signed away, of an “America” constantly being destroyed or eliminated, motivates many voters both left and right. At any moment, everything we have always loved or hoped for might be lost. That’s fear.
“Make America Great Again” took its power from this sense of a forsaken past, but the specifics of that past were always left open. Trump never defined when America was great or what made it great. In fact, when researchers finally asked people to answer such questions, they found a wide variety of answers united by something rather simple: most people, regardless of age, thought America was great when they were young.
For the sake of argument, let us travel back to the youthful days of many Trump voters, and especially that supposedly golden era of the 1950s. It would be easy to point out that this period could only have been great for white Americans, not others. But even if we isolate conservative whites, what do we find? Happiness and halcyon days? Not quite. It turns out that the same rhetoric we see now was on full display back then. Over fifty years ago, the historian Richard Hofstadter wrote that the contemporary Right “feels dispossessed”:
America has been largely taken away from them and their kind, though they are determined to try to repossess it and to prevent the final destructive act of subversion. The old American virtues have already been eaten away by cosmopolitans and intellectuals; the old competitive capitalism has been gradually undermined by socialist and communist schemers; [and] the old national security and independence have been destroyed by treasonous plots.
Such fear is what lent support to Joe McCarthy. Today, it bolsters Donald Trump.
Hofstadter famously called this rhetoric “the paranoid style”—in 1964. The paranoid style combines “heated exaggeration, suspiciousness, and conspiratorial fantasy” with “systemized delusions of persecution and of one’s own greatness.” As he explained, “the spokesman of the paranoid style finds [hostility] directed against a nation, a culture, a way of life whose fate affects not himself alone but millions of others.” It isn’t personal; it’s cultural. In fact, says Hofstadter, the “sense that his political passions are unselfish and patriotic . . . goes far to intensify his feeling of righteousness and his moral indignation.”
For such a person, facts enter the picture only if they support a prearranged point of view. There is no “two-way communication with the world outside his group—least of all with those who doubt his views. . . . He has all the evidence he needs; he is not a receiver, he is a transmitter.” With nothing to learn and everything to teach, the practitioner of the paranoid style emits warnings left and right. “We are all sufferers from history,” Hofstadter concludes, “but the paranoid is a double sufferer, since he is afflicted not only by the real world, with the rest of us, but by his fantasies as well.”
I share these words not just because “The Paranoid Style” is a classic essay, and not just because it reads as though it were written yesterday. I share Hofstadter’s essay because it comes out of the very world many Trump supporters feel they have lost. To get it back—to turn back the clock to a time when America was supposedly great—would not in fact restore equilibrium. It would only bring on another lament. This rhetoric of anxiety extends all the way back to the earliest days of the republic, Hofstadter shows, and it crops up on both the right and the left. Today, seeing what the country is becoming under Trump, we are taught to dread where it might be headed next. “Is Democracy Dying?” asked a recent issue of The Atlantic. The loss of American values, the anxiety about future horrors flowing from the present—this is the same rhetoric that animated the Right just a few years before. Fear is no respecter of parties.
But what if the fear is justified?
That is the big unresolved question, the opening that gives life to a politics of fear. After all, sometimes it is quite right to worry. Sometimes dread best motivates and enables reform. So what, in the end, separates paranoia from a prudent fear?
I wish Martha Nussbaum had tried to answer that question in her latest book, The Monarchy of Fear. Nussbaum admits that fear can occasionally be rational, but she mostly sidesteps the issue. Instead, she argues more broadly that “we need to think hard about fear and where fear is leading us,” since it represents “a deep problem for democratic self-government.” If democracy depends on deliberation and some kind of common bond among citizens, fear, anxiety, and dread all shut that down. As Hofstadter’s historical essay demonstrates, she has a point. From the Illuminati scare of the 1790s to the Red scare of the 1950s, flare-ups of exaggerated fear have often constrained freedom, fairness, equality, and rational deliberation.
The threat to democracy, Nussbaum argues, comes through fear’s devastating effects. For example, fear often produces an unhealthy anger that seeks to blame others for social and national problems rather than trying to solve them. Recent accounts of 2018 Congressional campaigns confirm this general sense of futile rage: “Voters say they are tired of the anger and polarization emanating from Washington,” one article reports. “They say they crave compromise. Yet these same voters view the rival party with disdain and frequently punish politicians for reaching across partisan lines. They want the anger to stop but can’t stop being angry.”
We see this fear and anger everywhere, but its nature and consequences can be difficult to trace. Nussbaum attempts to do just that, and as one of our foremost philosophers of emotion, she is well-positioned to take on such a project. Through many books and essays, she has spent a lifetime pointing people to the central place of feeling in our understandings of morality, law, politics, and more. And on the basis of her previous books (which she frequently cites), she now makes a case for the fundamental priority of fear, calling it “genetically first among the emotions.”
The idea of a “first” emotion makes sense only through Nussbaum’s extensive reliance on psychoanalysis. According to her, we are born into fear. It is our first experience, from which other emotions soon follow (such as anger, disgust, and envy). In a book supposedly about “our political crisis” (the subtitle), most readers will find themselves a bit disoriented by long discussions about infants. Occasionally, Nussbaum leaps from psychoanalytic summaries to modern politics: “And thinking about how we extricate ourselves from infantile narcissism might help us think about how to extricate ourselves from our very narcissistic and anxiety-driven political moment,” she writes. It might. It might not. Either way, if our modern political crisis is really going to be explained by psychoanalysis, readers will need some greater rationale for how the individual, shaped by such processes, relates to social, cultural, and economic movements rooted in so much more.
But more particularly, readers might need to hear how and why we are called to a better way. If certain axioms can be granted, Nussbaum demonstrates, psychoanalysis will do a fine job explaining human nature and behaviour. But a huge gap separates description from prescription. Nussbaum keeps importing moral norms from somewhere else. And that makes sense. After all, we need something external to ourselves if we are going to be called into something other than we are.
Religion, of course, would be one way to provide us with a better vision, and Nussbaum offers a qualified endorsement of its virtues. But for Nussbaum, there is good religion and bad religion. Good religion seeks social justice without the trappings of theology. This is a strange position for a public intellectual to maintain, but Nussbaum is quite explicit. She admires Martin Luther King Jr. because according to her he linked faith, hope, and love together “not in a theistic and theological way, but in a this-worldly way that embraces all Americans.” Even his faith, she adds, was a “this-worldly faith.” “This-worldly faith” enabled him to fight for justice, for “if we think that justice is possible only in heaven, this inhibits our efforts in this life.” Nussbaum assumes people either passively wait for the kingdom of God or fight for justice in the here and now.
Two thousand years of Christian theological traditions (to say nothing of Jewish theological traditions) would beg to differ. In Jeremiah 29, the Lord famously tells Israelites to “seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile, and pray to the Lord on its behalf, for in its welfare you will find your welfare.” At the same time, he promises the Israelites that their exile will end. They are leaving. They work for the good of their city, even as they know that the city, its good, and their place in it is temporary. Many years later, Jesus would teach his followers to pray: “Thy kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.” But he would also explain, “My kingdom is not of this world.” Scripture repeatedly calls followers to work for peace and justice here and now, even as it holds out a kingdom of God that extends beyond this world. Transcendence and immanence go hand in hand, and theology teaches us how.
In fact, it could be argued that “court evangelicals” who baptize, defend, and rationalize the Far Right, have precisely too little theology and too much “this-worldly faith.” For many, the kingdom of God and the nation of the United States have become one and the same thing, and those who fight for a certain kind of nation imagine themselves battling for the gospel itself. Yet if more Christians could conceive of a kingdom of God that does not coincide with America—one that certainly looks quite different from an imagined golden age of the past—then, perhaps, they would not fear so much the changes of any given day. Even as they work for the good of the nation in which they dwell, they would recognize that this nation is not our ultimate home. If, as Nussbaum rightly suggests, we need a “moment of detachment to figure out where fear and related emotions come from and where they are leading us,” perhaps it is an otherworldly faith—a theology that involves and transcends this world—that might best provide such perspective.
Sadly, politics seems to have taken the form today of religious devotion—and that is true even among the religious. Rallies function like worship services. Donations to a political party are the new form of tithing. Rhetoric, both right and left, reaches for the apocalyptic. In the ballot box, good battles evil, and each vote is a cast of character. As interfaith marriages have become increasingly common, many Americans now frown on wedlock outside one’s party. For absolute values, Americans have turned to politics. And the more we find absolute values in a political party or identity, the more our engagement with its opponents will take the form of demonizing a foe. We find ourselves faced with an enemy, a neighbour of another party, who must be feared.
Of course, many of Nussbaum’s readers will not believe in a kingdom of God that could help give perspective on our current political problems. For some of those readers, psychoanalysis may have far more explanatory power than theology. And in that sense, I simply wish Nussbaum well. Among those to whom she appeals, I hope she can nourish and build up “schools of hope” that sustain open dialogue and seek the good of our mutual society. She is trying to encourage a culture with less hyperbolic fear (a difficult qualifier) and more inspiring hope—a political culture where people use their energy to work on solutions rather than work up voters into a stagnant rage. Moreover, I generally applaud the shape of Nussbaum’s career, which has tirelessly defended the value of the arts and humanities in helping us understand ourselves and others with both wisdom and sympathy. In this nation where she and I dwell as citizens together, we share many of the same goals and ends, and she has much good to say. Even if she does not offer all the answers we need, Nussbaum helps us pause and consider whether our fears are justified, and how, in our politics today, we might find a better way.