Should we Americans be afraid nowadays, more afraid than 10 or 30 years ago? The short answer is yes, but a short answer to a complex question isn't worth much.
Fear is a basic human emotion that helps preserve us from danger; without it, and the fight-or-flight physiological complex that goes with it, humans would not have gotten very far as a species.
People think they are afraid of terrorism, or of pandemic disease, or of losing a job on which whole families depend. Or of a president who behaves in an authoritarian manner, is systematically mendacious, starts ruinous trade wars, and destroys the bedrock alliance between the United States and its oldest and most culturally contiguous friends on which great-power peace has depended for 75 years. And we are afraid of these things, and others. But the depth of our fears typically draws on myriad other insecurities that we could not tease apart no matter how hard we might try.
We Americans have grown pretty shaky in recent times. A short list of possible causes is easy to make.
First and probably most significant, we live amid a technological tsunami unprecedented in nature and scope. The result is an accelerating cascade of eruptive discontinuities in social life to an extent that not even Joseph Schumpeter — the coiner of the phrase creative destruction —could have imagined. The same technology that has put most travel agents out of business, and lets us get cash and pump gasoline without having to encounter another human being, is the same technology that enables Donald Trump to demean and weaken American governmental institutions by tweeting directly to his base of support.
Second, our politics have grown uncivil, government can't solve basic problems, our military wins battles but not wars, and our elites — of both parties — have consistently made promises that fell short. It is frightening for people to realize that their leaders have failed them.
Third, terrorism has rattled us, starting with 9/11 but continuing through the lesser forms of murder and mayhem ever since — the kind perpetrated by radical Muslims via internet indoctrination (the Boston Marathon, Orlando) and the more homegrown kind (Columbine, Sandy Hook, Parkland). Terrorism does its damage not mainly through body counts but by undermining the social trust that keeps communities engaged and healthy.
Fourth, broken families produce more insecure children; those who feel emotionally betrayed by those who are supposed to love and protect them often grow into insecure adults, and deep-seated insecurity is a host from which fear feeds.
Then, fifth, there is what the late Penn professor George Gerbner called "the mean world syndrome." People who watch a lot of commercial television and Hollywood shock flicks come to believe that violence, perversion, and plain evil are as plentiful in real life as they are in mass-entertainment fiction. That makes many Americans artificially afraid and has contributed to a protracted moral panic in our culture about safety.
And sixth, there has been, arguably, too much immigration too fast to assimilate in a culture whose swoon of collective self-confidence has made local elites feel guilty about demanding that assimilation. Native-born folk who fear for the benign stabilities of shared reciprocal expectations in day-to-day social life are not all racists, bigots, or "deplorables" any more than refusing to give money to a beggar is morally equivalent to hitting him over the head with a crowbar.
The bottom line is clear: Americans are living in unstuck times. We don't trust one another as much as we used to when we had a common Cold War adversary and common goals to build things together. Our reservoir of latent fear is large, and that's a problem.
It's a problem because fearful societies develop markets for fear abatement. The most effective way for political entrepreneurs to tap into such markets is to focus on what or, better, whom to blame for what makes people afraid. The simpler the depiction of fear's source, the better for the would-be political hustler. Rattled people are easily manipulated by demagogues offering parsimonious, emotion-driven conflations — say, about "carnage" caused by immigrants.
We have become so beset with ambient fear in recent decades that Donald Trump's rise to the White House would be inexplicable without it. Too many people, abetted by the media, focus on the man. That's a mistake. The focus needs to be on what has happened to our culture that allowed a man like that to become president — and what it may lead to next. Alas, in modern historical cases where demagogues have oozed their way to power by harvesting fear, they have often solved small problems — making the trains run on time, building a "big, beautiful wall" — only at the cost of themselves soon becoming a much greater problem.
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Are we there yet? American democracy is not in imminent jeopardy, but American liberal democracy — predicated on the rule of law, individual rights, and tolerance for dissent — does seem up for grabs in a way it has never been in my lifetime. The willful trashing of U.S. postwar grand strategy takes us into a world based not on a U.S.-led, Western rules-based order, but on a ragged concert of great powers with zones of influence. We've been there before and we're still here to tell of it — but earlier epochs of balance-of-power realism did not proceed in a world with nuclear weapons.
So, should we be afraid? Yes, but we should realize that Donald Trump is a symptom of deeper dysfunctions, as well as a multiplier of dysfunction in the false guise of a savior. More important, we should acknowledge that our fear is necessary, for without it we become passive victims of our own bewilderment. We can still work our way out of the mess we're in, with fear as our fuel. But to do that we must understand and tame our fear, not let it drive us crazy. For many people, the difference can be a thin line.