“The rules!” shouted Ralph. “You’re breaking the rules!”
“Who cares?” Ralph summoned his wits.
“Because the rules are the only thing we’ve got!”
–-Lord of the Flies, William Golding
When the history of our time is finally written, the verdict will rest on how well we learned to manage our fear. While in the present we focus on current events and personalities, in the end, we are all too close. Final judgments usually require time and distance. The older I grow, the more assured I become that we are riding a recurring wave that has carried many generations to this point. I am struck by the relatedness of our news cycles. Just this week the Derek Chauvin murder trial competes with the tawdry mess of Matt Gaetz and the Trump fundraising scam for attention. Easter morning brought the crazed greeting offered up by the former guy whose personal tone-deafness has defiled a Christian holy day for all those except his followers who are blinded themselves by ignorance. They are all caught up in a wave that goes back long before “the Trump era.” What we endured was neither a blip nor as he proclaims, a movement. It is neither novel nor is it particularly effective. The novelist Alice Walker of The Color Purple fame saw it coming in the 1980s:
What the mind doesn’t understand, it worships or fears.
or as has Mark Twain quipped a century earlier:
Conservatism is the blind and fear-filled worship of dead radicals
Fear is not an excuse for the inhumanity and ignorance we have experienced in our times. It doesn’t account for the current wave of greed and hate unleashed after the election of Donald Trump. It is, however, an observable trait that surfaces from time to time. Throughout history, it has reared its ugliness often enough to demonstrate that it is as much a part of humanity’s DNA as the goodness gene. No, it is not an excuse for the worst in us, but it is what gives the worst in us license to act out.
Who Shoots the Easter Bunny?
“Happy Easter to ALL, including the Radical Left CRAZIES who rigged our Presidential Election, and want to destroy our Country!”
–Donald J. Trump, April 4, 2021
I suppose he considers it poor form that we CRAZIES do not return the favor, but of course, the outbursts of Mr. Inappropriate are symptoms of his personal malady in search of a cure. No one should be shocked or surprised by his words at this point. His temperament is by now a mystery solved—he’s a sick man. But the “angry white men” he has stirred to unthinkable rage against the rest of us are men—and women— who share the lack of understanding inherent in Walker’s and Twain’s comments. Worship and fear are related in the context of their view by a shared deficiency, a blind spot, that is deep, wide, and inimical to our democracy. Teasing out Walker’s observation to apply it to our time, whom or what do they worship? Whom or what do they fear?
The core of the Republican base that has not abandoned Trump, especially those who may be considered its leaders (see here McConnell, McCarthy, Graham, et.al) seems trapped to both fear and worship Donald Trump. As inconceivable as that may sound, their words and actions suggest the obvious—Trump holds the hearts and minds of their voter base. In an era of rather manic cognitive dissonance, they can’t live with him or without them. The better question is what does Trump fear? What does he worship? The answer to those questions is dark and painful since a part of his narcissistic disorder includes a need for fawning adoration, for undeserved regard. The public forum of elective politics was for him, and for the nation, a most dangerous endeavor as a loss would invite both public humiliation and loss of esteem—perhaps together, his greatest fear. Unfortunately for Mr. Trump, his greatest fears are tied to his most ardent needs.
Despite this, Donald Trump is less an anomaly than a recurring meme. History teaches us that autocracy feasts upon fear and idolatry. It was so with Hitler and Stalin. It can be argued that Rome and Sparta as nation-states displayed similar traits. Borders and isolationism are symptoms of ingrained fears of losing one’s identity. That fear distorts the reality of our basic human condition— that we all share the same identity.
Along with Alice Walker, I am reminded in these times of William Golding’s vision of humanity stripped of all its evolutionary advantages and left to confront its own mortality:
`“The world, that understandable and lawful world, was slipping away.”
― William Golding, Lord of the Flies
It was the response of the boys, abandoned and alone, to the loss of hope as a rescue ship was seen leaving in the distance. Golding’s sentiment parallels my own felt-experience of the last 4 years, certainly, but really of the past quarter-century. The anger and rage on display during the January 6 insurrection certainly looked the part of a world that had broken its moorings and had slipped away.
The Fear Factor
I have come to realize that Donald Trump and his broken family of faux princes and princesses, the hangers-on, and the Gaetz-like wannabes are themselves more like the boys on Golding’s island—scared and lethal. The historical figures who rise in times when fear has overtaken optimism, as in times of war or famine, can be both destructive and restorative. Curiously, the same year and month—March 1933– that Hitler was given temporary plenary powers in Germany, America swore in FDR as our 32nd president. Both events followed within weeks of the Reichstag fire (February 22, 1933) which eerily mirrors our own experience just 2 weeks before the Biden inauguration. Fear is the common denominator and, in the days months, and years that followed, the men cast by history to play antagonists in the second “war to end all wars” handled the fear that held their nations in its grip far differently. One chose to stoke that fear and direct it towards others, the other decided to harness the vast governmental resources at his command and directing them for the benefit of others.
Trump, like the dictators he so wanted to emulate, has surrounded himself with a cult-like following who idolize him. Like them, the fear they invoke is more motivating than the adoration. But “strongmen” are alike in another way. The fear that helped create them is not the same as the fear they manufacture to maintain the fervor of their followers. This is their “secret sauce.” The Oath Keepers and Three Percenters, like the Hitlers and Stalin’s, weaponize hate, and hate is what they idolize. They too are afraid. Their fear is evident in their weaponry and the body armor they wore that day, belying their pretense of a peaceful demonstration. As white supremacists, they are afraid they will become an afterthought in an American democracy whose diversity, they fear, will foil them. Who would have thought that years later, all those kidnapped slaves and immigrants their ancestors lured and enslaved for the purposes of gilding their wealth has reached a critical mass? That their descendants would reach a majority and could vote?
Bereft of ideas that may attract those voters and choosing not to engage them in civil discourse, they resort to violence and suppression. Losing privilege is one thing, giving up power is quite another. This is not the democracy they had foreseen or intended. Fear has focused their anger and has challenged their party’s very existence. What is left is a shell that hides the racist and fascist debris of white supremacists and nutjobs. That is the ship they see disappearing beyond the horizon. The one that has left them behind. The one that has already sailed.