On August 31st The New Yorker published an article by Evan Osnos titled, “The Fearful and the Frustrated.” The purpose of the piece was to explain why Donald Trump was morphing into a serious presidential candidate. Now, since those lazy, hazy days of summer, the political landscape has changed dramatically. Establishment candidates have lagged, while Trump defied the odds and confounded the experts. Not only does he hold the lead in the Republican field, his closest competitor, Ted Cruz, is fully 20 points behind.
As the title of Osnos’s article makes clear, even in August fear was the major motivator. Americans were attracted to Trump because they were scared, and because they thought he was the Republican most likely to provide safety and security. What exactly were, are, Americans afraid of?
- Of an alien and uncertain world as disorienting as it is complex.
- Of others, especially immigrants, who could crowd us out and steal our jobs.
- Of technology that might make us personally isolated and professionally irrelevant.
- Of income stagnation that could be permanent as opposed to transitory.
- Of politicians who seem irretrievably greedy for power and money.
- Of America badly divided and in steady decline.
Since then there is something else to be afraid of. A threat more dire and deadly, and much closer to home. I refer of course to terrorism. Terrorism hard on the heels of the massacre in Paris. Terrorism hard on the heels of the massacre in California. It is one thing to be scared of an abstraction – such as immigration or stagnation. It is quite another to be scared for your safety on a daily basis – scared of getting on a subway, of going to a store, of sitting in a stadium.
Frightened followers go in either one of two directions. Fear can make us saner, long for a leader who is steady, serious, and sensible. Or fear can make us crazier, long for a leader who is fervid, furious, and fierce. Fear can, in other words, turn us toward a Franklin Delano Roosevelt, who at the height of the Great Depression told Americans that the only thing they had to fear was fear itself. Or it can drive us toward toxicity and demagoguery: toward leaders who promise impossibly simple solutions to complex problems; who exude unquestioning authority in the face of unnerving ambiguity; and who assure anxious audiences that they and they alone can decimate and demolish whoever the enemy.
Times like these provide rich soil for bad leaders.* This is not necessarily to claim that if he ever did get to the White House Trump would be a bad or even toxic leader. But it is to insist that his shameless pandering to the fears of his followers is downright disquieting. Sad to say that so far at least there is not a shred of evidence that Trump will ever incline to the better angels of our nature.
- For more on the relationship between bad leaders and fearful followers see Barbara Kellerman, Bad Leadership, and Jean Lipman-Blumen, The Allure of Toxic Leaders.