In his first inaugural address in 1933, President Franklin D. Roosevelt told the nation, “the only thing we have to fear is...fear itself.” Roosevelt meant that fear’s real danger is not the “nameless, unreasoning, unjustified terror” that it represents, but the effect that is has on us; particularly the actions we take in response to it. Here, at least, conservatives could learn something from FDR; and, conversely, from Donald Trump.
The philosophy of limited government at the core of the modern conservative movement has faced many threats; the most acute of which is not a particular person or political party, but one born of nature’s most primordial emotion: fear. When wielded purposefully, fear can transmogrify normally rational, liberty-minded individuals into authoritarians clamoring for evermore powerful government, and leaders eager to give it to them.
Today, there is no better example of the hypnotic effect of fear in the hands of a master manipulator than Donald Trump.
However, and as detailed in a recent analysis by Amanda Taub writing in Vox, the seeds of Trump’s current polling triumphs were planted long ago, in Richard Nixon’s 1968 “Southern Strategy” focused largely on an overt appeal to “law and order” governance. It worked; and the lessons learned resonated through the decades as “law and order” became a rallying cry of conservatives to expand, strengthen and shield the ability of government to “protect” citizens from criminals, even at the expense of our civil liberties.
The slow but steady growth of this paradigm-shifting strategy, which has been largely but not exclusively championed by the GOP (the Democrats have their own reasons for expanding government), would be but a pre-cursor for the unprecedented expansion of the Security State following the 9/11 terrorist attacks. America’s newfound “terror” of terrorism has caused us to barely blink at sacrificing fundamental rights, such as the right to privacy (without NSA spying) or travel (without TSA groping), all for the illusion of safety.
Donald Trump may not appear to be cut from the same Establishment cloth that helped usher in the most expansive era of federal power in modern history, but his understanding of the power of fear and his adeptness at using it to manipulate voters, suggests he has at least read its playbook. He is an authoritarian in anti-Establishment clothing.
The potency of Trump’s campaign rests in his ability to play on a duality of fear; not just upon the physical fears of threats such as crime or terrorism, but of non-physical fear as well. As described at length in Taub’s analysis, these non-physical fear factors accounting for the rise in in Trump’s popularity include cultural changes that threaten the status quo -- the impact of increased immigration and ethnic diversity, the loss of jobs to other countries, and the decline of the traditional family structure, to note but a few. Trump’s “solutions” follow an enticingly simple formula: Give him power as President, and he’ll make the problems go away – regardless of the cost or legality. It seems to be only Trump’s supporters who fail to recognize that this is exactly the excuse President Obama uses to justify his illegal use of Executive power to address problems he believes only he can adequately address.
Trump’s brand of Republican-authoritarianism can never coexist with traditional conservatism; which defines that the actions necessary to making markets and individuals more free must be aimed at keeping government small, and bound by the Constitution. It is a clear, immutable litmus test; and, were the GOP a true conservative entity, any action that contradicted this fundamental maxim by increasing the size of government, or limiting the rights of individuals, would be rejected.
Authoritarianism, however, works exactly in the opposite direction. Instead of weakening government power, authoritarianism demands more of it, even for supposedly benevolent purposes, like “make America great again.” And, almost always, it does so through the vehicle of fear.
What Trump is doing with a not-insignificant segment of the electorate, many of whom were but a few years ago holding up copies of the Constitution at Tea Party rallies, is deeply distressing. Either Trump knows what the law and the Constitution say and he doesn't care, or he really doesn't know; or, he simply is saying whatever it takes to gain publicity and support through playing on people’s cultural and physical fears.
Any way you cut it, the implications are bad.
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