Fear Is a Critical Ingredient For Any Authoritarian Leader

The fundamental tool used by Trump and Republicans over the years has never been about promoting policies that will improve the lives of Americans, it has been to stir up as much fear as possible. Their fear-mongering is always rooted in two threats: the one posed by people of color who are a danger to “our” way of life and (2) the one posed by Democrats who want to take away “our” freedoms.

Once Republicans have convinced everyone to be afraid, their politicians claim the mantle of being “law and order” candidates and, as Trump did so blatantly, suggest that they are “the only ones who can fix it.”

At a moment when they didn’t know that they were being recorded, the staff at Cambridge Analytica did us the favor of explicitly describing the strategy this fear-mongering employs.

The two fundamental human drivers when it comes to taking information onboard effectively are hopes and fears and many of those are unspoken and even unconscious. You didn’t know that was a fear until you saw something that just evoked that reaction from you. And our job is to get, is to drop the bucket further down the well than anybody else, to understand what are those really deep-seated underlying fears, concerns.

It’s no good fighting an election campaign on the facts because actually it’s all about emotion. The big mistake political parties make is that they attempt to win the argument rather than locate the emotional center of the issue, the concern, and speaking directly to that.

That first sentence stands out. The two fundamental drivers for human beings are hope and fear. That reminded me of a powerful scene from the movie Hunger Games in which President Snow explains things to Seneca Crane.

Snow points out that hope is the only thing stronger than fear. The crowning of a winner from the brutal Hunger Games was an attempt to manipulate people because “a little hope is effective, a lot of hope is dangerous.”

Fear is a critical ingredient for any authoritarian to maintain power. When people are oppressed, fear keeps them in check. That’s what makes hope so dangerous. The character Silas in Jonathan Odell’s book The Healing is his master’s right-hand slave. He explains it this way: “Mark my words,” I said, “when a man’s not afraid, then he’s hoping. And that’s when all hell breaks loose.”

What kind of hell breaks loose when people are no longer afraid and start to hope? In one of the most powerful blog posts I’ve ever read, Hamden Rice explains how that is the legacy of Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr.

My father told me with a sort of cold fury, “Dr. King ended the terror of living in the south.”…

It wasn’t that black people had to use a separate drinking fountain or couldn’t sit at lunch counters, or had to sit in the back of the bus.

You really must disabuse yourself of this idea. Lunch counters and buses were crucial symbolic planes of struggle that the civil rights movement used to dramatize the issue, but the main suffering in the south did not come from our inability to drink from the same fountain, ride in the front of the bus or eat lunch at Woolworth’s.

It was that white people, mostly white men, occasionally went berserk, and grabbed random black people, usually men, and lynched them. You all know about lynching. But you may forget or not know that white people also randomly beat black people, and the black people could not fight back, for fear of even worse punishment.

This constant low level dread of atavistic violence is what kept the system running. It made life miserable, stressful and terrifying for black people.

How did Dr. King and other civil rights leaders end the terror of living in the south?

So what did they do?

They told us: Whatever you are most afraid of doing vis-a-vis white people, go do it. Go ahead down to city hall and try to register to vote, even if they say no, even if they take your name down.

Go ahead sit at that lunch counter. Sue the local school board. All things that most black people would have said back then, without exaggeration, were stark raving insane and would get you killed.

If we do it all together, we’ll be okay…

That, my friends, is what ended the terrorism of the south. Confronting your worst fears, living through it, and breaking out in a deep throated freedom song. The jailers knew they had lost when they beat the crap out of these young Negroes and the jailed, beaten young people began to sing joyously, first in one town then in another…

Once the beating was over, we were free.

It wasn’t the Civil Rights Act, or the Voting Rights Act or the Fair Housing Act that freed us. It was taking the beating and thereafter not being afraid.

President Snow from Hunger Games was right, “hope is the only thing stronger than fear.” When fear falls victim to hope, “all hell breaks loose.”

Nancy LeTourneau

Nancy LeTourneau is a contributing writer for the Washington Monthly.