The Politics of Fear Itself

Fear is not what’s driving Americans to support Trump—it is, instead, how many justify their support.

By Peter Wehner

A few months ago, I had an email exchange with a person who works in the right-wing-media world. He said that crime was “surging,” a claim that just happened to advance the Trumpian narrative that America during the Biden presidency is a dystopia.

I pointed out that the preliminary data showed a dramatic drop in violent crime last year. (Violent crime spiked in the final year of Donald Trump’s presidency, during the coronavirus pandemic, and has declined in each year of Joe Biden’s presidency.) During our back-and-forth, my interlocutor at first denied that crime had dropped. He sent me links showing that crime rates in Washington, D.C., were increasing, as though a national drop in crime couldn’t be accompanied by an increase in individual cities. He insisted the data I cited were false, implying they were the product of the liberal media. “Perception is reality,” he told me. “Nobody is buying the narrative that crime is getting better.”

Eventually, after I responded to each of his claims, he reluctantly conceded that crime, rather than surging, was dropping—but ascribed the source of the progress to Republican states. I corrected him on that assertion, too. (Crime has dropped in both red and blue states.) He finally admitted that, yes, crime was decreasing, and in blue states too, but said the drop was inevitable, the result of the pandemic’s end. So he blamed Biden when he thought violent crime was increasing and insisted Biden deserves no credit now that violent crime is decreasing.

I consider where we ended up a victory, but only a partial and temporary one. His fundamental storyline hasn’t changed. Virtually every day he insists that life in America under Biden is a hellscape and that his reelection would lead to its destruction.

Welcome to MAGA world.

I mention this exchange because it reveals something important about the MAGA mind. Trump and his supporters have a deep investment in promoting fear. At almost every Trump rally, the former president tries to frighten his supporters out of their wits. He did this in 2016 and 2020, and he’s doing it again this year.

“If he wins,” Trump said of Biden during a rally in Schnecksville, Pennsylvania, “our country is going to be destroyed.” Trump also said this of Biden: “He’s a demented tyrant.” After Trump’s victories on Super Tuesday, he told an audience of his supporters, “Our cities are choking to death. Our states are dying. And frankly, our country is dying.”

Other politicians have been fearmongers, but none has been as relentless and effective as Trump. He has an unparalleled ability to promote feelings of terror among his base, with the goal of translating that terror into votes.

But as I recently argued, Biden has been president for nearly three and a half years, and America has hardly entered a new Dark Age. In some important respects, in fact, the nation, based on empirical evidence, is doing better during the Biden years than it did during the Trump years. And evangelical and fundamentalist Christians, who comprise the most loyal and embittered parts of the Trump base, enjoy perhaps the greatest degree of religious liberty they ever have, and they are among the least persecuted religious communities in history. The number of abortions, of particular concern for evangelical Christians, declined steadily after 1990. At the end of Barack Obama’s presidency, during which there was a decrease of nearly 30 percent, the number of abortions reached its lowest level since Roe v. Wade was decided, in 1973. (During the Trump administration, the number of abortions increased by 8 percent.)

For many Trump supporters, then, fear is not so much the cause of their support for the former president as a justification for it. They use fear to rationalize their backing for Trump. They have a burning need to promote catastrophism, even if it requires cognitive distortion, spreading falsehoods, and peddling conspiracy theories.

But why? What’s driving their ongoing, deepening fealty to Trump?

Part of the explanation is partisan loyalty. Every party rallies around its presidential nominee, even if the nation is flourishing under the stewardship of an incumbent from the other party.

But that reasoning takes us only so far in this case. For one thing, it’s nearly inconceivable to imagine that if any other former president did what Trump has done, Republicans would maintain their devotion to him. Richard Nixon committed only a fraction of Trump’s misdeeds, and the GOP broke with him over the revelation of the “smoking gun” tapes. It was not his liberal critics, but the collapse of support within the Republican Party, that persuaded Nixon to resign.

Beyond that, Trump was not an incumbent this cycle. In 2020, he lost the presidency by 72 electoral votes and 7 million popular votes; Republicans lost control of the Senate, and Democrats maintained their majority in the House. In the past, when a one-term president was defeated and dragged his party down in the process, he was shown the exit. But despite Trump being a loser, Republicans remain enthralled by him. So something unusual is going on here.

Human beings have a natural tendency to organize around tribal affiliations. Some are drawn to what the Danish political scientist Michael Bang Petersen calls the “need for chaos,” and wish to “burn down” the entire political order in the hopes of gaining status in the process. (My colleague Derek Thompson wrote about Petersen and his work earlier this year.) And social scientists such as Jonathan Haidt point out that mutual outrage bonds people together. Sharing anger can be very pleasurable, and the internet makes doing this orders of magnitude easier.

For several decades now, the Republican base has been unusually susceptible to these predispositions. Grievances had been building, with Republicans feeling as though they were being dishonored and disrespected by elite culture. Those feelings were stoked by figures such as Newt Gingrich and Pat Buchanan, who decivilized politics and turned it into a blood sport. And then came Trump, the most skilled and successful demagogue in American history.

An extraordinary connection between Trump and his base was forged when he descended the golden escalator at Trump Tower in the summer of 2015 and employed his dehumanizing language. Almost every day since then, he has selected targets at which to channel his hate, which appears to be inexhaustible, and ramped up his rhetoric to the point that it now echoes lines from Mein Kampf. In the process, he has fueled the rage of his supporters.

Trump not only validated hate; he made it fashionable. One friend observed to me that Trump makes his supporters feel as if they are embattled warriors making a last stand against the demise of everything they cherish, which is a powerful source of personal meaning and social solidarity. They become heroes in their own mythological narratives.

But it doesn’t stop there. Trump has set himself up both as a Christ figure persecuted for the sake of his followers and as their avenging angel. At a speech last year at the Conservative Political Action Conference, Trump said, “In 2016, I declared, ‘I am your voice.’ Today, I add: I am your warrior. I am your justice. And for those who have been wronged and betrayed, I am your retribution. I am your retribution.”

“You’re not selling ‘Morning in America’ from Mar-a-Lago,” Steve Bannon, one of the MAGA movement’s architects, told The New York Times’ Charles Homans. “You need a different tempo. He needed to reiterate to his followers, ‘This is [expletive] revenge.’”

Malice, enmity, resentments: These are the emotions driving many Trump supporters. They’re why they not only accept but delight in the savagery and brutishness of Trump’s politics. They’re why you hear chants of “Fuck Joe Biden” at Trump rallies. His base constantly searches for new targets, new reasons to be indignant. It activates the pleasure center of their brain. It’s a compulsion loop.

Which brings me back to the exchange I described at the beginning of this essay. My interlocutor was clearly rooting against good news; though he would deny it, the implication of his response was that he wanted crime to get worse. Not because he was rooting for innocent people to die, though that would be the effect. What appeared to animate him—as it has for the entire Biden presidency—is the awareness that good news for America means bad news for MAGA world. Worse yet, good news would be celebrated by people—Biden, Democrats, Never Trumpers—he has grown to hate. But hate is an unattractive emotion to celebrate; it benefits from a polite veneer.

In this case, the finishing coat is fear, the insistence that if Biden is president, all that Trump’s supporters hold dear will die. This isn’t true, but it doesn’t matter to them that it’s not true. The veneer also makes it easier for Trump supporters—evangelical Christians, “constitutional conservatives,” champions of law and order, and “family values” voters among them—to justify their support for a man who embodies almost everything they once loathed.

Even as Donald Trump’s politics has become more savage, his threats aimed at opponents more ominous, and his humiliation of others more frequent—he has become ever more revered by his supporters.

I imagine that even some of the Republican Party’s harshest liberal critics could not have anticipated a decade and a half ago that the GOP would be led by a man who referred to a violent mob that stormed the Capitol to stop the peaceful transfer of power as “political prisoners,” “hostages,” and “patriots.” It’s been an astonishing moral inversion, a sickening descent. And it’s not done.


Peter Wehner is a contributing writer at The Atlantic and a senior fellow at the Trinity Forum.

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