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Fear and Loathing in the U.S. Presidential Election

Sara McCleary

After Sept. 11, 2001 fear became a major player in world politics, as people voted for the leaders they felt would keep them safe in an unstable world.

As we got further from Sept. 11, and the horrors faded a bit from our memories, fear came to play less of a role in choosing our leaders. In fact, in 2008, Barack Obama ran a successful presidential campaign based on hope.

Today, the world is watching another U.S. presidential campaign, and this time fear is back, front and centre. Donald Trump, a man with absolutely no political experience, is in genuine contention for what is arguably the most powerful position in the world, and he made it there by riding on – no, by building – a train made of anger, uncertainty, and fear.

This isn’t to say that Trump created the fear out of nothing. With growing conflicts in the Middle East and every increasing violent act here in North America, the world is on edge. But as our own Prime Minister Justin Trudeau recently said in his first speech to the United Nations General Assembly, “When leaders are faced with citizens’ anxiety, we have a choice to make. Do we exploit that anxiety or do we allay it? We believe we should confront anxiety with a clear plan to deal with its root causes… What is the alternative? To exploit anxiety? To turn it into fear and blame?”

Unfortunately, this is exactly the path that Trump has chosen. He has taken what was originally a slight uneasiness about ISIS, and the presence in the U.S. of refugees and immigrants, and expounded on it until he developed a cult-like following. That following often cites as the reason for their passion Trump’s willingness to avoid political correctness, and to “say what we’re all thinking.”

But how many were really thinking these things before he started shouting about them on television and at rallies? The chairman of the American Nazi Party, Rocky Suhayda, last month noted that, “If Trump does win, OK, it’s going to be a real opportunity for people like white nationalists, acting intelligently to build upon that.” He feels that a Trump presidency would allow for a pro-white movement to see real mainstream success.

And in May, the leader of the Ku Klux Klan said in an interview that “Donald Trump would be best for the job.” He continued, “The reason a lot of Klan members like Donald Trump is because a lot of what he believes in, we believe in.”

If these groups support Trump’s message, and if Trump truly has been “saying what everyone else is thinking,” it follows logically that his supporters must also agree with the goals of the Nazi Party or the KKK. And yet, I somehow doubt that before this campaign began the average Republican voter was quite so extreme in their beliefs, and would likely have preferred to distance themselves from such groups.

Whether or not they would have supported the ideas before the campaign, Trump has done exactly what Trudeau is warning against. He has taken advantage of conditions in the world, and turned what began as a general uneasiness into fear and blame, shouted and accused until he worked countless Americans into a frenzy, and developed what we can almost term a cult of personality around himself. The really scary thing to me, though, is that he is far from the first politician to do this, and when fear is the reason for someone’s political success, things rarely end well.

Sara McCleary has written extensively on a wide range of topics while working as a news reporter and freelancer. She has also completed a master’s degree in history, and further graduate work in interdisciplinary humanities.