Fear, Loathing, and Denial at the End of the World
Why are some politicians acting like children in the face of serious problems?
Posted Feb 29, 2016
To listen to some politicians today, you might not know that our society faces serious problems: global climate change and all of its deleterious effects, the 6th great extinction (driven by human activity—half of Earth’s higher life forms may be extinct by the year 2100), major losses in “ecosystem services” such as water and air purification due to industrial activity, the depletion of resources such as fish stocks in the oceans, growing economic inequality, and political instability in the middle east, just to name some of biggest.
As I’ve written before, some scientists who’ve studied the plight of human civilizations of the past say modern society may be setting itself up for collapse, even in the lifetimes of people alive today, because of intense wealth disparities combined with intensifying pressures on natural resources and the environment.
Meanwhile, the presidential primary campaign of one of America’s two main political parties features a cast of characters slinging mud at one another and calling names in what has become a huge international embarrassment that makes even the party establishment cringe. At the center of the action is the party’s leading candidate, billionaire businessman and reality television star Donald J. Trump, widely seen as having dragged politics into the gutter with his schoolyard bully tactics. Check out some of his most and offensive remarks, including sexist and racist ones, here.
Watch the most recent Republican presidential debate descend into a chaos of taunts and name calling reminiscent of a junior-high-school cafeteria interaction:
You wouldn’t know that serious problems lay on the horizon for our country and the world when you see this uncivil behavior. This is a new low we’ve slid into, and it seems even more remarkable when compared to the past. Watch this 1980 debate between Ronald Reagan and George H. W. Bush in which both presidential candidates express sympathy and respect toward undocumented immigrants and their plight. The contrast with today’s crop of Republican candidates, some of whom scapegoat immigrants by making them out as a threat to the country, is striking.
Why is such childish behavior becoming so popular now, and why is a crude candidate such as Donald J. Trump winning so many votes? How could American voters reward this kind of behavior? To underscore the point, John Oliver just last night dissected Trump's appeal:
The secret lies, I believe, in fear. When people are afraid, they turn to someone who seems powerful to protect them. They turn to the schoolyard bully to see if he will come to their corner.
Certain politicians have gone into overtime over the last decade or so stoking fear of particular people they don’t like. Muslims are the enemy, they claim (ignoring the fact that only a tiny proportion of Muslims have ever threatened violence against anybody and that non-Muslims have perpetrated more killings against Americans since 9/11 than Muslims).
Political thought leaders of a certain ilk have done everything in their ability to paint President Barack Obama as an outsider and a threat to the United States. They’ve obstructed his agenda at every turn, they’ve said he wasn’t born in the United States and is thus not eligible to be president, and they’ve said he’s a Muslim (as if that should matter in our land of religious freedom). Inconceivably, a large chunk of the American public believe that his goal is to destroy the United States.
It’s no surprise that years of this kind of fear and hate mongering, directed against people who don’t look like America’s white majority, has today led to a fixation on these “other” people—Mexicans, Muslims, and so on—who supposedly will destroy the America “we” know and love. The simple reason that these politicians have resorted to manipulating the public with fear and loathing is that it often works—it gets you in power, as numerous fascistic world figures of the past have demonstrated. But whereas it might get people to rally around you, it’s not an effective way to lead to a healthy, just, and prosperous future. And just remember—the schoolyard bully doesn’t form alliances for free. What will you owe him?
The truth means little to demagogues. “Mexicans” are rapists, they tell us, and climate change is a hoax. These two types of lies, one to instill fear, another to avert action, go hand in hand. They both divert attention from the serious matters we must face and act upon—one is a distraction, the other a curtain that blocks our view of the problem.
Republican leaders shouldn't be surprised that, as one recently said, "My party has gone bats--- crazy." Their own fear mongering has led to this sorry state of affairs. Don't inflame people's prejudices and fears if you want them to behave rationally.
Just today, one of the other candidates has stepped up, dismayed by what his own party is doing. Republican presidential candidate Ben Carson said in response to the baffling popularity of Donald J. Trump, “Right now people are making decisions based on anger and fear and anyone who knows human nature can tell you that when you make decisions based on anger and fear they tend to be bad decisions.”
Carson is right (at least about this one thing), and let’s hope that more people in his party and in the United States will learn to recognize that fear and loathing are not good places from which to make choices. We need adults in the room to envision solutions to our major problems and lead the United States and the world to a society more in balance with itself and nature. If there is anything to fear, it's demagogues who manipulate people for power and don't take our most serious problems seriously.
Just after I published this post, someone pointed me to the following comments by President Barack Obama about the extreme views of the Republican primary candidates, connecting them to global climate change, too. I'll let him have the last word:
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