Stop Telling Us To Be Terrified. We Should Be Pissed.

Fear makes us freeze. Anger makes us fight back.

Theo Anderson

When you’re told to be terrified, be outraged instead. It’ll do you and the movement a lot more good, and go a lot further in producing the hope, creativity and determination that we need to meet the current challenges. (Ted Eytan/ Flickr)

Plain old fear isn’t enough any­more, appar­ent­ly. Since the elec­tion, dozens of head­lines and essays have urged us to be ter­ri­fied about the admin­is­tra­tion of Don­ald Trump.

"Intimidation is the most powerful tool of every would-be and actual tyrant."

A par­tial list of things that you must be ter­ri­fied about includes: Steve Ban­non’s influ­ence, Trump’s unhinged opti­mism, Trump’s utter incom­pe­tence, Trump’s Cab­i­net picks, Trump, him­self, just in gen­er­al, and most of his actions since tak­ing office, Trump’s impact on cli­mate-change, Trump and the GOP’s plan to repeal Oba­macare, the impli­ca­tions of Trump’s poli­cies for women and his treat­ment of the press. One piece called Trump’s behav­ior not only ter­ri­fy­ing but pet­ri­fy­ing,” which lit­er­al­ly means fear so acute that it cre­ates paralysis. 

Trump’s behav­ior and agen­da are hideous for these rea­sons and many more. But are ter­ror and paral­y­sis real­ly what we should encour­age? They’re under­stand­able, but call­ing Trump and his cabal of char­la­tans, flunkies and lunatics ter­ri­fy­ing” gives them a cer­tain per­verse respect. And it plays right into their agen­da. Intim­i­da­tion is the most pow­er­ful tool of every would-be and actu­al tyrant. Bet­ter to be feared than loved if you can­not be both, as Nic­colò Machi­avel­li advised.

The odd thing about the ubiq­ui­ty of the ter­ri­fy­ing” mantra is that it cuts against what is maybe the most deeply ingrained tru­ism in all of Amer­i­can pol­i­tics: The only thing we have to fear is fear itself,” as Franklin Roo­sevelt said in his first inau­gur­al address, a warn­ing that was repeat­ed most recent­ly, if less mem­o­rably, in Barack Obama’s farewell speech in ear­ly Jan­u­ary: Democ­ra­cy can buck­le when it gives in to fear … So let’s be vig­i­lant, but not afraid.”

Com­pare the cur­rent drum­beat of fear-mon­ger­ing with the Tea Par­ty and its dom­i­nant emo­tion: anger. Tea Partiers were pissed. Out­raged. As a New York Times writer not­ed, in mid-2010: The seething anger that seems to be an indige­nous aspect of the Tea Par­ty move­ment … is already reshap­ing our polit­i­cal landscape.”

Indeed, it was. A 2013 analy­sis found that the move­ment was respon­si­ble for between 2.7 and 5.5 mil­lion addi­tion­al votes for the GOP in the House in the 2010 elec­tion, in which Repub­li­cans gained con­trol of that cham­ber by pick­ing up 63 seats and cre­at­ed a fortress against pro­gres­sive poli­cies being con­sid­ered, much less passed, for the remain­der of the Oba­ma administration.

There’s an estab­lished sci­ence and psy­chol­o­gy to this. Fear clouds judge­ment and forces retreat, which is why Tea Partiers didn’t hold up signs telling each oth­er to be ter­ri­fied. They got angry and demand­ed that the gov­ern­ment stay the hell away from their Social Secu­ri­ty and Medicare.

Anger engages the mind and ignites more of the emo­tions that the resis­tance” needs to cul­ti­vate right now. It not only moves us toward what we want but fuels opti­mism, cre­ative brain­storm­ing, and prob­lem solv­ing by focus­ing mind and mood in high­ly refined ways,” as Psy­chol­o­gy Today recent­ly not­ed. Brain­wise, it is the polar oppo­site of fear, sad­ness, dis­gust, and anx­i­ety — feel­ings that prompt avoid­ance … When the gall ris­es, it pro­pels the irate toward chal­lenges they oth­er­wise would flee.”

The rea­sons to feel fear are plen­ty obvi­ous. They don’t need to be encour­aged. When you’re told to be ter­ri­fied, be out­raged instead. It’ll do you and the move­ment a lot more good, and go a lot fur­ther in pro­duc­ing the hope, cre­ativ­i­ty and deter­mi­na­tion that we need to meet the cur­rent challenges. 

Theo Ander­son is an In These Times con­tribut­ing writer. He has a Ph.D. in mod­ern U.S. his­to­ry from Yale and writes on the intel­lec­tu­al and reli­gious his­to­ry of con­ser­vatism and pro­gres­sivism in the Unit­ed States. Fol­low him on Twit­ter @Theoanderson7.
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