We have nothing to fear but fear itself.
If you grew up in the US during the mid-to-late 20th century, as I did, this quotable quote was like a mantra echoing around popular culture and memory. It was spoken, more or less, by President Franklin Delano Roosevelt in his first inaugural address in 1933, then smoothed slightly by time’s revising red pen for extra clarity and rhythm. It’s supposed to be everything you ever needed to know about FDR’s approach to depression and war (and thus it’s a key point in millions of exam papers in American history).
It’s a nice line, but as political wisdom I never really felt it. In the years after 9/11, when people on the left – Michael Moore, most prominently and insistently – proclaimed that Bush and his cronies were practising a politics of fear, I didn’t buy it. If you insist on attributing emotional affect to a ‘global war on terror’ that was basically set up to advance US economic and geopolitical interests, you might try ‘sadistic rage’ – and the same goes for the Islamophobia that has followed it in its wake; but I must say I never saw a whole lot of fear, real or imagined, felt or conjured, in the waging or selling of that war, those wars.
These days, some of the same people who analysed Bush’s alleged politics of fear with such disdain are all over the internet being… fearful. Or at least saying they’re afraid, which may or may not be the same thing. The torrent of left and liberal fear-discourse unleashed by the Brexit vote and the resulting boost to Britain’s racist right has been unmissable, but it was preceded over the last year by a rising tide of fearful postings about the triumphs of Trumpism.
Almost everyone I have seen expressing such political fear is a middle-class white person. (Yes, I know that such persons are disproportionately represented on the internet, but my American Facebook friends include dozens of working-class schoolmates of widely varying pigmentation – thus far more or less fearless – so I do actually have a contrasting sample from which to draw my generalisation.) Therefore I find myself frequently suppressing an urge to comment along the following lines: ‘Unless and until it’s your ass that is liable to be locked up, shot at, kicked out or at least kicked as a consequence of these political developments, expressions of fear are self-indulgent and evasive’. Or just ‘STFU’.
I suppress the urge, because I think these new fear-mongerers mean well, and their fears are often genuinely felt and expressed on behalf of those people who (yes) have very real reason to be fearful right now. Some of these relatively privileged people have in the past and would in the future voluntarily put their asses in danger. But I worry that, in general, fear is demobilising, paralysing, stupefying. Examples of the stupefaction include, say, the ‘pro-EU’ demonstration in London after the Brexit vote, less than a year after thousands rallied across Europe to defend Greece from the predations of Brussels and Frankfurt. (Pro-migrant demos are another story, and very much welcome.) In a US context, stupefaction would entail lefties campaigning for that war-loving creature of Goldman Sachs, Hillary Clinton.
Yes, it’s tricky. No, I’m not (quite) one of those leftists who cheers every two-fingered salute directed at ‘elites’; thinks that the more crisis-y things get, the better; insists that Trump’s pronouncements on trade and war put him meaningfully to Clinton’s left. I am, however, one of those leftists who looks at a world that has seen the rise of Sanders as well as Trump (Bernie got almost as many primary-season votes as The Donald with barely one per cent of the media attention), of Corbyn as well as Farage, of Syriza as well as the Front National, and thinks, “Same shitstorm, different brollies”.
Given what neoliberalism has unleashed upon the world, and given the historic capitulation of most of the left to its power, perhaps we can be encouraged that, globally, there is actually quite a lot of potent and popular left-wing resistance to counter the racists, proto-fascists and capitalists. Admittedly it doesn’t arouse quite so much optimism when, say, Syriza joins the ranks of capitulation, or when most British ‘Labour’ MPs choose to line up with the capitalists and against the resistance, even when the resistance takes the form of their own party leader.
How can we oppose the murderous racist right without serving the murderous technocratic centre? By being clear about the principles on which we stand.
When it appeared Donald Trump would visit Ireland in late June, I was asked to support the #TrumpNotWelcome campaign of protest. I did so for two basic reasons: (1) none of the major political figures of US power should be welcome here – this view would not necessarily be widely shared, given that Vice President Joe Biden was in town, unmolested, by the time #TrumpNotWelcome held its press conference; and (2) Trump (like Farage) instrumentalises racism and sexism as political tools in a way that merits special condemnation, not merely on moral grounds but because he opens discursive space where racists, misogynists and fascists can thrive.
The sort of objection to Trump’s discourse summed up in that second point is easily confused with an objection to vulgarity, as in ‘Ew, he has really crossed the line this time, hasn’t he?’ (To be followed, time and time again, by the discovery that Republican voters have stronger stomachs, or wider lines, than most of us.) There is nothing to be gained and an awful lot to be lost when we depict Trump (and Brexit) supporters as crude ignoramuses who can’t and don’t appreciate the finer aspects of political and cultural life.
In the aftermath of the Brexit referendum, there was a slew of agonised articles and postings that perhaps could be summarised in the cry, ‘Oh my god they’ve killed Beethoven!’. This particular europhiliac tendency was dopey in any number of ways, but mainly for the conflation of historic European culture, writ large, with the narrow reality of the EU – which still has only half the membership of, say, UEFA. (The Brexit-related schadenfreude when England’s football team was knocked out of the Euros by Iceland mostly managed to ignore the fact that they were despatched by representatives of a country that has stayed out of the EU on principle.)
Neither Trump nor the right-wing Brexiters can kill the reality of multicultural, multiracial societies on both sides of the Atlantic in which the phrase ‘white working class’ is less a sociological description than an appeal to nostalgia. They can, however, make life quite a bit harder for people who are already on the sharp end of discrimination, poverty, violence and disenfranchisement. So the third main reason to say #TrumpNotWelcome is to honour and stand beside the significant numbers of mostly young black and Latino activists in the United States who have (fearlessly, you could even say, though I’m sure there was plenty of fear involved) gone into the streets and into Trump rallies to say the same thing.
He needs to be fought clearly, without caricature, without contempt for the people who dig his act, but in defence of the people for whom its consequences are all too real. And we need to do that without exaggerating his power too: Trump is unlikely to be president, and the age demography of his support – as opposed to, say, that of Bernie Sanders – points to a far brighter future. But that future won’t come without a fight, and without rallying forces that understand just as well what terrors might await us in another Clinton presidency as they do the fearsome prospect of President Donald Trump.
By Harry Browne