Van Ens: Why fear attracts us, and how politicians use it to their advantage (column)
Some evangelical preachers use the same verbal playbook President Donald Trump does to make us shudder. They prey on fears. These preachers threaten us with a scary future because they believe the world’s end is near.
Similarly, Trump plays on fear. He tweets about how he alone saved the nation from Barack Obama’s alleged failed presidency and Hillary Clinton’s bungled White House bid.
To critics who questioned whether our president has the mental agility and stability to relieve citizens of their fears, he boasted in rapid-fire tweets on Jan. 6, that he is “like, really smart” and “a very stable genius.”
My mother warned me that if you need to brag about how smart you are, you probably aren’t. Sen. Lindsey Graham, appearing on the Jan. 8, edition of “The View” TV show, quipped, “If President Trump doesn’t call himself a genius, nobody else will.”
Why does manipulating our fears work in building loyalty among Trump’s supporters?
Sometimes we feel a strange pleasure from jarring events that cause us to shake. For instance, drivers tremble as they slow down and gawk at a car wreck, or we watch scary movies that tickle our imaginations. Some like the thrill of getting spooked at a Halloween horror house. We dread calamities, but events that interject manageable fear draw us to them.
At political rallies, Trump wears a red baseball cap inscribed: “Make America Great Again.” He convinces loyalists that East Coast elites and Beltway cronies spin fake news, corrupting America and smearing his reputation. He promises to turn back the clock to the 1950s, when white guys called the shots. Then the white Protestant Empire ruled society.
After World War II, the GOP hunted “Communists” teaching at Ivy League colleges. They dubbed them “Harvard Red-educators.” The GOP denounced these alleged Stalin sympathizers as “egotistical, arrogant eggheads.” Trump echoes such taunts that make citizens fearful.
Such diatribes appeal to evangelical Christians, Trump’s largest voting bloc. Many of these believers get hooked on a controversial biblical interpretation called “pre-millennial
dispensationalism.” This spiritual worldview offers Jesus’ believers a fearful biblical blueprint for the future. “Wait, for the day of the Lord is near; as destruction from the Almighty will come.” (Isaiah 13:6).
Some evangelicals believe history is approaching a devastating conflict called “Armageddon.” Near Mount Megiddo in northern Israel, the Anti-Christ will attack the Jews and Christians. In the nick of time, however, Christ will come again and rescue evangelicals from this slaughter. They will be “raptured,” that is, saved by being whisked into heaven.
This apocalypse parallels Trump’s dreadful tales of our nation’s demise under Democrats. His fear-mongering promises trembling supporters the president will restore 1950s white cultural dominance and “Merry Christmas” as the universal holiday greeting.
Commentator Ross Douthat calls such verbal schemes “apocalyptic Americanism.” “It’s often a heresy for the disappointed and dispossessed,” he writes, “and it finds its strongest adherents among populations for whom the story of American history is a story of gradual marginalization or defeat,” such as unemployed rural Americans or evangelicals who wince because of lost political clout. (“Bad Religion: How We Became a Nation of Heretics,” Free Press 2012, p. 256).
Americans don’t thrive on threats that doom our nation. Henry Wadsworth Longfellow has it right in his poem “Paul Revere’s Ride.” Colonial patriots shouted a “cry of defiance, and not of fear …” Citizens confident about the future reject scare tactics. They pool resources, work shoulder-to-shoulder and brace themselves for a future that’s not scary.
The Rev. Dr. Jack R. Van Ens is a Presbyterian minister who heads the nonprofit, tax-exempt Creative Growth Ministries (www.thelivinghistory.com), which enhances Christian worship through dynamic storytelling and dramatic presentations aimed to make God’s history come alive.