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The Fear Election

July 27, 2020

The Scream by Edvard Munch

Reading dozens, maybe hundreds, of articles and surveys and projections about the 2020 presidential election, I’ve been battered by waves of hope, apprehension, suspicion, confusion. It feels like trying to surf in a hurricane.

For better or worse (mostly the latter), I have a simplifying type of mind, the kind that searches for a small number of principles to explain a giant mess. This inclination points me to one basic force behind this year’s politics.

Fear.

The 2020 election will turn, I believe, on what the voters, or those in swing states, are most afraid of.

For some, it’s an amorphous but overriding panic that those people—those who differ from traditional Americans—are taking over the country: i.e., non-whites, non-Christians, non-straights, non-English-speakers, non-male-supremacists, non-rugged-individualists. To liberals, that fear seems so absurd as to be unfathomable, and yet it keeps growing like a poisonous mushroom.

As for the liberals, they (or we, for I’m clearly one) believe the country is on the verge of a fascist dictatorship, even though the president and his cronies have proved massively incompetent at pursuing their agenda. We fear they will intensify the destruction of the rights, and the very lives, of people of color, immigrants, gays, and all other historically marginalized groups (and maybe some new ones they invent). Conversely, we fear their incompetence and stupidity will help the coronavirus kill us all. We can’t decide which is scarier, their actions or their inaction.

1968 was a fear election, at least for Nixon voters, but this year seems even more intense. As anxieties on both sides build, there’s talk—and more fear—of a violent takeover by the other guys, a revolution by the left or a coup from the right. The result is a much fiercer test of our institutions than Nixon ever managed.

George Will just published a column contending that 1942 was just as disruptive as 2020. Perhaps luckily for FDR, that wasn’t a presidential election year. America was hardly unified then, Will points out, even with Hitler and Tojo as looming external threats. “In 1942’s off-year elections, the president’s party took a drubbing.”

Still, this year seems worse in at least one respect: Americans can scarcely agree on a single common enemy. My hero is your enemy—and don’t you dare tear down my statue!

So I wonder, is our democracy, which some say no longer deserves the name, resilient enough to survive, or is it already stretched to the snapping point? I admit to being a sucker for traditional American optimism, but this year, I just don’t know …

3 Responses to “The Fear Election”


  1. I know where I stand: Trump’s the worst. And plenty of Republicans aren’t far behind him.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Ken Dowell Says:

    There is clearly a lack as aspirational goals associated with this campaign. For me it’s just about eliminating Trump, one of the vilest human beings on the face of the earth.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Sam Gridley Says:

      Well, Biden is being pressed from the left to articulate bold aspirations, but for most center-left people, as you say, it’s more a fear of what Trump will do, or continue to do. The “Back” in Biden’s awkward economic slogan, “Build Back Better,” says a lot.

      Like


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