The triumph of fear in America

Photo by Ren Rebadomia, Creative Commons

Photo by Ren Rebadomia, Creative Commons

May 21, 2016

Americans are afraid. Oh, they like to pretend that they are the bravest people on the planet. But in reality, fear dominates America society.

There isn’t a fear that Americans won’t embrace. Fear of blacks. Fear of Muslims. Fear of Latinos. Fear of women controlling their own bodies. Fear of big government.  Fear of a transgender person using a bathroom. Fear of change. Fear of gluten. Fear of vaccines. Fear of GMOs. Fear of growing old. Fear of poverty. Fear of getting sick. You name it, Americans are afraid of it.

Fear controls almost every aspect of America society. It seeps into every part of our lives. Not that there aren’t things that we need to fear. But that fear is being used to manipulate us by a variety of entities.

Fear dominates politics. Politicians use fear in a variety of ways, occasionally like a razor blade, most often like a blunt instrument. Pronouncements about what to fear come of Washington or state capitols as regularly as updates about the weather.  Politicians have learned that fear-based moralizing “sticks” (in the words of linguist George Lakoff) even when it is blatantly wrong or dangerous. Men and women speaking in somber tones or hysterical yelps (normally Republicans but sometimes Democrats too) urge Americans to be afraid of … well, it’s something different every day. ‘Our way of life is at risk,” “The nation is in danger”, “This is a cause for great concern!”, “What about the children?”

That fear is then magnified by the media. American media runs on fear. It’s their biggest money maker. This is particularly true at the local level where “Be afraid, be very afraid” should be the tagline of every newscast. At the national level, media incantations about fear are often shrouded in a fog of authority and technology. The Ebola crisis was the perfect example of how national media encouraged Americans to fear in a way that transcended the actual threat. Levels of fear are coded by how they affect the bottom line. If a network thinks a fear will bring in a lot of viewers, and thus, a lot of advertisers, then they will exploit that fear until they have drained every last drop of terror.

Fear is what motivates us to give up our privacy to state security institutions, far beyond what is needed. And these institutions know that and count on us being afraid in order to control us, to convince us that it’s OK that we are being watched, our emails read, our social media hacked, our private musings screened. These are things we should be afraid of, but not an incapacitating fear — an angry one at these outrageous violations. But fear is used to placate us. We’re told if we don’t allow these intrusions, we and our loved ones will be killed. And if we stand up to these injustices, then we need to fear punishment.

Fear, you see, incapacitates reason. It takes our emotions by the throat and lies to us about what needs to be done, which leads us to make the wrong decision far too often. If Americans could calmly look at what they fear, they would likely dismiss these fears as just so much nonsense, not borne out by fact or study. But they can’t. It’s easier to be afraid than to be brave. Easier to be afraid than to actually invest in understanding or thoughtfulness. As a species, we tend to look for the easy way out, the simple solution. Fear provides us with that option.

Fear is what has allowed the master of fear, Donald Trump, to be one step away from being the most powerful man on the planet. Fear is what allows Trump to say that Oakland and Ferguson are two of the most dangerous places in the world … and have people believe him. Fear is what allows him to paint Hispanics as racists and say that “China is eating our lunch.” Fear is what attracts people to Trump like flies to manure. He knows it, too. He plays Americans’ fears, particularly the fears of white Americans, like a virtuoso playing a violin.

Trump did not, however, invent these fears or make Americans afraid. He is merely capitalizing on how the media and politicians laid the groundwork for him. He isn’t actually promising to “Make America Great Again!” His real message (like all liars and snake oil salesmen) is, “I’m the only one who will make you less afraid. Trust me.”

There is no easy way to move away from these fears, and many Americans never will, for some of the reasons mentioned above.

But you can do it. You can pay attention to how things are said. The internet offers us ways to fact-check fears like never before. Don’t just react. Treat every political or media pronouncement with skepticism. Assume that what they are telling you is either incomplete, propaganda or an outright lie, until you know otherwise.

Years ago, on one of my favorite shows, MASH, a character described a brave person as one who does what he or she is the most afraid of doing. Maybe that is the only answer that really works.


Copyright Tom Regan 2016

Contact Tom Regan:


Fear Dominates Politics, Media and Human Existence in America—And It’s Getting Worse,


Facts and Opinions is employee-owned, and relies on the honour system: try one story at no charge and, if you value our no-spam, no-ads work, please chip in at least .27 per story, or a sustaining donation, below. Details here. 

Tom Regan Tom Regan has worked for the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation and with the National Film Board in Canada, and in the United States for the Christian Science Monitor, Boston Globe, and National Public Radio. A former executive director of the Online News Association in the U.S., he was a Nieman fellow at Harvard in 1991-92. He is based near Washington, D.C.

Return to Tom Regan’s page 





Facts and Opinions is a boutique journal of reporting and analysis in words and images, without borders. Independent, non-partisan and employee-owned, F&O is funded only by you, our readers. We are ad-free and spam-free, and do not solicit donations from partisan organizations. To continue we need a minimum payment of .27 for one story, or a sustaining donation. Visit our Subscribe page for details, or donate below. With enough supporters each paying a small amount, we will continue, and increase our original works like this.

F&O’s CONTENTS page is updated each Saturday. Sign up for emailed announcements of new work on our free FRONTLINES blog; find evidence-based reporting in Reports; commentary, analysis and creative non-fiction in OPINION-FEATURES; and image galleries in PHOTO-ESSAYS. If you value journalism please support F&O, and tell others about us.