The country that Franklin Delano Roosevelt admonished not to succumb to fear and John F. Kennedy challenged to put humans on the moon within a decade, the most powerful country and sole surviving superpower in our world, has become a Republic of Fear.
African American life has always been marked by preponderant, disabling fear, starting with slavery, through Jim Crow and persisting beyond the gargantuan accomplishments of the Civil Rights movement. Fear was a constant companion of native peoples holding on and resisting genocidal policies enacted by the colonists and their descendants. Finally, the ravages of capitalism have always meant that ordinary folks within the majority white populace have their lives dominated by fear of lacking the wherewithal to attain the “American dream”.
But the Republic of Fear is a completely different phenomenon with a specific provenance. Ever since Ronald Reagan’s winning electioneering slogan—“It’s morning in America!”—an appeal to a supposedly new dawn in America, fear has been the Republican Party’s main weapon for winning and maintaining power. Its adoption of “the Southern strategy” to counter the Democratic Party’s grudging embrace of the Civil Rights movement, however half-heartedly, and the need to keep whites in line while demonizing, mainly, African Americans and turning them into a menace, led to the embrace of thinly-veiled (at least until the Obama presidency) racism and bigotry as the recipe for maintaining power.
The party has lost control of the monster it created and Hobbesian mutual diffidence, the source of the war of all against all, has become the hallmark of the republic’s social life. Along the way, our public discourse became dominated by violence, threats against specific groups, and repeated appeals to the basest of our instincts.
America’s so-called “turn to the right” in 1994 when the Republicans won control of Congress after 50 years of Democratic control, has become “the meanward turn”. As revenge supplanted rehabilitation for convicts, an emergent “prison-industrial complex” has made us the country with the highest rate of incarceration of citizens per capita in the world. Our politicians were so eager to “lock them up and throw away the key” that many local jurisdictions are risking bankruptcy because of their unredeemed “investment” in the unproductive prison industry.
A country birthed in utopian visions has almost obliterated, outside of smarmy, hollow nationalism, any semblance of the land of the free and the home of the brave. We have become instead a veritable republic of fear.
What are the features of this new republic? A fellow naturalized citizen cancelled a trip to an academic conference in Canada because she was not sure that our newly-inaugurated president would not make it impossible for her to come back home. Not only does our government seek to undo the citizenship of many naturalized citizens, the president has renewed his party’s desire to undo birthright citizenship, too.
Our institutions—the judiciary, the FBI, etc.—may not be as robust and our attachment to process as solid as we think. Unless the other party wakes up from its “we-must-win-back-Trump-voters” stupor, commit to the future of a nonwhite majority country, there may not be a country to salvage from the slide into white tribalism-inflected fascism. The signs are there in the direction of the Democratic successes in the recently concluded midterm election. Will they seize the opportunity?
The Republican Party, not Donald Trump, represents an existential threat to the founding principles of the country, their well-known defects notwithstanding, and the survivability of its institutions. A nation of immigrants now expels young people to countries with which they have no ties and more will follow if the courts do not stop the madness of removing “Dreamers”.
Living black can be a nightmare and, often enough, a death warrant. Sandy Hook is all the reminder parents need that life’s fickleness is accelerated by a political party’s leaders for whom stoking fear to maintain power is more important than protecting residents, no matter their color, ethnicity, immigration status, religious adherence, etc., from gun violence. If you are a worker, there is no guarantee that any day, yes, any given day, may not be the day you’d not leave work on your own power to return home. You cannot go anywhere—shopping malls to worship places—and expect that you may not become yet another statistic of the unbridled hate of the other that has been let loose on the land by the last standing foot-soldiers guarding the last redoubts of white supremacy.
Our educational institutions are not exempt from pervasive fear. Colleagues, students, and staff, alike live in fear of one another. Students fear to report unpalatable experiences at the hands of their teachers for fear of retaliation. Junior faculty are deathly afraid of crossing swords with anyone: word out is “swallow your pride and go along to get along till you get tenure and then you can resume being a self-respecting human that you always thought you were or would like to be.” Associate professors live in mortal fear of full professors who might block their path to advancement if they do not play nice.
The cost of and accessibility to healthcare has always been a veritable harbinger of fear in our society. Then a president managed to pass a healthcare law that, however flawed, held a significant promise of shrinking the market in death—choosing who gets care and in what quantity—that we continue to entertain. The Republican Party demonized the law. Their success was such that their base voted in Kentucky for a gubernatorial candidate who promised to take away insurance under the scheme for 600,000 Kentuckians who, until the law, never had it.
The law was not so much the problem but that it was going to be the signal achievement of the country’s first president of black descent. People loved the “Affordable Care Act”, its official name, but loathed “Obamacare”, its namesake, for no other reason than the man after whom the moniker is styled.
Our current president’s entire political career before winning office was peddling conspiracy theories about Barack Obama and being the amusing face of the vilest attitudes to nonwhite America; a man who launched his campaign for the presidency by smearing and demonizing Mexicans and who as president would only wish for more immigrants from Norway!
It is no accident that a Republican party whose hero, Ronald Reagan, thought nothing of launching his presidential campaign in Philadelphia, Mississippi, the scene of the murders of four Freedom Riders in the heydays of the struggle against Jim Crow, eventually met its candidate in Donald J. Trump.
Fear stalks the land. The party’s white supporters do not live in any less fear than their compatriots whom they regard as not-really-Americans. Incidentally, fear breeds more fear and rising levels of craziness on the part of those who, impelled by fear, wish “to take their country back.” A country that continues to entertain the claim of being mankind’s last hope, the shining house on a hill, cannot remain for any length of time what it has become: the REPUBLIC OF FEAR.