Fear Itself — Charles P. Pierce on why we’re frightened.
The fear is not simply in this room, as Edward R. Murrow once told his staff when they were preparing their landmark coverage of Senator Joseph McCarthy. The fear is everywhere in our political life these days. It is vividly clear that it exists in the halls of Congress. It is suspiciously active in the courts; in the former president’s second trial for defaming writer E. Jean Carroll, the presiding judge found it necessary to tell the jurors not to tell anyone that they were sitting on the case. In Georgia, Fulton County DA Fani Willis found it necessary to employ a body double to keep her safe going back and forth to court. Also, the fear is more than a politician’s dread for their professional careers which, when you come right down to it, was a huge part of what McCarthy had for a threat to hold over his victim. The fear this time is of physical danger, and it is everywhere.
The good people at the Brennan Center For Justice have produced a startling report about the cloud of danger hanging over local politicians, over members of town councils, and school board members, and county clerks, especially the ones tasked with overseeing elections. The abuse runs the gamut from distasteful attacks on social media to credible death threats. (Just to be clear, all death threats are credible when you’re the recipient thereof.) Its effects on the good functioning of self-government ripple outward. Good people leave public service, and other good people decline to replace them, figuring the game not to be worth the car bomb. One state legislator told the Brennan Center researchers,
“Last fall was the last really serious death threat I got. It was like date, time, location specific. They were going to kill me and then go to the police station and blow themselves up and take as many officers with them as possible.”
This is not some heat-in-the-kitchen political boilerplate. Not with the number of guns in this country. Not after a 50-year campaign of domestic terrorism by anti-abortion fanatics that culminated in a Supreme Court decision that gave them everything they’ve ever wanted. Not with the Capitol Hill pipe bomber still wandering the streets. Not after January 6, 2021.
Some respondents mentioned viral social media and deregulation of guns as aggravating factors. Significant numbers were unaware of formal procedures to report incidents or of any recent increases in government provided security for buildings or their transport. In a time of heated debate about existential issues such as reproductive autonomy, gun regulation, and racial equity, these threats to the free and fair functioning of representative government implicate everyone. As Virginia House Delegate Eileen Filler-Corn put it, “We were going to help improve others’ lives. But we never thought our lives, or most importantly, our family members’ or significant others’ lives, would be in jeopardy. I think you’re going to lose a lot of good people because of it.”
Not while we have armed sedition on the Texas border. Not while we have the current Republican presidential frontrunner. Not with the only other contender’s expressing the opinion that states can secede from the Union if they want to do so, despite the fact that it was just about the only issue that the Civil War actually settled for good. (Pro Tip: they can’t.) Not in this country. Not now. Again, from the new report:
Officeholders across these demographic categories reported experiencing threats or attacks within the past three years. And the volume and severity of abuse have increased in recent years, they said. More than 40 percent of state legislators experienced threats or attacks within the past three years, and more than 18 percent of local officeholders experienced threats or attacks within the past year and a half. The numbers balloon to 89 percent of state legislators and 52 percent of local officeholders when less severe forms of abuse — insults or harassment such as stalking — are included.
Not in this country. Not now.
The statistical findings should surprise approximately nobody who has been even semi-conscious over the last decade and a half. The election of a Black president broke many brains and a lot of them were put back together wrong, and in such a way as to make them vulnerable to the worst kind of political stimuli.
Larger shares of women than men, and larger shares of Republicans than Democrats, reported increases in the severity of abuse since first taking public office. Women were three to four times as likely as men to experience abuse targeting their gender. Officeholders of color were more than three times as likely as white officeholders to experience abuse targeting their race. Larger shares of women and people of color serving in local elected office experienced abuse related to their families — including their children — than did other officeholders. Women serving in state legislatures were nearly four times as likely as men to experience abuse of a sexual nature.
You will note that more Republicans than Democrats reported that the abuse directed at them has worsened over their terms of office. However, as the study also reports, much of that abuse is coming from inside…the…house.
Republican state legislators reported more increases in the volume of abuse than did Democrats. As their leaders have at times failed to condemn violence and violent rhetoric, state and local Republican officeholders have experienced abuse from within their own party for refusing to back extreme positions.
So, basically, and unsurprisingly, the increase in threats and abuse are bipartisan, but most of it is coming from the same sources. Democrats are being abused because they’re Democrats, and Republicans are being abused for not abusing Democrats constantly, nor harshly enough. The fear is nonpartisan, and it is free-floating, and it seeks targets for its own implacable reasons. Like Joyce’s snow, the fear is general, all over the country.
The fear intensified over the years from 2017-2021, and it hit a kind of peak during the insurrection after the 2020 presidential election. But it did not begin there, I remember sensing a kind of wildness in the air during the 2012 campaign, when Barack Obama was running for re-election. His presidency had begun in an atmosphere of ginned-up white hysteria; even before his administration truly had done much of anything. I’m not sure we can chalk up all that video of white people howling about wanting “their” country back to the signing of the Lily Ledbetter Fair Pay Act.
The atmosphere around the 2012 campaign stank with that raw anger, even with as non-threatening opponent as Mitt Romney. (I remember talking to Obama advisor Valerie Jarrett about it at a rally in Florida shortly before the election.) It became clear that the anger had erupted from sources far beyond the fact of who the Republican nominee was, be that Zombie Dwight Eisenhower or Zombie Richard Speck. Obama’s re-election did not dispel the anger. It remained floating in the interstitial spaces between election, looking for new targets and, especially, searching for a focal point around which it could concentrate.
In 2016, it found one, a candidate with a predator’s instinct for identifying the anger and how to utilize it. It was Donald Trump’s only true political talent, and he has exploited that talent ever since. In return for finding its focus, the anger armored him to the point at which he could act with impunity and without shame, a quality he lacked in any case.
Aristotle called this tune back in the Fourth Century when he wrote his essential Politics. There is very little that is complicated about a despotism except the sources of the anger that give it power.
In fact owing to this tyranny is a friend of the base; for tyrants enjoy being flattered, but nobody would ever flatter them if he possessed a free spirit—men of character love their ruler, or at all events do not flatter him. And the base are useful for base business, for nail is driven out by nail, as the proverb goes.1 And it is a mark of a tyrant to dislike anyone that is proud or free-spirited; for the tyrant claims for himself alone the right to bear that character, and the man who meets his pride with pride and shows a free spirit robs tyranny of its superiority and position of mastery; tyrants therefore hate the proud as undermining their authority.
So the anger begets the fear and the fear begets more anger until the anger is all that’s left and the fear is its only weapon. It is where we are today. It is everywhere.
Doonesbury — Change…