Aldous Huxley, author of Brave New World, warned that the most dangerous threat to freedom would come if politics became like marketing campaigns. Advertisers don’t try to try convince us to buy their products because they are better, they try to appeal to our emotions. Sometimes it’s overt (the diamond companies saying that if you get engaged, the man should spend three months salary on a ring – otherwise it can’t be love), but often it is subtle. Think of how ads use sexual innuendo and images, even for things like dish soap. Advertising is emotional manipulation, designed to circumvent and even prevent rational thought.
Emotions aren’t bad. Indeed, ethics and morality may be triggered first by sentiment, as we feel pain or distress when we see others suffer. But emotion can either aid rational thought or it can prevent it. When it prevents it, people make errors. While that can happen with good emotions (feeling in love with a new flame, someone might spend money and neglect friends, only to regret it later), the most dangerous results come from fear and anger.
Emotion is triggered by forces inside our brain we don’t completely understand. Depression, anxiety, fear, and even self-loathing can overtake good people. Usually it’s related to low self-esteem, rendering one susceptible to suggestions – comparing oneself to others, feeling one is a failure, fearing the future. Damaging emotions can ruin lives at the individual level. Tapped into at the societal level, they can destroy cultures.
That is why the Trump candidacy bothers me. It’s not just that Trump seems to be a high end confidence man who is trying to pull off the biggest con job in American history, but that to do so he is using the technique of spreading fear and anger. That leads to division and could damage our political stability.
If the political advertisers tell us that our country is under threat, that things are going horribly, and that we should fear illegal aliens and ubiquitous terrorists, soon society undergoes a similar downward spiral. Afraid, angry and anxious, people trade their freedom for a sense of security, and in so doing, risk losing both.
Many people are susceptible to that. We are going through dramatic period of social transformation, with change occurring at a pace previously unimaginable. As technology spreads, and the culture shifts (gay marriage, transgender, globalization mixing cultures together, demographic change), many people think they are losing the world they thought was natural and normal. To them Trump promises to restore things to how they used to be, a promise impossible to keep. Others see the economy seem to worsen, and blame immigrants and welfare recipients (rather than the big corporations who get most of the government aid!)
The only way to a better and peaceful, successful and prosperous future is to change the way we think about politics and society. Our thinking has to accept how the world is changing, rather than fear it. If fear guides us, then our system and culture will become increasingly dysfunctional, people will scapegoat others, and those in power will find it easy to manipulate us. If Trump’s message resonates, it may be the start of a deterioration of American political discourse (though many might say that deterioration started long before this election cycle).
Life is often a choice between fear and acceptance. Fear of the other leads us to reject things we should accept. Parents might not accept their child being gay, or marrying someone of a different race. Homeowners might not accept immigrants moving into their neighborhood, fearing change and violence. A spouse might not accept the full individuality of the other because they fear not being in control.
Acceptance is ultimately more powerful than fear. You can’t have a good friendship – or marriage, or anything – if you do not accept the other person as they are. You cannot deal with change in your life if you struggle against it. Only if one accepts change can one handle it and make it work for them.
We need as a society to accept the world as it is changing, and not to fear. 35,000 people died in car accidents, 42,000 from suicides…and only 55 from terrorism last year. We should be fearing ourselves more than terrorists! Illegal immigrants are not creating crime waves or economic pain, nor are Muslims in America. Using these groups as a target of the Angst people have about their lives and the future – making it seem like these “others” have caused the problem – sets up division and anger. It also keeps people from recognizing that the change is real – and we need to accept and deal with it!
At this point, Roosevelt’s words still resonate. We have nothing to fear but fear itself. And in this election cycle, we must reject fear.