In less than 90 years, we’ve gone from “The only thing we have to fear is fear itself” to “the only thing we have is fear itself.”
FDR’s first inaugural address, in 1933 at the depth of the Great Depression, contained one of the all-time great lines in American history. Trump’s inaugural address contained one of the worst lines: “American carnage.” He started his campaign with fear — fear of Mexicans, fear of the “other,” fear of Democrats. Now, as he starts his (hopefully) final hurrah, fear is all he has left.
Paul Krugman made that very clear in his column today:
This week’s Republican National Convention, by contrast [to the Democrats’], however positive its official theme, is going to be QAnon all the way.
I don’t mean that there will be featured speeches claiming that Donald Trump is protecting us from an imaginary cabal of liberal pedophiles, although anything is possible. But it’s safe to predict that the next few days will be filled with QAnon-type warnings about terrible events that aren’t actually happening and evil conspiracies that don’t actually exist.
The Malignant Mangoface hasn’t just adopted QAnon; he’s embraced it the way he humps a flag.
Why this fixation on phantom menaces? There has always been a paranoid style in American politics that sees sinister conspiracies behind social and cultural change — a style going all the way back to fear of Catholic immigrants in the 19th century. Those of us who remember the 1990s know that QAnon-type conspiracy theories have been out there for decades; they’ve just become more visible thanks to social media and a president who attributes all his failures to the machinations of the “deep state.”
Krugman’s point, which is the same one we’ve all felt all along, is that Trump is incapable of coping with any crisis he didn’t manufacture himself.
Trump, in other words, can’t devise policies that respond to the nation’s actual needs, nor is he willing to listen to those who can. He won’t even try. And at some level both he and those around him seem aware of his basic inadequacy for the job of being president.
What he and they can do, however, is conjure up imaginary threats that play into his supporters’ prejudices, coupled with conspiracy theories that resonate with their fear and envy of know-it-all “elites.” QAnon is only the most ludicrous example of this genre, all of which portrays Trump as the hero defending us from invisible evil.
Actually, Trump isn’t even capable of coping with crises that he invented. But we have a real crisis on our hands now — several, in fact: the pandemic, the economy, systemic racism resurfaced, the rise of autocracy, Russia’s determination to destabilize the West combined with China’s determination to take over the world. Trump doesn’t know what to do and doesn’t care to try, so he tries to make us believe they aren’t crises after all. When that fails — as it has — he tries distracting us with a shiny object.
It’s also likely he actually believes the QAnon spew; to him, any resistance, objection, even failure to sufficiently worship him, is evidence of a conspiracy against him.
It’s not likely to get him re-elected, but Krugman’s final words are a warning not to take it or anything for granted:
If all of this sounds crazy, that’s because it is. And it’s almost certainly not a political tactic that can win over a majority of American voters. It might, however, scare enough people that, combined with vote suppression and the unrepresentative nature of the Electoral College, Trump can manage, barely, to hang on to power.
I don’t think this desperate strategy is going to work. But it’s all Trump has left. The only thing he can hope for is fear itself — nameless, unreasoning, unjustified terror based on nothing real at all.