The Presidential Race Is Already All About Fear

When women in America have plenty to be afraid of, politicians are trying to court us with shows of macho bravery. But is that what we need?

Democratic Debate Fear
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While the old adage may go that we have nothing to fear but fear itself, Thursday night’s third-round Democratic debate, hosted in Houston by ABC News, made an unsettling case for the idea that fear is lurking around all corners of the race to the presidency. In what was perhaps an attempt to prove they can take on Donald Trump, several candidates boisterously used language of intimidation and fearlessness to set the tone that they’re unafraid. But for those watching at home, fear seems like a very appropriate emotion these days. Some people fear their rights will continue to be attacked; others that their next healthcare bill will be the one that bankrupts them; that their town will be the next hit by gun violence, or that another four years of Donald Trump will be this country’s undoing. Rather than take the debate stage with a show of bold empathy for the real fear many Americans are experiencing, Democrats took on a bravado that felt all too familiar.

The President’s go-to rhetorical style relies on fear, paranoia, and anger, as explored by The Atlantic in 2016. You can almost see the landscape of fear unroll, sprawling out every time he stokes hate via Twitter, or attacks private citizens and political opponents alike, or plays fast and loose with conspiracy theories. The language Trump uses is not new to any individual who has encountered someone hellbent on claiming power through intimidation: it’s brash, hyper-macho, and safe to say it’s not seeking to make anyone feel comfortable in the status quo. In a 2016 interview with The Washington Post, Trump said it plainly: “Real power is — I don’t even want to use the word — fear.”

So seeing fear used as a major talking point on the Democratic debate stage was eerie. Bernie Sanders announced he’s not afraid of the NRA — touting his “F” rating with the organization as proof he’d really fight to end gun violence. Joe Biden said he’s the “only one up here that's ever beat the NRA.” Castro announced he’s “not afraid of Donald Trump” on immigration. Strong language also showed up in Pete Buttigieg’s and Bernie Sanders’ references to Sanders’ “damn bill,” and when Kamala Harris joked that Donald Trump was like the Wizard of Oz, nothing but “a really small dude” behind the curtain.

Others addressed the fear that’s out there. Corey Booker pointed out that, in regard to healthcare, there were people watching at home “that are afraid because they are in crisis,” while Buttigieg answered a question about immigration by urging heartland Americans to not fear the immigrants in their midst. Kamala Harris touched on fear, calling out Trump directly by saying he uses “hate, intimidation, fear, and over 12,000 lies” to distract from his broken promises. At various points, several candidates reiterated that they aren’t afraid to take on President Trump, which became the kind of refrain that should feel reassuring but begins to lose meaning the more you hear it. There’s nothing to fear, they want us to understand. There’s nothing to fear, except everything.

For women, especially. Reproductive rights and abortion did not get a single moment in the three-hour debate, a glaring oversight given that, across the country, access to this healthcare is already being actively stripped away. There wasn’t a question dedicated to the environment, despite flooding in Texas (the debate was hosted in Houston) being a warning sign of what the country looks like as climate change takes its toll. LGBTQ rights and issues were barely mentioned, even though three significant LGBTQ workplace discrimination cases are set to appear in front of the conservative-majority Supreme Court in October. Where Americans staring down these issues needed reassurance that someone was up there to make a change, they received little.

It was reassuring, for example, when multiple candidates used the fearlessness tack to say they’d be bold in taking on the NRA. (Beto O’Rourke’s comment, “Hell, yes, we're going to take your AR-15, your AK-47,” proved to be a rallying cry of the night.) And in moments like Elizabeth Warren claiming fearlessness in confronting a corrupt healthcare industry — these were bold statements promising action specifically to quell people’s worries.

But some of the “not afraid” posturing left out that very salient point: That many of us are afraid.

Representative Elijah Cummings of Maryland said back in July that his constituents fear Donald Trump: “I’ve never in my total of 37 years in public service ever heard a constituent say that they were scared of their leader.” In this election, among Democratic candidates, especially, brazen declarations of a lack of fear seems less than encouraging. In attempting to set themselves apart from one another, and each prove him- or herself capable of taking on Donald Trump, many of the candidates took on a similar rhetorical style — impertinent, macho yelling and declaring oneself the biggest and baddest. But we don't need an eye-for-an-eye match to Donald Trump. We need the opposite, someone who doesn't stoke fear, but acknowledges it. Someone who knows you can’t intimidate people into not being afraid.

The idea that Americans actually do have things to fear — another four years of this president; losing rights we have fought for and live by; a crumbling planet and our very oxygen being subsumed into a fire those in power won’t fight; death by guns our government is loathe to take away — means we still have things to lose. It means we believe in these things enough to fear the loss of them, and as we sit around our kitchen tables and living rooms watching the debates (the next round will air October 15 and 16) that concept should be echoed back to the American people, too. It’s what gets people engaged in politics in the first place.

Thursday night’s final debate question was on resilience. Each candidate spoke of a setback or personal loss or failure, something they’d worked to overcome. With all pretense of intimidation dropped, they spoke of triumph and terror; uncertainty and missteps. And it illustrated that the ability to instill fear shouldn’t be the source of our power. The ability to feel it is. Americans need a candidate who has experienced a life of what it means to be afraid, whether it be of chronic illness, or losing a child, or worrying about paying bills, or the effects of incarceration or losing a job. Each of the candidates on that stage have some lived experiences that allow them to empathize with the American people. That’s what they should be talking about. We want them to hear that we’re afraid. We want them to acknowledge that they worry, too. And then show up to keep working, anyway.

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