The Politics of Fear

Image: The New Yorker

The election of Donald Trump to the US presidency in November 2016 was a stark confirmation that fear has well and truly re-entered politics.

While this is not a new aspect of contemporary political discourse, what separates Trump has been the characterisation of fear as a foundation of his policy platform.
The difference is that this fear applies bilaterally. Trump’s rhetoric and executive orders speak both to the heightened insecurities of his supporters and to the marginalised communities whom he targets.

The tolerance of his mandate is a reminder to those who identify as women, queer*, disabled, a person of colour, or any other minority, that our battles are far from being won.

We mustn’t allow ourselves to think that, while these are US centric struggles, we are immune to them at home. We aren’t. Domestically, our fear has eventuated in an upsurge in the political influence of parties such as One Nation and Family First, and parliamentarians such as Senator Jacqui Lambie and George Christensen MP.

The success of these leaders is a confronting reminder of the fears ingrained within our social fabric. They’re the same fears which permitted the stolen generations, or the White Australia Policy, and continue to justify policies which support the structural inequities against marginalised communities.

But these do not manifest in isolation, nor are they purely historical occurrences. They are born out of fears of difference, of the other, and fear of changes to the status quo. It’s why our parliamentarians can consciously subject children to the offshore detention regime, abolish the national Safe Schools program, or condone racial hate speech – and know that we will still vote for them.

It’s the kind of fear that allows someone like Jacqui Lambie to appear on Q&A and condemn Islam in front of Yassmin Abdel-Magied, and yet it is not Abdel-Magied who receives support but the Senator who used a platform of ignorance to preach fear and hate.
Politicians have built careers around this. Take Pauline Hanson’s One Nation, for example. Here is a party whose success is dependent on their capacity to capitalise on the insecurities of their supporters, translate this into fear, and then use that as a platform to win elections.
In its initial formation, Hanson successfully took advantage of the electorate’s employment uncertainties and centred these well within debates on foreign investment. In doing so, she seamlessly portrayed these uncertainties into a fear of the other and gave rise to anti-Asian racism. And we elected her for it.

Similarly, Hanson’s capacity to turn employment fear and uncertainties into racial vilification was mirrored during the party’s reincarnation at the recent federal election. This time, Hanson capitalised on a growing fear regarding refugees and security concerns, situating them right in the hands of her supporters’ misinformed perceptions of terrorism. Unsurprisingly, considering her interest in fuelling anti-Asian sentiments, Hanson fanned the flames of Australian Islamophobia. Motivated by the fear she perpetuates, we rewarded her again with six years in the Australian Senate.

Like that of Trump, the rhetoric perpetuated by our politicians have very real consequences for the people whom they seek to target. You only need to look at recent circumstances – the discourse regarding refugees, the structural inequities still facing Indigenous Australians, or the treatment of the Muslim community surrounding the actions of the so-called Islamic State – to see that this is the case.

The age of the 24-hour news cycle makes the transgression of these views so much more widespread and, as a result, more destructive. The misinformed, bigoted gaffs of Trump, Hanson, and the like, are more likely to reach us because they’re almost comic in nature, but that’s what is dangerous. While we’re laughing off Hanson for associating terrorism with a halal snack pack, someone else is genuinely believing it. To anyone’s mind, a rational connection between two unrelated things may be absurd – but if you’re someone given reason to fear the results, it’s entirely sensible.

Ultimately, we are all driven by our insecurities, and when we let someone take advantage of them, we’ll believe anything. And that is the most dangerous thing of all.