In December of 2015, at a campaign rally in North Carolina, a 12-year-old girl came up to Donald Trump and told him she was afraid.
“You know what, darling?” Trump replied. “You’re not going to be scared anymore. They’re going to be scared.”
It’s almost apocryphal. The only campaign promise our president has managed to keep — the promise of fear.
And we are afraid, afraid now more than ever. Concerns of mass shootings, concerns of stock market collapse, of the trade war imploding our businesses and farms. And now, fears over a global pandemic, which is already here in our state and experts say it will only spread farther in the coming weeks.
Americans have always been afraid. In 2008 when Obama was elected, family friends posted on Facebook they were stockpiling guns and ammo. A New York Times report showed that this wasn’t just a fluke, they were part of a larger trend of massive gun sales, triggered by the threat of restrictions. During the 2016 election cycle, I heard pastors at churches in town preach fear noting that a hostile and godless culture was going to erode religious rights. That fear got elected. That fear is now in power, but it hasn’t gone away.
In 2016, friends of mine told me they were stockpiling birth control and Plan B because of the fears of Trump era restrictions. Right now, across our nation, the primary results are revealing that Americans are afraid and undecided and going with the person who seems most familiar and comfortable — Joe Biden.
But it’s a generational divide in fears. Polling shows younger people have been voting for Bernie Sanders in the primary, presumably because they are afraid of living a life without health care and burdened by school loans. Older Americans are voting for Joe Biden because they are afraid of losing again to Trump, afraid of revolution. They want to hold onto the way things are without changing too much.
In the end, it’s not ever a matter of overcoming our fears, but whose fears get to win. Whose fears get heard?
For too long Americans have been afraid of the people we need to fear the least — the immigrants and the poor, the people of color, people who are LGBTQ, and the women. We’ve misdirected our fear to the powerless, when we it’s the powerful we should fear. In an address to the nation on Wednesday night, President Donald Trump said his response to the coronavirus is stronger travel ban. The ban defies the advice from the World Health Organization which advises that efforts to combat the virus need to focus on testing and containment. But a travel ban feeds fears and shifts the focus to the nefarious other, instead of on the breakdown within our own country — our inability to test and making testing available.
It’s easier to close down the borders, put families in internment camps, kick people off assistance, not vote for a woman and jail Black men than it is to impeach a president. But it’s not the vulnerable who are kicking people off food assistance, refusing to raise the minimum wage, restricting access to affordable health care, restricting our reproductive choices, failing to adequately fund schools and failing to give us clean water.
But fear is not always the enemy. Fear can keep us safe. It’s an evolutionary response that helps us respond when danger arrives. And we need to use the fear and take this crisis seriously. Currently, many state and county leaders are not doing that. One of the Linn County Supervisors is in New Zealand on a trip, he left the day the WHO declared a global pandemic. Another supervisor who is on the County Board of Health, spent much of the week this week in Michigan with the Sanders campaign. And defying the caution from the CDC and the WHO, who are recommending canceling large gatherings, Linn County Public Health on Wednesday did not recommend canceling large gatherings. Additionally, even as national sporting events across the country are canceling, locally our Iowa High School Athletic Association has decided to hold the boys state basketball championship anyway. The Des Moines Register reported that an Ames woman was dismissed by the Iowa Department of Health when she tried to report an instance where people who had the coronavirus had contact with people at a retail business in Iowa City.
Nationally, our leaders have failed to respond quickly and effectively to the coronavirus. The president downplayed the virus as a media hoax and instead of using virus tests provided by the WHO, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention created their own test, which were faulty and federal officials were slow to find an alternative. A lack of tests has led people to a false sense of security. If you don’t test for it, you don’t see it there. Meanwhile, in states that are testing, like in Ohio, health officials estimate that over 100,000 people have the virus. We need fear to motivate us to safety, but we also need to be careful not to use it as a tool of oppression.
There is a verse in the Bible that cautions against fear, noting, “For God has not given us a spirit of fear, but of power and of love and of a sound mind.” It’s interesting to note in that verse that the corollary to fear is not continuing on like nothing is happening or treating the calls quarantine as an overreaction, but it’s love and a sound mind. It’s the call to care for the vulnerable and to think critically. It’s the call to realize that we need to be aware of our neighbors, their struggles and their needs.
Sure, to you a healthy person, a quarantine might seem excessive, but to your neighbor, it means life or death. To slightly adapt a quote from Molly Ivins: “This isn’t the prairie and this isn’t 100 years ago; the more crowded and complex society becomes, the more each of your actions is apt to impinge on someone around you.”
And, I know it sounds earnest, but that’s the only way to live with courage in the land of fear.