Persons whose mode of interacting with the world is significantly determined by fear are not in a position to think clearly or thoroughly. This is not some new-age fatuousness or Star Wars homily, simply an obvious fact. And note that the language used here is fairly deliberate: I’m not talking about persons who are afraid all the time – a truly dreadful, and genuinely pathological condition to even imagine! I mean persons whose conceptual, perceptual, and affective approaches to how they frame and engage with reality have a substantive, more-or-less constant, fear-driven component. Even as this component is not the single greatest part of the entire puzzle (indeed, such persons will often enough hardly even realize that it is there) the fact that it is there, even though it whispers more than shouts, its endemic presence gives it disproportionate influence over the affected people’s lives. It turns out that such persons are overwhelmingly conservative in their political and social outlooks.
People who have this substantial (albeit subtle) inclination toward a fear-driven account of, and interaction with, the world are not particularly less intelligent than other people. Endless sniping to the contrary notwithstanding, neither liberals nor conservatives are less intelligent or less educated than the other. Many famous conservatives have advanced degrees: Newt Gingrich has a Ph.D. In European history, and Ben Carson is, by all accounts (not just his own) an extraordinary neurosurgeon. (Although, in Carson’s case, it may be legitimate to wonder about his genuine intelligence, as opposed to clever puzzle solving abilities..) But one of the aspects of Authoritarian thinking – which is often, if not mostly conservative in nature – is its ruthless compartmentalization. One can be very intelligent and very well educated, but within the fear-driven parameters of the Authoritarian mindset, that intelligence and that education will not be permitted to range freely across the full spectrum of inquiry for very long, if at all. This compartmentalization allows ideas to exist independently of rational critique, and they can take on an emotional tinge – such as fear – which is not objectively merited.
For a very long time, the evidence and scientifically based statements about a fundamental difference between “conservative” and “liberal” thought modes (broadly conceived, hence the scare-quotes) was itself often dismissed as a “liberal agenda” posing as science. There is, however, a fair bit of empirical evidence, which has been accumulating over the years, that the primary (psychological and biological) difference between the conservative and liberal extremes of thinking, perception, and cognition is that those on the conservative side tend to see things in terms of fear and threat.
What, then, are the connections between fear and RWA (Right-Wing Authoritarian) engagements with the world? Robert Altemeyer, writing some years prior to the current round of psychological and neurological research, noted that:
Authoritarian followers score highly on the Dangerous World scale, and it’s not just because some of the items have a religious context. High RWAs are, in general, more afraid than most people are. They got a “2 for 1 Special Deal” on fear somehow. Maybe they’ve inherited genes that incline them to fret and tremble. Maybe not. But we do know that they were raised by their parents to be afraid of others, because both the parents and their children tell us so. (The Authoritarians, pg. 55.)
Fear can both paralyze and galvanize action, but it never leads to cogent thinking. And this means that when fear does lead to action, that action will be driven by habit, not by intelligence. Hence, persons whose jobs often place them in dangerous situations, like soldiers, police, and fire responders, go through intense and continuous training, so that when the fear kicks in they will have cultivated the kinds of habits that will see them through the situation. But if the situation involves novelty and calls for genuine thought, or if the matter at hand really is not a fearful one but is responded to as such, then the habitual forms of action that come into play will (regardless of training, which most people haven’t even the littlest little bit of) frequently be ill-prepared to deal with issues, and often enough not only grossly stupid but downright dangerous.
Fear makes people “cognitively cataleptic”: mentally paralyzed and unable to move on their own, what passes for “thought” is readily controlled, manipulated, and positioned by outsiders. Hence the effectiveness of propaganda outlets such as Fox “News”: manufacture the fear, then spoon-feed the desired conclusion to the “entranced” audience that is ready to have someone tell them what they “really” believe.
We see this over and over again in political campaigns. Liberals turn to expressions of optimism like “Hope,” or “The only thing to fear is fear itself!” Conservatives stoop to cheap fear mongering with images of commies and Willie Horton hiding under your bed, or fostering a cult of victimization with slogans like “Make America Great Again.” (Because it is not great now, you poor abused white people, and those dirty foreigners are flooding into our country to “pillage, rape, and loot, and burn, but all in moderation” … Oops, sorry. Wrong theme song.) The conservative propaganda machine knows that fear-mongering works on their base; the more afraid that base is, the less likely anyone within it will ask meaningful questions.
The above suggests that liberals want to be inspired, while RWA types want to be protected. Bernie Sanders’ current successes in the Presidential campaign would certainly seem to support the former contention, while Trump’s continued surge in the polls bolsters the latter. With regard to Trump, his overtly fascist manifestations are no small part of his appeal to RWA types. Fear-driven RWA’s tend to be in love with the idea of a “strong man” who will keep them safe. This is why the cult of victimization is part and parcel of fascist populism: “You’re a victim, you SHOULD be afraid! (I’ll save you.)” We see here as well why gun fetishists (NOT, I would emphasize, gun owners in general) are so invested in their identification with their guns: driven by fear, they arm themselves without concern for the fact that their weapons are far more likely to be used (whether by accident of design) to injure or kill members of their own household than ever serve to protect that household. Reason is smothered when fear rules.
And fear does not need much to rule. It can insinuate itself in tiny little bits, little bits that bite, but never so hard that you notice. One can build up a tolerance to some types of poison: arsenic is one, evidently “iocane” is another. But fear is not like this; one cannot inoculate one’s self to fear by immersing one’s self in it, but only by setting it aside and rising above it. Courage is a matter of choice, while fear is a matter of habit. RWA’s are RWA’s precisely because they do not choose to challenge their own positions. Rather, they spend all their time and their (often quite considerable) intelligence looking for excuses that justify their beliefs. And that requires “protection,” because justifying those beliefs is a fearful business.
These fears which drive such a large emotional load cannot be large enough or manifest enough to be matters of conscious attention, else they’d be dissolved by that attention. So, in order to be useful to the propagandists and the professional liars, the proclivity to fear that is native to the RWA mind must be fed (at least initially) in small doses. Rather than lose the game under the avalanche of the “sum of all fears,” these manipulators and proto-fascists play with fears that all sum – little, individually unnoticeable particles, that collectively sum up to that cataleptic total where the mind cannot move of its own, but can be readily positioned by those in power who, unburdened by any thoughts of truth or decency, seek only to advance their power agendas.
So what drives you: fear, or inspiration?