No end in sight for the politics of fear

By Harlan Ullman, Arnaud de Borchgrave Distinguished Columnist  |  June 4, 2018 at 6:00 AM
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Politics today is often described as being driven by "populism," "tribalism," "nativism" and "bitter divisiveness." But what is really driving politics, both in the United States and abroad, is fear. Fear of the future and fear of the unknown are possibly more dominant than at any time since the end of the Cold War.

In the United States, a majority of Americans face daunting financial and economic tribulations from the soaring costs of healthcare, education and saving for retirement, further reasons to be fearful. An astounding percentage of Americans may not have a "spare" $400 to spend in the event a crisis or mishap occurs. Many Americans are working two jobs to make ends meet.

Societies are also measured by growing gaps between "rich" and "poor" and "elites" and "others." In China this has led to the so-called "princelings," or children and grandchildren of the elite who lead protected and insulated lives. In Russia, these are the "oligarchs." And in the West it is the "1 percent." These gaps are likewise fostering resentment.

In turn, fear, amplified by resentment, has manifested into anger against those, largely in the Washington "swamp" and corporate America, who are held responsible for accumulating huge wealth at the expense of the so-called average person. And anger has metastasized into outrage. Outrage is not limited to economic well-being or status.

Outrage is expressed over gun violence in which the explosion in school shootings is one tragic indicator of this escalation. Protesters are outraged at legislators who fail to pass sensible gun laws and of course the NRA or evil incarnate. Second Amendment proponents show outrage at those who would restrict what each believes is the unfettered right to bear and carry arms rejecting the Founding Fathers' view that this was permitted in terms of "a well-regulated militia."

The "Me Too" movement reflects outrage at continued sexual harassment and abuse mainly of women by men in power. The fall of many from Harvey Weinstein to Charlie Rose over allegations of sexual misconduct reflects the results of this outrage.

Outrage is not limited to these shores. Most Americans and every member of Congress are outraged over Russian interference in our elections and the annexation of Crimea. Outrage is expressed against Iran labeled the leading state sponsor of terrorism, forgeting that Wahhabism has had a far more powerful influence on terror. And outrage over North Korean atrocities against its citizens and foreigners wrongfully retained has been tempered by the forthcoming June 12 summit between President Donald Trump and Kim Jong Un.

Indeed, outrage describes one reason for the ascent of Trump to the presidency and the increase in his approval ratings. Trump was the perfect candidate for the perfect political storm. He also ran against perhaps the only Democrat he could have defeated.

Despite presidential behavior that often defies description and the frequent absence of truth and fact from many of his pronouncements and tweets, Trump has kept his political base and even increased his ratings. His unconventional approach to the presidency, while creating gaffes and potentially self-destructive actions, appeals to this sense of American outrage. In simplest terms, to many, nothing could be worse than the current system. Hence, while Trump may do considerable harm to the nation, to many, he can do no wrong and is therefore tolerated and even supported.

Republicans in Congress likewise are motivated by fear. Fear of losing the majority in the most divisive Congress possibly since the Civil War is palpable. Hence, while members may find supporting the president distasteful or otherwise unacceptable, fear of losing the majority or of being singled out in a negative presidential tweet has stymied any real dissent from the ranks. And make no mistake: Republicans believe that losing the majority will ensure the president is impeached by a Democratic Congress.

eanwhile, the Democrats have no message nor antidote to taming this outrage or turning fear to advantage. At this point, predicting which party prevails in November is impossible. And even grimmer is predicting what can be done to eliminate the fear Americans maintain about the future and the resulting outrage.

But the party or politician that understands and is able to mobilize this outrage to advantage to make America a "kinder, gentler place," will surely emerge to lead the nation.

Harlan Ullman has served on the Senior Advisory Group for Supreme Allied Commander Europe (2004-16) and is senior adviser at Washington D.C.'s Atlantic Council, chairman of two private companies and principal author of the doctrine of shock and awe. A former naval person, he commanded a destroyer in the Persian Gulf and led over 150 missions and operations in Vietnam as a Swift Boat skipper. His latest book is "Anatomy of Failure: Why America Has Lost Every War It Starts." Follow him @harlankullman.

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