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Losing Control of the American Fear Machine

Fear has always been a tool of the vested interests to retain power, make money, and keep the masses under control. But now things may be veering off the rails.

The old fears deployed by the nation’s power centers during and after the Cold War—commies and terrorists—are reliably set, with the levers of power fueling and cooling down as needed. There’s always been an element of manipulation at work, as evil and insidious as that is (think Condoleezza Rice’s “mushroom cloud”), but it’s been one that’s maintained a strategic balance. You want enough fear to make people compliant, but not so much that they end up chasing each other—or their leaders—with pitchforks or driving cars through crowds of protesters.

It is now too easy for too many people to pour fuel on fires, with seemingly no interest in putting them out, ever. The establishment media, which once thrived on information gathering and reporting, now peddles in anxiety promotion, thanks largely to social media like Facebook and Twitter. Confirmation of our greatest fears rocket across multilayered platforms 24/7, unfiltered and unfettered, tailored to match what scares us most. Then we retweet and share to like-minded others to validate our fears and form bonded communities. These are deep waters: imagine an episode of Black Mirror where a device that algorithmically learns your deepest fears falls into the wrong hands.

There’s a history to all of this. We first got really scared just as we were emerging as the predominant power on the planet, armed with the world’s only atomic bomb. Hence why we rewarded president after president for building and maintaining the most massive national security state ever known to make us feel safe.

In the meantime we were instructed to be afraid of all sorts of stuff—communists in government and Hollywood, domino theories, revolutionary movements, a whole basket of Bond villains. Those who supported peace were accused of working for the enemy. Pretty much anything the people in charge wanted to do—distort civil liberties, raise taxes to pay for weapons, overthrow governments, punish Americans for things they wrote or said—was widely supported because we were afraid of what might happen otherwise. Most people now realize that this fear was overblown. Almost every American who died from the Cold War died in a fight we picked, inflamed, or dove blindly into. Cancer and car accidents took more American lives than Dr. Strangelove.

Then we got really scared following September 11, 2001, more than we ever were during the Cold War. Republican leaders, their war-hawk operators, and Beltway bandits convinced Americans that the terrorists lived among us, controlled by masterminds in mosques here and overseas, simultaneously unpredictable and devious plotters playing the long game. They could turn our children into jihadis via Facebook. Warnings like “if you are not with us you’re against us” soon turned into “you shouldn’t worry if you don’t have anything to hide,” as the national security state metastasized [1]. In the end, diabetes and ladder falls took more American lives than Osama bin Laden or any of his al Qaeda offshoots.

For a long time we’ve been acting like a shelter dog when the Bad Man comes into the room. The difference is that we’re always driven by anxiety more or less in the same direction, a straight line that can’t be anything but purposeful.

The nasty twist for 2018 is that we live in a world with a mainstream media that has barely screened ideological biases, backed up by social media exhibiting barely contained mental instability. We are ever more diverse and ever more separated at the same time, divided into a thousand socially isolating sub-reddits. It isn’t practical anymore for us to have common fears.


Fear is powerful. A sound triggers a memory that sets off involuntary, subconscious processes: the heart rate jumps, muscles twitch, higher brain functions switch to fight-or-flight. Live in this state long enough and you end up with Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, the inability to control your reaction to certain stimuli. Imagine a whole country that way, trying to make good decisions while the lizard brain trumps rational thinking.

Looking at a blog post [2] from a few years ago about what we were afraid of then, there are some familiar names. Putin was going on to invade Europe and Kim Jong-un was going to start a war over a Seth Rogen comedy called The Interview [3]. But there were no mainstream claims that the president was unfit [4]; people who thought so were pushed aside as conspiracy theorists and dismissed as “birthers.” There was no widespread anxiety over whether democracy was teetering; those who talked about coups and the Reichstag burning were mocked on reality TV as preppers. There was a kind of consensus on what to be afraid of and when.

Now there is a fear for everyone. We’re afraid Trump will start a war with North Korea (Kim is the sane one). We’re also afraid he won’t start a war and they’ll get us first (Kim is the crazy one). We’re afraid Trump is a Russian spy slipped into the White House (end of democracy) and we’re afraid the Democrats are using Mueller to overturn a legitimate election (end of democracy). We’re worried the fascist government is taking away free speech and we’re worried the government isn’t doing enough to suppress free speech to stop hate. There are too many guns for us to be safe and not enough guns to protect us. Elect more women or women’s rights are finished. If we do elect more women (or POC, LGBTQ, etc.) the rest of us are finished.

We never find time to exhale. So while the story used to be the tamping down [5] of tensions on the Korean peninsula, the headline now is how the mentally ill Trump might just push the nuclear button anyway, maybe even tonight (better check Twitter). Whatever matters to you—transgender toilet rights, abortion, guns, religion—is under lethal attack. It is always condition yellow, fight or flight. Fear is primitive; it doesn’t matter what we fear so long as we remain afraid.

Trump is not the demagogue you fear, just a cruder version of what has been the norm for decades. The thing to be scared of is what emerges after him. As such, there is still time. His bizarre ascension to the world’s most powerful office could become the argumentum ad absurdum that pulls the curtain back, Oz-like, on the way fear has been used to manipulate us. The risk is that Trump could also become a wake-up call of a different sort, to even worse and much smarter people, who will cross the line from manipulation to exploitation (the real burning of the Reichstag scenario), from gross but recognizable stasis into chaos.

Frightened enough, people will accept, if not demand, extreme and dangerous solutions to problems whose true direness exists mostly within their anxieties. Remember the way fear of invasion following Pearl Harbor led us to unlawfully imprison American citizen shopkeepers and farmers of Japanese origin? Now that’s something to really be afraid of.

Peter Van Buren, a 24-year State Department veteran, is the author of We Meant Well: How I Helped Lose the Battle for the Hearts and Minds of the Iraqi People [6] and Hooper’s War: A Novel of WWII Japan. [7] Follow him on Twitter @WeMeantWell [8].

30 Comments (Open | Close)

30 Comments To "Losing Control of the American Fear Machine"

#1 Comment By Fran Macadam On January 11, 2018 @ 2:25 am

A voice of reason for calm amidst the madness of crowds and their instigating manipulators.

#2 Comment By Gordan T. On January 11, 2018 @ 7:31 am

So what you’re saying is that we have nothing to fear but… fear itself?

Manipulation through fear is not a new thing, obviously. I don the Cpt. Obvious uniform here not for the purpose of reassurance (“it’s a natural cycle” or “we have survived before so we shall survive again” – millions failed to survive before and there’s no guarantee that this time around will not be worse) but for the purpose of examining how these cycles have gone before. By this, I mean that purification of fear is historically rarely the outcome of some rational stream of thinking emerging and soothing the savage breast, and mostly the side-effect of some mass carnage that presents the populace with costs that are greater than what they dared fear.

The singular exception to this that I can recall, is the manner in which Cold War ended. Not paradoxically, the sheer nuclear hysteria that kept us engaged in Cold War may have been a chief contributor to that outcome, but we have since been fed a steady diet of “war is good for the body politic and costs are bearable” propaganda in a world that is still as replete with nuclear weapons, if not more, as well as been reassured that we have effective counter-measures, so this time we may not be as lucky.

Excuse my fatalism, but I can’t escape the conclusion that this latest fear cycle will likely result in bloodshed of large proportions and it will only be through the experience of actual loss on a mass scale – the overwhelming of fear by grief – that the primitive cerebra of our species will be reset into cooperative mode. Trump may not be the demagogue to lead us willingly into a World War (considering that a sizable portion of the country thinks him to be an unaccountable lunatic or, at best, an insufferable moron) but, given the depth and breadth of the rift that he has the talent to create and maintain, he may yet be the demagogue to lead us willingly into a Civil War.

#3 Comment By RVA On January 11, 2018 @ 7:35 am

The space to reclaim is between our ears, in our hearts, and under our feet. The time to do it is now, and now, and now, one minute repetitions building a habit. We are social beings: we know who we are by the face we see, in the mirror of faces around us. Choose that. Make that mirror family, friends that uplift, Spirit that calls forth our strengths and our greatness. It’s ok to be well if others aren’t. Faith or fear: which one wins? The one we feed.

#4 Comment By Relaxed On January 11, 2018 @ 9:01 am

This article really spoke to me; thank you.

I find the best antidote to the fear that we’re living in an a new and unprecedented horror is to read history, which was, in general, worse.

#5 Comment By Kent On January 11, 2018 @ 9:13 am

I’m always astonished that there really are people who think Kim Jong-Un is going to drop an atomic bomb on their city tomorrow, or Antifa is going to come marching down their leafy neighborhood next week and kill all the whiteys. If there is anything that informs my on-again, off-again agnosticism its that God could not have created a mankind that is so stupid.

But it is what it is, and I’m not going to change that. Personally, I’ve stopped watching television news shows and I’ve stopped reading newspapers. Once you stop, it all becomes so obviously garbage. Both on the left and right.

So you folks go on with your nuttiness. I’ll be on the golf course or taking the grandchildren fishing.

#6 Comment By collin On January 11, 2018 @ 9:54 am

But there were no mainstream claims that the president was unfit

Well, isn’t the biggest news organization Fox News? They LOVED the birtherism stuff and look was elected President. Head Birtherism! I don’t know why Fox News is not considered a form of MSM. And Fox News had plenty of pundits calling the President a Pussy or did not understand America. Or can remember how Trump and conservative media focused that HRC was a Hawk? (The lack of articles on Obama in 2016 made sense as his Presidency was coming to close.)

Otherwise, please remember the great EBOLA panic in 2014! Our nation had five cases (one death) and it was HEADLINES everywhere which all ended the day after 2014 Midterm elections.

#7 Comment By Garry Kelly On January 11, 2018 @ 10:35 am

“Almost every American who died from the Cold War died in a fight we picked, inflamed, or dove blindly into.”

Interesting thought.

#8 Comment By Quimbob On January 11, 2018 @ 11:12 am

Alex Jones spews an interesting message of fear and victory at the same time.

#9 Comment By Donnie Bob On January 11, 2018 @ 11:36 am

I’m with you, Kent. My only quibble is that we can’t really blame God for what we human beings have made of ourselves. Given the opportunity to screw things up, we wasted no time doing it, and refuse to learn anything at all from our foolishness. Given the ridiculousness of the typical comments posted on this site, I quit wasting my time reacting to them some time ago. Your comment, however, deserves an affirmation. Golf and fishing with the grands is pure sanity.

#10 Comment By Hal Fiore On January 11, 2018 @ 11:52 am

“Now there is a fear for everyone. We’re afraid Trump will start a war with North Korea (Kim is the sane one). We’re also afraid he won’t start a war and they’ll get us first (Kim is the crazy one). We’re afraid Trump is a Russian spy slipped into the White House (end of democracy) and we’re afraid the Democrats are using Mueller to overturn a legitimate election (end of democracy). We’re worried the fascist government is taking away free speech and we’re worried the government isn’t doing enough to suppress free speech to stop hate. There are too many guns for us to be safe and not enough guns to protect us. Elect more women or women’s rights are finished. If we do elect more women (or POC, LGBTQ, etc.) the rest of us are finished.”

You missed your calling as a Hip Hop artist. I mean that as a compliment, BTW.

#11 Comment By b. On January 11, 2018 @ 12:16 pm

It has to be said that it is hard to take seriously a fear that does not translate into actual changes of individual behavior. The so-called “fear” of the masses is a narcissistic exercise of sitting on front of the TV to watch mouthbreathing zero-information “reports” on mind-breaking “news”, a self-reinforcing spectacle of entertaining ourselves by seing ourselves being afraid of irrelevances and non-existential threats. Mass shootings become occasions of national unity in celebration of a transient break in boredom, and eveballs and air minutes are dedicated to providing as much publicity to the deranged and mentally ill individual duly awarded their Fifteen Minutes of Nuts, seeding the next cycle of attention-seeking violence.

Whatever Bush was actually saying, whatever he meant, and whatever he was trying to accomplish, the commemorization of his “go shop” speech following 9/11 made pretty clear that we are perfectly content to fill the irresponsible void of our civic lives with “threat assessments” and “threat levels” that inflate our individual and national egos as much as they inflate near-zero probabilities of actual danger. Meanwhile, we sell guns and buy cars, willfully ignoring the body counts.

“Fear” is the farce that gives us meaning, to iterate a phrase.

#12 Comment By RVA On January 11, 2018 @ 12:49 pm

To b. :bravo! An article in itself. TAC comment sections are the best.

#13 Comment By chris edwards On January 11, 2018 @ 1:52 pm

All of us need to start questioning the bloated Pentagon budget, and these ridiculous military ops the U.S. loves. Its the 800 pound gorilla that dictates these endless fears. The Pentagon’s real game is – Maintain funding.

#14 Comment By EarlyBird On January 11, 2018 @ 3:55 pm

Important article.

Fear is antithetical to kindness, happiness, intelligent decision making, love, goodness, and God awareness. We fear the future and regret the past. But if you habitually choose to simply be where you are, now, you are going to find a calm center. You will find that you’re almost always able to handle what is actually happening in your life, right this moment, not what you fear may occur.

Turn off the Twitter and constant “news” input. Nod politely to the fear mongers in your life and change the subject. You are by no means going to be an uninformed or irresponsible citizen for doing so. To the contrary, you’ll be better off and so will the circle of people in your life.

#15 Comment By Durin On January 11, 2018 @ 4:03 pm

collin says:
January 11, 2018 at 9:54 am

“Well, isn’t the biggest news organization Fox News?”

If measured by viewers, not so much:

ABC World News Tonight 8.3 million
NBC Nightly News 8.0 million
CBS Evening News 6.6 million
Fox News 2.5 million
MSNBC 1.6 million
CNN 1.5 million

(From late 2016, and I would bet the relationship for viewers for Fox News vs other news is similar today.)

#16 Comment By William M. On January 11, 2018 @ 5:15 pm

It seems to me that the problem is that moderns are really thin-skinned. We haven’t had any truly big problems to put things in perspective. Or maybe being afraid is the fashionable thing to do. As b. pointed out, people haven’t been reacting to this fear in an appreciable manner.

Even the total number of confirmed Nazi related deaths last year doesn’t seem particularly high compared to the baseline. (I am only aware of the one and there are normally a few each year.)

#17 Comment By Peter Van Buren On January 11, 2018 @ 5:24 pm

I fully understand B’s remarks about how “people haven’t been reacting to this fear in an appreciable manner” but add in a sense not doing anything, such as pushing back against government surveillance and unnecessary wars, sort of counts for doing something by not doing something. Some word play; I think we’re in the same place.

#18 Comment By The Other Eric On January 11, 2018 @ 5:32 pm

“Well, isn’t the biggest news organization Fox News?”

If measured by viewers, not so much:

ABC World News Tonight 8.3 million
NBC Nightly News 8.0 million
CBS Evening News 6.6 million
Fox News 2.5 million
MSNBC 1.6 million
CNN 1.5 million

People tend to turn on Fox and leave it on. I would guess that as far as viewing hours go, Fox doubles any of the one hour news shows

#19 Comment By Tim Buckman On January 12, 2018 @ 6:03 am

Perhaps you are overlooking the calls for a National Database of Muslims. Trump was asked to clarify and he doubled down on that suggestion saying it could be implemented with “good management.” Sorry, but Trump is hardly just a cruder version of what’s been before.

#20 Comment By connecticut farmer On January 12, 2018 @ 8:33 am

Good piece…especially the part about Trump being the one who “pulls the curtain back.”

What a hash we’ve made of things!

#21 Comment By Just Dropping By On January 12, 2018 @ 2:31 pm

I’m reminded of this tone poem, which is oddly profound given that it’s from a piece of marketing for Star Wars: The Phantom Menace (imagine it being read in Darth Maul’s voice):

Fear attracts the fearful,
The strong,
The weak,
The innocent,
The corrupt.
Fear is my ally.

#22 Comment By Greg Woods On January 13, 2018 @ 6:25 am

Talk about fear: The Global Warming Alarmists are champions at promoting fear….

#23 Comment By Richard On January 13, 2018 @ 12:11 pm

Someone is being set up as the biggest patsy ever

#24 Comment By JeffK On January 13, 2018 @ 7:17 pm

@ Greg Woods
A friend teaches a Climate Change course at a major university known for it’s research. A few years ago we were discussing the topic. He said “Time will soon come where the cost of repairing the damage from climate change exceeds the cost of preventing climate change. The difference is that investing in prevention changes the dynamic in lessening the impact. Repairing the damage only means we will have to repair again sometime soon”.

How much did the Congress just appropriate for natural disasters in TX, FL, and Puerto Rico? Seems to me it was $80+ BILLION.

We could tax carbon and use the proceeds to subsidize renewable energy, but then, we don’t want to annoy the fossil fuel industry now, do we?

#25 Comment By LouisM On January 13, 2018 @ 11:05 pm

I think more americans are afraid for individual reasons. The single mother who lives off her govt child support check. The man who cant see his kids and has his wife living with her boyfriend in his house with his kids driving his car and cashing his alimony and child support checks. Anyone who has difficulty finding a job and paying their bills. Anyone who has been caught up in the leftist feminist war and labelled a racist, bigot, homophobe, etc.

When you look at fear then you have to look at who owns/controls the leftist main stream media, look who is controlling the leftist public school unions, who is controlling the leftist subversive anarchist anti-American antimale antiwhite antichristian colleges and universities. Further who is controlling the leftist think tanks that write a significant portion of legislation and set a significant portion of foreign and domestic policy.

You wont see middle Americans who try to keep a family intact in a culture that is trying to tear them apart.

You wont see many America firster’s. Most americans and Trump supporters don’t want more GBush global wars and police actions. You might get them to focus on 1 problem like North Korea but most think Iran is no threat to the US. Its a threat to Saudi and Israel. Its their problem.

The same names, the same ideologies, the same religions, the same elites come up over and over. Its a belief system and once you identify the belief system then you can identify them and discount what they say. Why? Because its facts or nonfacts biased to their belief system…and if your afraid then you are buying in and being manipulated by their belief system not yours.

The poor, the working class, the middle class have been victims for 60 years at least. That was 60-70 years ago European leftists left Europe for America and went into all the key cultural levers of power they were in Europe. They brought with them the global order, the open borders, the free flow of immigration, the unionization of schools and govt employees, realism (fear and decay) to movies and TV, free trade, exportation of job, vulture capitalism where once paternalistic family corporations were indebted, bled dry and sold off. 60 years of the disintegration of our govt, our culture and our familiies…the US was destroyed from within in ways no foreign power could ever have achieved militarily or thru force.

#26 Comment By SteveJ On January 14, 2018 @ 11:59 am

Well all due respect, Condoleezza Rice has paid dearly in terms of her credibility for her “mushroom cloud” remark. As have the architects of the Iraq war — not to mention the Libyan intervention and the Syrian intervention, and the Vietnam intervention.

And it was the American public that called them on it — far before the beltway crowd wanted to admit it. Those associated with the debacles have a place in history — and it isn’t very nice. The “fear” that you speak of has to have substance, or it doesn’t last.

Not with the collective judgment of the American public anyway.

#27 Comment By Carol On January 15, 2018 @ 9:02 am

There is a very popular and noisy conservative website that the past few days has been pushing headlines about cuss words and a transexual candidate for senate. It seemed like a distraction to me, so I researched what has been going on behind the scenes. I tried to break into the thread discussions with the following:

“Please stop! You are being distracted from the real issues. So easy to distract Americans on both the left and the right with sexual innuendo. Banks can steal our freedom out from under us while we’re busy arguing about sex and threats to Christianity. PAY ATTENTION to what Jeff Sessions did with states rights on marijuana laws last week! Even if you don’t imbibe, you are effected by this. This is big business. Keep the marijuana illegal and restrict the doctor’s ability to prescribe opiates (blame the opiate issue on the doctors). Force everyone who does imbibe to do so illegally. Other areas ripe for recruitment of prison slave labor are the family courts (child support ect) and teen truancy (George Bush no child left behind laws encouraged imprisonment for truant teens and their parents, with George himself and family invested financially in the private prisons)This keeps the private prison system at capacity for inmates, and good return on investment for entities like the Vanguard Group and the Bush family. The American taxpayer pays for the upkeep of the inmate (slave) and the cheap labor is sold off to companies like Whole Foods and AT&T and McDonalds. This is in addition to the money being made by the deep state off the illegal drug trade. Your jobs and your freedom is being hijacked out from under you by Jeff Sessions last week. And you’ve been distracted by a trans sexual and a cuss word for days and days while it happened. Pull it ____. I’m just going to post elsewhere exactly what you pulled. You speak volume ____, by what you’re pulling as spam. That you keep pulling this information out of your sh**hole country and trans sexual threads implies only that I nailed it. I’d say perhaps ____ has a few corporate sponsors you are protecting. The point at which my posts on this “waiting to be approved by ____” is when I name certain corporations.”

Every time I name the corporations profiting from the “war on drugs”, “no child left behind” laws, and invested in private prisons and prison labor, my posts are yanked as spam. Its been going on for days. I find this frightening that such a popular conservative website appears to be protecting corporate sponsors. I am not a democrat. I have hidden the name of the website out of fear. Don’t mess with corporate America; which is apparently what I have done.

#28 Comment By Dan Green On January 15, 2018 @ 12:48 pm

I would add, were so fortunate we have the likes of CNN, to get our minute by minute dose of hype. Oh where or where are their another Peter Jennings or Tom Brokaw. Oh well we have Hollywood and Me Too.

#29 Comment By Dan Green On January 15, 2018 @ 1:03 pm

HRC’s platform, exposing to us, all the dumb White Deplorable’s in our midst, was cause for alarm, for quite some time.

#30 Comment By Wesley On January 17, 2018 @ 10:35 am

“HRC’s platform, exposing to us, all the dumb White Deplorable’s in our midst, was cause for alarm, for quite some time.”

She said 50% were deplorable. What makes you think she was talking about you?