I’ve been thinking about love and fear. Love is a strong force in my life, the thing that heals, the thing that opens my heart to give, the thing that greets me each morning as I open my eyes, grateful for another day. As the Song of Songs—the epic liturgical poem of awe and desire—puts it, “love is as strong as death.”
But love’s opposite—fear, the weapon of the unloved—is swirling all around me.
There’s the ambient fear of racism, violence, poverty, and exploitation, so deeply woven into the fabric of most U.S. cities that it becomes normalized. It takes artists to put a frame around the truth, revealing something of its actual dimensions, actual impact. For a clear-eyed glimpse of the daily fear machine in action and the toll it takes, go see the rich, nuanced, deeply affecting movie Blindspotting, just now in theaters.
There’s the fear that rises in relationship to other threats such as climate crisis. The New York Times Magazine’s new issue consists entirely of a controversial piece, already perceptively criticized by knowledgeable writers such as Naomi Klein and Robinson Meyer for downplaying the economic and power relations behind global scorching. Read all, and do your best not to be overcome by fear.
But my main topic today is another type of fear: the fear that arises in response to extreme state actions, the fear that acts as fuel for fascism.
Less than a month from now—fittingly, on September 11th—Bob Woodward’s new book, FEAR: Trump in the White House, will be published. In a Washington Post article about the forthcoming release, author Manuel Roig-Franzia explains the title:
The hush-hush project derives its title from an offhand remark that then-candidate Trump made in an interview with Woodward and Post political reporter Robert Costa in April 2016. Costa asked Trump whether he agreed with a statement by then-President Barack Obama, who had said in an Atlantic magazine interview that “real power means you can get what you want without having to exert violence.”
At first Trump seemed to agree, saying: “Well, I think there’s a certain truth to that. . . . Real power is through respect.”
But then he added a personal twist: “Real power is, I don’t even want to use the word: ‘Fear.’”
I now question my earlier hunch that the Present Occupant of the White House knows Machiavelli, but they see this question of power in similar ways, as I wrote at length in the scary first week following the January 2017 inauguration, quoting The Prince.
The Madman of Pennsylvania Avenue must surely be familiar with one of Machiavelli’s best-known propositions, put forward in Chapter 17: “[W]hether it be better to be loved than feared or feared than loved? It may be answered that one should wish to be both, but, because it is difficult to unite them in one person, it is much safer to be feared than loved, when, of the two, either must be dispensed with.” Why? Because love may be withdrawn with little risk: “[M]en have less scruple,” Machiavelli wrote, “in offending one who is beloved than one who is feared, for love is preserved by the link of obligation which, owing to the baseness of men, is broken at every opportunity for their advantage; but fear preserves you by a dread of punishment which never fails.”
As we read about each new outrage from the White House, the people close to me share not only their anger at what has already taken place, but their fear there is worse to come. Many of them march, support candidates who can stand against epidemic hate and greed, register voters, take part in legal actions, raise their own voices as artists—do all they can to turn the tide. Still, they are frightened, remembering how an election was lost not only on account of illegal intervention by the Present Occupant’s Russian cronies, but due to a racist, oppressive Electoral College system which put the Present Occupant into office despite losing by nearly three million votes, a full 4.5 percent of the votes cast. (This disgrace propelled the National Popular Vote legislation, now gaining force.)
Fear anticipates an outcome. I’m angry and sad about the rollback of auto emissions standards; but what sets fear roiling through my veins is their anticipated outcome:
Assuming the plan is finalized and survives legal challenges, America’s cars and trucks would emit an extra 321 million to 931 million metric tons of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere between now and 2035 as a result of the weaker rules, according to an analysis by the research firm Rhodium Group. A separate estimate by the think tank Energy Innovation pegged the number even higher, at 1.25 billion metric tons.
To put that in context, the extra pollution in 2035 alone would be more than the current annual emissions from countries like Austria, Bangladesh or Greece, the Rhodium Group analysis found.
Every day’s headlines brings something that boils my blood and breaks my heart, usually more than one thing: the border wall, the separation of families and incarceration of children, the Muslim ban, the capital gains tax cut to accelerate the project of forcing the poor to subsidize the rich in history’s ultimate plutocracy….
But when I think ahead to reaping what has already been sown—in a mere 18 months of this administration and the spineless expediency that enables it every day—that’s when my fear rises.
And that’s when this question takes shape: how much is my fear and the fear of others like me supporting the Evil Orange One’s control of power?
In The Prince, Machiavelli advised that it is better to have colonies than fortresses:
A prince does not spend much on colonies, for with little or no expense he can send them out and keep them there, and he offends a minority only of the citizens from whom he takes lands and houses to give them to the new inhabitants; and those whom he offends, remaining poor and scattered, are never able to injure him; whilst the rest being uninjured are easily kept quiet, and at the same time are anxious not to err for fear it should happen to them as it has to those who have been despoiled.
Fortresses are expensive. Maintaining one requires holding a population by force, sequestering the operatives of the conqueror behind fortified walls, and frequently administering the punishments that generate the fear that maintains the conqueror’s power. But—until multiple factors create the conditions for uprising and liberation—in a colony, state authority’s power is upheld by the compliance of the population. The despot’s aim is to colonize the minds of the conquered. After that, keeping their bodies in line is a breeze. You don’t need so many soldiers because the most people have a little soldier in their heads, internalizing and obeying the oppressor’s voice.
Machiavelli himself was not an authoritarian, but actually a strong advocate of and an official in the Florentine Republic, tortured into prison by the Medicis when the Republic fell. Although his writings on politics are often seen as advocating vicious tactics, it is more accurate to understand his work as describing what is, analyzing actual political practice rather than asserting what should be.
It seems to me what is for us today is this: that this administration has secured the love of a minority of the population by preying on people’s fears of loss of privilege and promising a return to the toxic comfort they formerly enjoyed. Like a vampire giant, it feeds off the fears of the rest of us, doling out its daily horrors to keep a fresh supply pumping into its veins.
If this is true—if our fears are keeping this monstrous cohort in power—what can we do to cut off the supply? All the things I mentioned earlier, of course: register, vote, protest, propose, create, defy. But chiefly this: the opposite of fear is love, is embrace. There’s a quote from Maya Angelou that suddenly seems everywhere:
Have enough courage to trust love one more time. And always one more time.
I can’t prove it, but I think the same actions undertaken out of love out-power those driven by fear.
What do you love? I love the freedoms guaranteed by the Bill of Rights, even when they are honored more in the breach than the observance; like a row of rusty tools hanging on a barn door, they have only to be cleaned and sharpened to return to their former excellence. I love the people who get up every day determined to increase the supply of beauty and meaning in the world; who stay alert for the signs of a colonized mind, sweeping out every vestige of the conqueror; who muster the courage to love. I love the Earth’s resilience and determination that this too shall pass in the fullness of time.
We cannot help but fear when injustice and danger multiply like flies on rotten fruit. But knowing that fear is the weapon of the unloved, it is better to love than to fear. Perhaps remembering that will help.
“Like Someone in Love” by Sarah Vaughan.