July 19, 2019

Fear and Politics in the Age of Trump

“The philosophers have only interpreted the world,” Karl Marx famously observed. “The point, however, is to change it.”

Martha C. Nussbaum is one philosopher who is fully engaged in contemporary politics, as we discover in her intriguing and invigorating new book, “The Monarchy of Fear: A Philosopher Looks at Our Political Crisis” (Simon & Schuster.)  Indeed, she opens her treatise with reminiscence about election night in 2016: “[T]he election news kept coming in, producing, first, increasing alarm and then, finally both grief and a deeper fear, for the country and its people and institutions.”  

Nussbaum is the Ernst Freund Distinguished Service Professor of Law and Ethics and holds joint appointments in both the law school and the philosophy department at the University of Chicago.  She is the author of 22 books, and the recipient of the 2016 Kyoto Prize in Arts and Philosophy, which honors achievement in two fields that are entirely overlooked by the Nobel Prize.

Nussbaum’s new book boiled up out of the turmoil of election night in 2016, and she challenged herself to drill deeply into the visceral emotions, both ours and her own, that were stirred up by Donald Trump’s unlikely victory in the Electoral College. “[F]ear was the issue, a nebulous and multiform fear suffusing US society,” she writes. “[F]ear is connected to, and renders toxic, other problematic emotions such as anger, disgust, and envy.”

In fact, Nussbaum is far more self-disclosing than most philosophers. When she recalls her own privileged childhood in an affluent WASP family in Philadelphia, she shares what her mother told her: “Don’t talk so much, or the boys won’t like you.” Her father, on the other hand, offered her a choice between the customary debutante party or a year abroad when she turned 16 — and she chose Swansea, where she lived with a family of Welsh factory workers. And when she married a Jewish man and converted to Judaism, she was motivated by “the primacy of social justice in Judaism.” Today, “[t]hough no longer married, I’ve kept my Jewish name and my Jewish religion, and am more involved in the life of my congregation than I was back then.”

What Nussbaum fears the most, to paraphrase Roosevelt, is fear itself. “Fear all too often blocks rational deliberation, poisons hope, and impedes constructive cooperation for a better future,” she writes. “Many Americans feel themselves powerless, out of control of their own lives. They fear for their own future and that of their loved ones. They fear that the American Dream — the hope that your children will flourish and do even better than you have done — has died, and everything has slipped away from them.”

She does not deny that these fears are rooted in facts of life, including globalization and automation, that are “real, deep, and seemingly intractable.” But she also points out that Americans have been prone to “grasp after villains” rather than engage in practical problem-solving. “[A] fantasy takes shape: if ‘we’ can somehow keep ‘them’ out (building a wall) or keep them in ‘their place’ (in subservient positions), ‘we’ can regain our pride and, for men, their masculinity. Fear leads, then, to aggressive ‘othering’ strategies rather than to useful analysis.”

Nussbaum insists that a little philosophy is exactly what we need right now when we are talking about politics.

Nussbaum turns to psychiatry and neuroscience to understand how fear operates in the human mind and, more broadly, in the realm of politics. “In experiencing fear, we draw on a common animal heritage, and not just a primate or even vertebrate heritage,” she explains. “Fear goes straight back to the reptilian brain.” Starting in antiquity, and now more so than ever before, fear has been used by ambitious and cunning power-seekers to manipulate their fellow human beings. “Fear … always threatens the spirit of dissent,” she writes. “Fear makes people run for cover, seeking comfort in the embrace of a leader or a homogenous.”

Nussbaum warns that fear in America has “gone awry” in the age of Trump. “Fear always simmers beneath the surface of moral concern, and it threatens to destabilize democracy, since democracy requires all of us to limit our narcissism and embrace reciprocity,” she writes. “Right now, fear is running rampant in our country: fear of declining living standards, fear of unemployment, of the absence of health care in time of need; fear of an end to the American Dream.” And fear, she insists, leads to anger, disgust and envy — “a poison to democratic politics.”

As an example, she cites Lin-Manuel Miranda’s “Hamilton,” which she describes as “a meditation about the role of envy in the American founding and the importance of containing envy if we are to have a successful nation.” The duel between Aaron Burr and Alexander Hamilton, she explains, “shows the dangers of fear-driven envy for democratic politics.” She sees an optimistic message in the hit musical: “[W]e know where true good is located: in the love of our flawed nation, in the dedicated service of so many people, known and unknown, who are willing even to lay down their lives for democracy, in the determination to show that brotherhood, constructive work, and the inclusion of minorities and immigrants, shine brighter than hate.” And yet Nussbaum herself wonders aloud: “As advice to young people in today’s United States, isn’t this too naïve?”

As if to confront the question that may occur to her readers — why should we listen to a philosopher when we are talking about politics — Nussbaum insists that a little philosophy is exactly what we need right now. “[F]or me philosophy is not about authoritative pronouncements,” she explains. “It is about leading the ‘examined life,’ with humility about how little we really understand, with a commitment to arguments that are rigorous, reciprocal, and sincere, and with a willingness to listen to others as equal participants and to respond to what they offer.”

Nussbaum’s timely and important book inspired in this reader an earnest wish that the man in the White House would put down his smartphone and pick up a copy of “The Monarchy of Fear.”

Jonathan Kirsch, author and publishing attorney, is the book editor of the Jewish Journal.