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Fear politics: can we meme our way out?

The only thing we have to fear is fear itself. And Iranian missiles.

Fear has gone hand in hand with politics since time began. The fear of outside threats enticed early humans to crave organisation and structure – to crave leaders. Since Babylon and the Assyrian empire the divine right of kings played on societies fear of celestial recompense, and every society ever has kept order through fear.

Sometimes it’s the threat of lawful retribution that sustains structural integrity: a stolen loaf of bread results in the offending hand being cut off. Sometimes the retribution is cosmic: challenging a rightful king will result in eternity in this society’s version of hell. Often, it’s the threat of the ‘other’: if the leader is not obeyed, cultural dissidents could invade, kill, and maim.

After the divine right of kings lost its mandating power and democracy took centre stage in the west, blatant appeals to fear faded into a subtler rhetoric. Along with electioneering came the politics of hope.

With huge post-war victories like The New Deal and the fall of the iron curtain, America emerged as a shining beacon of strength and magnanimity on the world stage. It was just as important for US leaders to emphasise diplomatic ties and trade agreements as it was military might, particularly in a unipolar system where the US consented to be the world’s bodyguard in exchange for being its sole superpower.

But the stability of this global contract began to crumble as soon as the first jetliner hit the North Tower in 2001. Ever since Bush declared his War on Terror, fear has been turning the cogs of western politics, particularly in US international relations. The supremacy of the western way of life, and of the US’s impenetrability, was no longer implied after 9/11.

Immediately the true consequences of inventing weapons of mass destruction became clear. Where non-state actors could wield military power of their own, international conflict was no longer a balancing act between the world’s governments, but a free for all. People discovered that their way of life was not inviolable, and their fear demanded an answer. The answer they were given was Iraq.

Twenty years of failed interventionist policy in the Middle East later, and the sticky residue of imperialism clings to policy there like glue. Cultural rivets between the US and its allies, and non-western states, has so fanned the flames of fear created by 9/11 that a whole new generation of children (millennials) has been raised with the fiction that Islam poses an existential threat to democracy. And it’s these conditions that created Trump.

Franklin Roosevelt famously stated in his first inaugural address in 1933 that ‘the only thing we have to fear is fear itself’. If you’re comparing Roosevelt’s widely popular and anti-imperial rule to Trump’s current regime, then simply take all the gregariousness and wisdom of this sentiment and invert it.

When people are exposed to fear – whether actual or imagined – they begin to tighten. In physical terms they tense their muscles, ready for a fight or flight response. In psychological terms, they begin to crave security and order. Promises of quick and simple solutions to perceived immediate threats, and a return to previous stability, is craved rabidly by society the more their anxiety increases. In simple terms: it’s easy to pitch an antidote for an illness if you’re your own patient zero.

This is Trump’s secret weapon.

At campaign rallies in 2015/16 he warned that the US was a nation ‘on the brink of disaster’, describing Mexican immigrants and global trade agreements as threatening American jobs and safety, and radicalised Muslims as poised on the edge of a complete cultural invasion.

Unsurprisingly, many of these threats were greatly exaggerated. According to research into voter perception by psychologist Michele Gelfand Americans greatly overestimate the percentage of people who immigrated illegally. Republicans estimated that 18% of the US population is made up of people who are here illegally, while Democrats estimated that statistic to be less than 13%, on average. The actual figure, according to a 2017 Pew Research study, is closer to 3%. The greater the misperception, the more people said they would vote for Trump in 2020.

Ironically, many real threats – including violence and disease – have declined precipitously over the years, but manufactured or imaginary threats persist.

Trump craves the division brought by fear as it gives him a mandate – save us from the monsters you convinced us were real. If there is anything vaguely impressive about this presidency, it is Trump’s ability to conjure a threat out of thin air – immigrants, transgender people, Korea, Japan, even the wind.

There’s a well-worn trope in horror fiction about the monster who feeds on fear. The power of this creature is directly proportionate to the terror they can generate. Pennywise the Dancing Clown and The Scarecrow from the Batman franchise come to mind.

In both these instances protagonists come to the realisation that only way to defeat the monster is by refusing to be afraid of it, thus sapping it of power. They shrink it through indifference.

When it comes to the POTUS, this path is not really available to us. By reporting to Trump’s tirades and refuting the latest hooey emanating from The White House, we’re amplifying and nurturing his noise. But, as journalists, that’s our job. Failing to report on Trump’s actions would be an abdication of responsibility.

But there’s another strategy for defeating the monster, and it’s one that seems to be particularly popular among Gen Z: laughing away the fear. The best canonical example of this is from JK Rowling’s Harry Potter series – the boggart takes on the form you find most terrifying, and the only way to defeat it is to imagine it as an object of division. As soon as your terror turns to amusement, to boggart can no longer hold its form.

This method is what Trump fears the most. He’s paranoid of teasing or ridicule to the point of mental illness. Promising diplomatic talks with North Korea in 2017 were derailed when Trump tweeted that Kim-Jong Un called him ‘old’. ‘I would NEVER call him ‘short and fat’’ Trump then said peevishly.

He is in a constant state of dismay at the way he’s treated by the ‘fake news media’, declaring to ‘losers and haters’ that his ‘I.Q. is one of the highest’ (?). He petulantly defends himself against any and all criticism, telling a 16-year-old girl who questioned his almost non-existent climate change policies that she must ‘work on her anger management problem’. He summed up his attitude towards those who dare mock him in this timeless (since deleted) 2017 Tweet: ‘despite the negative press covfefe’. The Tweet has since been deleted, but I think I speak for everyone what I say: well said, Mr President.

It’s the subversion of our memes that allows out generation to process and deal with the ludicrousness of Trump’s rule, at the same time as undermining him. This way, we keep the fear at bay, ensuring it never gains power over us in the same way as it has the boomer generation.

But we must take care that our eagerness to translate overwhelming emotions into bite sized pieces doesn’t lead us to underestimate the threat Trump poses to democracy. At the end of the day, we still have an impeached president sitting in a situation room ordering nuclear missile strikes without the approval of US congress.

WWIII memes are a great example of Gen Z affirming their dismay at an absurd situation through an equally absurd form of humour. But this puts us between a rock and hard place, because, from some perspectives, the leftist refusal to take Trump’s presidential bid seriously was a crucial steppingstone on his way to the White House. And if we can meme a president into office, we can meme ourselves into a war.

Now more than ever, we need to recognise our humour as a political tool in our quest to move away from brinkmanship. Successful political memes should not entice us into apathy, as many of the overwhelming negative WWIII memes I’ve seen seem to be doing, but rather into affirmative action. We must remember that is it not the concept of democracy we’re trying to render ludicrous, but simply this particular iteration of it.

We must tell better jokes – not the easy kind that Trump himself favours, salted with cruelty and malice, but the more complex, generous variety pioneered by Mark Twain and Richard Pryor. We must use humour to tell the truth.

Without the qualities that affirmative humour both demonstrates and fosters – a willingness to find common ground, the respect for agreed-upon norms and the awareness that we are all only human – Trump’s attitude towards the presidency is defined by fear and a lust for power. Our generation must be smarter than this. This might be reaching a little far here, but I believe that our deep-fried memes can represent something deeper: a common understanding that we’ll find the hope amongst the fear and continue to push for candidates that champion diplomacy.

It’s our form of communication for a reason, and the less they understand it, the less likely that are to take it away from us.