When the only tool you have is a hammer (an old saying goes), all your problems start to look like nails. A political career built on inciting fear is not — it turns out — much preparation for a crisis that generates plenty of fear on its own. This is worth keeping in mind given Trump’s rechristening of the coronavirus pandemic as “the Chinese Virus” (twitterbrained capitalization sic) earlier this week. If, after denying the threat for over a month, he can acknowledge the reality only by turning it into a Yellow Menace, it is perhaps less a matter of sincerely virulent xenophobia than proof of a very limited skill set.
As with Sept. 11, the COVID-19 pandemic has created a breach in normality — a break in experience, before/after — that will make its effects fully known only somewhere down the line. The annual Chapman Survey of American Fears found, in 2018, that “pandemic or major epidemic” made 38.7 percent of respondents “afraid or very afraid” — putting it in 32nd place on a list of 94 fears, between “government restrictions on firearms and ammunition” (37.9 percent) and “the collapse of the electrical grid” (39 percent), but considerably lower than “people I love becoming seriously ill” (56.5 percent), “people I love dying” (56.4 percent) or “economic/financial collapse” (49.3 percent). It may have been a sign of a waning of the president’s mojo that people said they were afraid or very afraid of white supremacists (49.2 percent) and “extreme anti-immigration groups” (42 percent) at a far higher rate than they were of “illegal immigration” (21.5 percent).
The Chapman Survey numbers for 2019 are still being crunched. But those for the previous year will do for now as an index of where things stood before today — before, that is, the lines were blurred between the fear of pandemic and that of one’s loved ones becoming seriously ill, and mixed up with terror at economic, financial and power-grid collapse.
Published at the end of February, Fear Itself: The Causes and Consequences of Fear in America (New York University) arrived on the cusp of America’s fear starting to fall in sync with the rest of the world’s. It presents a summary and analysis of the Chapman Survey data collected between 2014 and 2018. Three of its authors — Christopher D. Bader, L. Edward Day and Ann Gordon — are professors at Chapman University, while a fourth, Joseph O. Baker, is at East Tennessee State University. Besides recording their interview subjects’ self-reported levels of fear, the researchers also collected their demographic profiles as well as information about their news consumption, social media involvement and frequency of religious observance, among other topics. (A methodological appendix has been placed online but not in the book itself.)
Fear Itself is full of interesting correlations although not many surprises. “It is not that conservatives and liberals have different ideas about how to fix the issues that cause them anxiety and fear,” the authors find. “They simply do not fear the same things at all … [A] kind of feedback loop occurs whereby people with particular values are more likely to respond to messages [from politicians] that stoke their fears … Hearing those messages reported in the media, in turn, (re)activates voters’ surveillance systems, reinforces fears and makes voters more susceptible to future fear-baiting messaging.”
I doubt anyone in the United States paying attention has failed to notice this, although the reference to “surveillance systems,” in the sense the authors use it, is not widely known. It refers to one of two brain processes, the other being the disposition system, “associated with decision-making that relies on deeply engrained values and identity.” The surveillance system responds to new and troubling input by activating the fight-or-flight reaction, which expresses itself as anxiety when neither fight nor flight seems possible. It also “leads to greater information-seeking behaviors.” (Here “information” must be understood very broadly, given that it would apply to content from, e.g., an online personality concerned that chemicals in the water are creating gay frogs.)
That certain news media outlets create audiences sharing common disposition and surveillance systems — excluding some topics from discussion, cycling repeatedly through others, giving every issue a certain polarizing spin — is another point well made by the authors but much too familiar from experience. More interesting, I think, are the findings about the relationship between news consumption and fear of crime. The researchers say they have asked about the same set of crimes since 2015 and found that “fear of every crime increased from year to year,” despite the FBI’s report that “crime is down almost 50 percent since 1993, a remarkable achievement that Americans seem to have missed.” Inquiries about whether survey respondents or their close friends or family members had been the victim of crime found that those who had been victims were not (as a group) more likely to fear crime than those “fortunate enough to escape such victimization.”
But people who watched their local TV news broadcast expressed “fear of all types of crime that is 26 percent higher than those who never watch,” and consuming either crime drama or “true crime” programs also corresponded to a higher level of fear. The really remarkable finding, though, concerns the effect of watching partisan news programs. “On average,” the authors say, “a person who watches Fox News every day is 30 percent more fearful of crime than someone who completely avoids the network,” but daily viewers of MSNBC are also “18 percent more afraid of all types of crime than those who never watch.” The reader might suppose that the networks’ audiences are afraid of different crimes, but the numbers don’t back this up. “The effects of Fox News were slightly stronger and were more pronounced with regard to fear of terrorism, but otherwise, the general trend was that more partisan news viewing equated with greater fear of all types of crime,” full stop.
After taking the measurements of the American public’s deep pool of insecurities, Fear Itself ends with advice about steps that might help dial down unnecessary dread, if only on an individual level: avoid partisan news coverage, limit exposure to social media, “learn to recognize conspiratorial thinking when you see it,” take reasonable steps toward disaster preparedness and “be willing to make connections with people across social boundaries, such as political party, race, ethnicity, sexuality, and age.” All sound advice in general, although telling a fear-addled person to be trustful is roughly as useful as telling a depressed person to cheer up.
Which brings us back to this moment, when the old normal is dead and the new one still too hard to imagine. Avoiding news, minimizing social media and preserving social bonds (let alone forging new ones) were reasonable if not simple options … before. They may not be impossible now, but they impose much higher costs than they did when the book was published, just three very long weeks ago.
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