Defined by our fears

Walls, trigger warnings, and the pursuit of total safety

You have to live your life to the fullest despite the tragedy surrounding you.
(Image credit: Ikon Images/Corbis)

When asked why they're supporting Donald Trump, his fans often say: "Because he'll make us safe." If there is a theme to the year we're now concluding, it is fear — and the extreme measures Americans are willing to embrace in their yearning for security. Curiously enough, Trump's frightened flock has much in common with the fragile college students clamoring for trigger warnings and the creation of "safe zones." These two groups couldn't have more different political values, but they are mirror images of each other — the students demanding to be sheltered from all racial, ethnic, and cisgender slights and microaggressions, and the Trumpists thrilling at his macroaggressive promise to wall out Hispanics, Muslims, foreign trade, and threats of any kind. Both groups long for a level of safety not possible in the real world.

Ours is a country founded on hope. But Americans seem to be increasingly defined by what we fear. Which frightens you more: Islamic terrorism, or anti-Islamic bigotry? Too much surveillance, or too little? Climate change, or intrusive government regulation? Angry white men with weapons, or government confiscation of all guns? Racist cops, or lawlessness? The hijacking of the democratic process by corporations and billionaires, or a creeping socialism that promises nearly everyone a lifetime of government benefits? If you believe what you read on the internet or hear in presidential debates, you're likely to conclude that The End Is Near. Now, fear can be useful: Evolution wired our brains to respond to perceived threats with a powerful "flight or fight" response — making adrenaline pour into our veins, our hearts race, our fists clench. Spend too much time in that state, however, and you become neurotic, paranoid — a little unhinged. As we remind you in the magazine every week, It's Not All Bad. Let's all lighten up. A fresh new year beckons. The sky is not falling.

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