Following the bombings in New York and New Jersey and the stabbing in Minnesota over the weekend, at a press conference Monday morning, Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton said, “Let us be vigilant, but not afraid.” It was a moment that recalled Franklin D. Roosevelt’s first inaugural address in 1933, after he was elected in the midst of the darkest part of the Great Depression, during which he uttered his famous words, “the only thing we have to fear is fear itself.”
Clinton pushed this idea further, saying:
I know we will meet this new danger with the same courage and vigilance. We choose resolve, not fear. We will not turn on each other or undermine our values. We’ll stand together because we are stronger together in the face of this threat and every other challenge.
This was meant to encourage calm and rationality in a time of uncertainty and fear. To a certain degree, Clinton was speaking to those who were most afraid of terrorist attacks in America — and many such Americans are arguably Trump supporters. A Pew Research Center survey from August found that 65 percent of Trump backers believed terrorism was a "very big" problem for the United States, compared to just 36 percent of Clinton supporters.
However, I believe most Trump supporters won’t be persuaded by Clinton’s words — not because they won’t listen to anything she says, or because they have any problem with vigilance or resolve. I believe the reason many of them have backed Trump is that they don’t want to let go of their fear. They want it validated.
Trump’s tactics throughout his campaign have centered on inflaming the preexisting fears of his supporters, and then asserting that he’s the only person who can assuage them. In his acceptance speech for the party's presidential nomination at the Republican National Convention in July, Trump said, “Nobody knows the system better than me, which is why I alone can fix it.” It’s his own version of the age-old PR refrain (probably best articulated by Edward Bernay’s 1928 book Propaganda) that you create an affliction and then sell the cure.
Clinton’s assertion that we can choose not to be afflicted by this fear in the first place runs counter to the mentality of Trump's campaign, and has the potential to undermine many of his supporters' identities as justifiably fearful Americans.
It’s a tendency I have some sympathy for. Growing up as a not-particularly-sporty kid in San Francisco in the ’90s, I found myself having to assert my heterosexuality fairly often. (This usually took the highbrow rhetoric of someone saying, “What are you, gay?” and me saying, “I am not!”) But when I came to terms with the fact that I was in fact gay, one of the biggest mental hurdles to coming out was the fact that it would mean saying to all those jerks, “Oops, guess you were right!” I’d invested so much in my fake straight identity that letting it go felt like a defeat, somehow.
I imagine that Trump supporters feel a similar anxiety about defeat. Agreeing with Clinton that their fear is irrational would mean more than just giving up on their fears — it would mean giving up a part of who they are. What Clinton (and Democrats in general) need to do between now and Election Day is demonstrate that these fears are misplaced, and that Trump is certainly no panacea.