During his first inaugural address, Franklin D. Roosevelt shared with the nation his belief that “the only thing we have to fear is fear itself.” We’ve praised and repeated this sentiment for nearly seventy-four years now, attracted to its courage and promise. We focus primarily on the positive message that we can overcome almost anything. There is another, more cautionary element tucked inside this iconic line, however. By making “fear” the exception to the infinite list of things we need not fear, he was indeed warning us to be wary of “fear itself.” All of the material and ideological challenges of the day could be overcome, even in as dark a time as the one during which he was taking office, he opined. Fear, though,… fear was the one thing about which we should truly be concerned.
This most recent election season, from the primaries to the inauguration, has been mainly characterized by fear. Donald Trump tapped into a fear as ancient as it is universal — the fear of change. For decades, American society has become more and more progressive as its population has aged, but the societal change that took place during the Obama administration was particularly concentrated and effective. A portion of the population panicked as they watched the national views with which they’d become complacent give way to a new and more inclusive tide. The change frightened them, and they withdrew, seeking desperately to close themselves off from the outside, from everything they wished not to include in their intentionally restrictive worlds.
Fear has reigned on the other side of the aisle as well. This fear was of a different sort — nearly the opposite sort — but it was and is fear nonetheless. A large number of those opposed to Trump’s election explicitly cite fear as the primary reason. Some of those who celebrate the country’s progressive achievements during the Obama campaign (and even decades before) fear that those achievements will be erased. Much as the Trump campaign promoted the fear of social change, the Democratic campaign, effectively punctuated the media, nurtured the fear of complete and apathetic regression. Ethnic minorities, minorities in the realms of gender identity and sexual preference, and women feared the loss of the advances in respect and equality we’d been so proud they’d fought to enjoy.
In the end, the majority of people voted more against their fears than in favor of their wishes, in stark and disappointing contrast to the hope that accompanied the Obama election. In the days following the election, those afraid of the things Trump promised to protect against waited contentedly for their day. Those mourning his victory saw only confirmation of their fears in everything he did and in the continued pre-election message on which the media could not bring themselves to reverse course. Their fears found no outlet nor relief, and, for some, those fears regrettably but understandably morphed into dissent and even aggression. On Inauguration Day, some of those afraid of a lack of reason, a lack of tolerance, and a lack of compassion were inspired by fear to do harm to people and property in no way personally related to the changes of which they were afraid.
I don’t blame anyone for fearing the uncertain or even for feeling desperate in the face of their fears. I do hold some contempt for those on both sides of the election who knowingly and apathetically fed and over-inflated the respective fears of vulnerable groups in order to curry favor and win support. I’ve heard the pain and resentment in the voices of those who feel as if they have been or are being told to “get over it.” My intention is to be more sensitive to their fears than that, but to want something better than fear for them anyway. While the fears of those who oppose Trump are still felt more acutely than those who supported him, no one’s fears have yet been alleviated.
At the time of Roosevelt’s inauguration, the country’s problems were far from solved, and the nation had plenty of reason to cling to their fears. Roosevelt’s speech was not as rosy as many now choose to interpret it. Instead, he acknowledged the difficult situation in which the country found itself, and he asked the people to set aside their doubts, their disappointments, and their scars and to move on in spite of them. He expressed a confidence in the nation to recover and to prosper if they could set aside their fear. He believed that was the one thing that had the power to hold them back; that was the only thing they really had to fear. Trump is no Roosevelt and may not even be close to being the man the nation needs to lead us out of what Roosevelt may have called a “dark hour of our national life”, but one needs not support or oppose Trump to help move the nation forward. What one needs, what we all need, is to be willing to set aside our fears and “to minister to ourselves and our fellow men.”