A Brief History of Fear in American Politics: AIDS, 9/11 to Covid19

History and science, as does our understanding and ignorance, all evolve. 

What we knew, even in October of 2020 when this article from the American Historical Association was published, has changed dramatically. That was just one month after my father passed away from Covid-19. The day of my father’s funeral was when the world woke up to the news that President Trump had been diagnosed with Covid-19. After Trump was diagnosed and then rushed to Walter Reed, there was a dramatic shift in seriousness that we all witnessed immediately. 

Seriousness, especially at a societal level, fades quickly. If we had not learned that lesson after September 11th, or after the financial meltdown that led to the Great Recession, or, more recently, after our withdrawal from Afghanistan and the loss of weapons, equipment, and an infrastructure paid with deficits and debt over two decades, it’s that we don’t learn much as a people in the short or long term.

Real life lessons are hard fought and won, difficult to learn, easy to forget, and unlikely to be incorporated into daily life. 

Change, or impermanence, is a known quality of our lives. Intentional long lasting change, commonly referred to as transformation, is often discussed with trepidation and an exuberance that often outpaces outcomes. 

A crisis like a pandemic is inherently different from a terrorist attack, which is likely why some people attempted to link or characterize Covid-19 as an intentional act. 

The need to have a villain does conjure memories of the fear tactics by the Christian right involved with the AIDS crisis in the 1980s.

The impetus toward demonization is a method to avoid or distract followers from science and fact-based discussions, instead tilting consciousness toward the more hot emotions. Emotional lability begins to overtake groupthink on the issue, which requires a more binary landscape. Upon this binary backdrop, the good versus evil story that feels both familiar and comfortable reasserts itself.

There is comfort in being against something or someone, especially as others join. 

Examine the differences.

Covid-19 is an airborne virus that has become a global pandemic, and, therefore, not something easily visible. The public officials that are tasked to confront this invisible virus and pandemic are very much visible. More so, the orders, actions, and missteps of each of these public officials can be visualized, analyzed, mischaracterized, and completely fabricated to complete the villain picture within that binary landscape required to fuel groupthink against having science and fact-based discussions.

It’s reminiscent of discussing terrorism after September 11th. The villain for too many became a religion, or the followers of it. It was easier to incorporate the simplicity of messaging about terrorism by some politicians and leaders around the phrase “radical Islamic terrorism” for millions of Americans. Whenever I have heard this phrase I have winced because of my beliefs in upholding all of our U.S. Constitution for all Americans, not simply when it is convenient.

As President George W Bush elaborated, “I think it’s very important for all of us to recognize one of our great strengths is for people to be able to worship the way they want to or to not worship at all,” Bush said. “A bedrock of our freedom is the right to worship freely.” (Wash Post)

Politicians who reach higher office take an Oath to defend and uphold our Constitution. Instead of respecting the entirety of that founding document, it is easier to only respect the freedoms and rights important for supporters while tossing it for others. For people that are deemed to be not worthy of the same freedoms and rights as political supporters, some are simply obstacles to a political agenda while others are potential villains in opposition to that agenda. 

The extent of polarization within the political, social, and cultural environment will dictate how much demonization can persist in a community. It is from this polarization, or, lack of engagement by one side, that has created the fertile grounds from which tribalism has flourished in rural America. 

There is a difference between today and the response to AIDS in the 80s and to 9/11 after 2001, but not much. In the 80s, Republicans had taken over the US Senate for the first time. It was a critical time in the AIDS crisis, and Reagan just began his first term in 1981. Back then, the parties still worked together more than they fought against one another as they do today. 

However, on divisive cultural and social issues, like AIDS, Congress failed Americans in the 80s. In 1987, Congress banned the use of federal money on AIDS prevention campaigns that targeted homosexuals. The federal ban was counterproductive in two ways: it diverted funds from communities most in need of ad campaigns and instead funded campaigns that helped to further fear about AIDS. The fear of AIDS has lingered ever since, remaining a source of infection of HIV, the virus that causes AIDS. 

Fear is not a good motivator for changing behavior. In fact, fear is one of the worst motivators as it “worsens emotions, cognition, and behavioral responses” (Front Psychiatry 2021). 

It’s why I have often avoided discussing Covid-19 in ways that would instill fear, even though simply broadcasting news items about it can evoke that response from many people. Knowing facts is different from intentionally using facts to produce fear-based reactions. 

I don’t fear Covid-19, and I nearly died from it. I had a plan in place because I was doing active research on the latest nursing tips. Those tips saved my life. Fear never has. My mind and my ability to be present, especially in the worst moments of my life, and, then take action, is what has so often saved me. 

Personally, I have witnessed fear being used against individuals quite often. I have witnessed fear being used against groups of people more often. I happen to be a member of many of those groups. The reason we are targeted is that we aren’t ever going to be a majority in this nation.

When someone is asking for listeners to be fearful, it should be a red flag for us all. However, learning is difficult for us all. Especially when many people, right now, are feeling overwhelmed.

It is far easier for politicians to evoke and reinforce messages of fear in their supporters than it is to pass legislation that will change life in a tangible and positive way. It is nearly impossible that other politicians, in direct response, won’t then evoke and reinforce messages of fear about that legislation. We have all seen it so many times. When have we learned the lesson?

And, there is the dilemma. The deepening abyss of tribalism, of polarization, of fear of one another, of the other, of actually changing what we’ve been complaining about for all these years . . . where will it end?

It ends when we, as a people, and in enough numbers, intentionally decide we are going to change course. Even though many politicians are incapable of making this course correction, even though their political party bosses are incapable of it too, the people can. And, as with any transformation, it does not happen overnight but over sustained force and action. 

History is with us. 

America has always turned the corner as we have turned the page, and, too often, reversed and moved backward as well. We have learned lessons that we needed to learn. We have forgotten them as well. We have so much more to learn and do together. 

We will when we are ready.