A few things have happened recently that are being described as a clear sign that the politics of anger is furiously at work. In America, the rise to prominence of Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders at either ends of the political spectrum. Alternative for Germany, an anti-refugee and right-wing party, did better than expected in three regional elections this month. In Britain, the leave-Europe campaign is having a better run than thought possible.
All of these are seen by some as proof that people are angry. Mr Trump, it’s argued, has played to the anger of white working class Americans who feel that the racial hierarchy was reversed way too far with Barack Obama’s election as president. Mr Sanders speaks for voters angry about the gulf between rich and poor. Angry German voters seem bent on punishing Angela Merkel’s Christian Democrat party because she offered too warm and unqualified a welcome to Syrians fleeing the civil war. The Brexit campaigners fulminate that the European Union “acts as a job-destruction regulatory machine” for small and medium businesses.
It looks a lot like the politics of anger, but could it just be the politics of fear?
In the case of Mr Trump, it would be people’s fear of jobs going to the Chinese, while Mexican illegal immigrants, whom Mr Trump calls “rapists and murderers” threaten lives, and groups of Muslim terrorists supposedly stand ready to attack an overwhelmingly politically correct and soft America.
Mr Sanders gives voice to a fear of the big banks bankrolling the political system and of corporate behemoths crushing the little guy.
In Germany, there is fear of the social disorder that could result from the large numbers of new people it has had to accommodate in the past year.
And the UK’s anti-Europe campaigners are stoking the fear of being subsumed by a federalising undemocratic entity and Britishness under siege.
All these cases have a common underpinning — fear of the “other”. But the politics of fear has historically resulted in bad choices. The election of the National Socialists in Germany and the supreme control that Hitler subsequently assumed in 1933. The 1968 election of Richard Nixon. US president George W Bush’s 2002 midterm election campaign off the back of his administration’s attempt to sell the invasion of Iraq. And more recently, the November win for Turkey’s AKP.
The first three ended badly and Turkey’s decision to stay with its governing party, which is led by the increasingly authoritarian and erratic Recep Tayyip Erdogan, may yet prove unwise.
But then, fear has its own logic. It is an assault on reason, as former US vice president Al Gore argues in his 2007 book of that title. It can be exploited by the clever public relations specialist or politician, using three time-tested techniques that make up fear-mongering: repetition, making the irregular seem regular and misdirection. “By using these narrative tools, anyone with a loud platform can ratchet up public anxieties and fears, distorting public discourse and reason,” writes Mr Gore.
So it was in Germany’s bankrupt Weimar Republic, which had suffered 23 governments from 1919 to 1932, averaging a new one roughly every seven months. By the beginning of 1933, Germany had six million unemployed and the birth rate — a good indicator of public mood — was just 14.7 per thousand, down from a healthy 33.4 per thousand in 1905 during the reign of Kaiser Wilhelm. There was a spike in suicides, just as in Mr Trump’s natural constituency — white working class males in southern and western America, where educational levels are low and joblessness is high.
As historian Volker Ulrich writes in his biography, Hitler: Ascent 1889–1939, it was a time marked by fear and an “explosive mixture of economic misery, social instability and collective trauma”. So, power fell to a petty and intemperate “parvenu (who) lived in constant fear of not being taken seriously or, even worse, making himself look ridiculous”.
In America 35 years later, voters responded to an unusually tumultuous presidential election year by choosing Nixon, who ran on a campaign that promised to restore law and order after race riots and anti-war protests. It was the year that civil rights leader Martin Luther King and Democratic presidential candidate Bobby Kennedy were assassinated. America feared anarchy. Years later, after Nixon was driven from office in disgrace, he confided to someone: “People react to fear, not love. They don’t teach that in Sunday school, but it’s true.”
Fast forward nearly 50 years, and Mr Bush’s pre-Iraq invasion campaign for the 2002 midterm elections, when all 435 seats in the US House of Representatives and a third of the Senate are in play. Mr Gore describes “the fear campaign aimed at selling the Iraq war” as timed precisely for the kickoff of the election. It was, he quotes Mr Bush’s chief of staff, a “new product”, the old one — the war against Osama bin Laden — having lost some of its pizzazz. A new fear was successfully sold and Mr Bush’s Republican Party made gains all around, enabling him to claim that the people backed his controversial decisions in the so-called war on terror.
Some of the same fears — or a toxic mix — is at work again. Aldous Huxley was probably right when he identified the most important lesson of history as the fact that men do not learn very much from the lessons of history.