I read both the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal most mornings. I usually rise from the couch feeling some combination of incredulity, anger, and despair. This morning, for the first time, I felt a sharp stab of fear.
A shrinking gaggle of mostly Honduran refugees is slowly making its way north, still weeks away from the border. In response, Trump has launched the largest quick deployment of active-duty U.S. military since 2010 by ordering over 5000 troops to counter what the President called “an invasion of our country.” He calls it “Operation Faithful Patriot.” “[Democrats],” he says, “want to open America’s borders and turn our country into a friendly sanctuary for murderous thugs from other countries who will kill us all.” And are the American people buying it? On the front page, the Times quotes a graphic designer from Illinois: “I feel like we’re fighting for our freedom when it comes to our borders. [The caravan will] destroy America, and . . . bring us to our knees. I’m not going to take it – not going to go down without a fight.”
For tens of millions of our fellow citizens, this is the reality they will bring with them to the voting booth next Tuesday, not the actual reality that individuals steeped in the rhetoric of the Trump base sent pipe bombs to most of the leadership of the opposition party, and did murder 11 worshiping Jews for no reason other than their religion. I fear that democracy cannot function in a society without the grounding reference point of a common reality, no less a shared culture or shared narrative of nationhood and history. Who wins in what Chris Hedges calls “the empire of illusion”? I fear the answer is the party that is comfortable peddling a manipulative narrative untethered from the truth and highly skilled at manipulating the levers of social and other media; the party that is willing to open Pandora’s box and unleash the powerful passions of hate, resentment, nativism, and prejudice.
Reading on, I find that Brazil, by far the largest country in Latin America, elected as its president a far-right politician who said “Let’s go straight to the dictatorship,” as the only way to fix a broken country. He told a magazine that he’d “rather his son die in a car accident” than be gay, and told a female politician on camera that she was not good enough to be raped. Sound familiar? So Brazil joins Italy, Hungary, Poland, Russia, and Austria. I fear that we still view these elections as aberrant and fail to recognize that we are in the midst of a global epidemic. Why are the champions of liberal democracy not fighting these outbreaks with the same vigor we brought to Ebola, SARS and other threatening pathogens?
When Trump was elected, I wrote that “cancellation of trade deals will send the global economy into a tailspin and devastate American business and workers.” Instead, the long tail of our recovery from the 2008 recession drove the economy forward, and the stock market, artificially buoyed by a large corporate tax cut, floated ever upward. This morning something changed. The Wall Street Journal has previously opposed Trump’s multi-front trade war, but only in a pro forma way. This morning, the paper chose to run an opinion piece with a stark verdict: “That crashing sound you heard in the world markets last week wasn’t just a correction. It was the sound of the end of an age.” The end of an age when Washington emphasized “opening of markets and reducing barriers to investment and trade” and “the positive-sum logic of economics trumped zero-sum international politics.” In its place, a far-right rage that seeks to destroy globalism and the Trumpist world view that international relations is a zero-sum contest between winners and losers. As an investor, I have learned over a long period to ignore the ups and downs of the market. But reading this, I felt an emotion toxic to markets: fear.
And finally, finished with both papers, I was struck by what was missing. Where were the voices of the opposition? Consider this: Both papers reported the deployment of Federal troops to the border together with the President’s explanation that we were being “invaded.” And who provided the counterpoint? Who called Trump out for this abuse of Federal power for transparently partisan purposes? Speaker Pelosi? Leader Schumer? Neither the Times nor the Journal quoted a single Democratic politician in opposition. (Ex-military leaders, however, were quick to react, and succinct: “This is using the troops as props,” said an ex-Army infantry officer.) I fear that no resistance can succeed without effective leaders. I fear that the political establishment (or what remains of it) is not going to come to our rescue. I fear that it really is up to each of us as individuals and the decisions we make next Tuesday.
Fear can be either enervating or energizing. We can be paralyzed by fear or it can spur action that saves our lives. I can only hope that I’m not the only one who has felt an escalation of fear in recent days. If enough of those millennials, minorities, suburban women, centrists, moderates, and independents feel the same way, we might finally get some good news on Tuesday night.