When a CNN correspondent asked a female protester on Pennsylvania Avenue in Washington, DC, about her response to the new President’s Inaugural address, she laid her head back and howled like a wounded animal. To many Americans it seems as if it is all coming apart—and not just Americans. Even from here, in Norway, the venting of spleens is the new normal.
Commentators of renown are competing to generate the direst forecast of the Trump era. The bronze medal goes to Bernard-Henri Lévy and his catchy “dark tide of vulgarity and violence.” Robert Kagan’s “This is how fascism comes to America” wins silver. But the gold surely goes to Joseph Stiglitz for his claim that Trump is spreading fear in a way “that would make any terrorist proud.”
In academic literature this phenomenon—widespread fear of a great evil spreading unchecked throughout society—is referred to as “moral panic.” The Oxford Dictionary of Sociology defines it as “the process of arousing social concern over an issue—usually the work of moral entrepreneurs and the mass media.” Pent-up uneasiness over societal change finds focus in one particular case.
Moral panics are interesting because elites are as receptive to them as common folk. This year’s BAFTA, Grammy, and Oscar award ceremonies were marked by compact contempt for the American people’s elected representative. In Europe, seasoned journalists are drawing parallels between Trump and the 1930s; putting their own breathtaking lack of historical perspective on display. Of course there are historical parallels to Trump, but the quick leap to Adolf Hitler doesn’t illuminate any of them.
The popularity of this reductio ad Hitlerum argument points to perhaps the key feature of moral panics: the loss of proportionality and perspective. Moral entrepreneurs and other merchants of outrage intensify and rationalize the panicked response and then point to the reaction such analysis provokes among the like-minded as proof that they are speaking the truth.
Many seem to forget that President Trump is merely making good on the promises of his campaign. As Francis Fukuyama recently wrote in the Financial Times: “Contrary to his critics, Trump does have a consistent and thought-through position: he is a nationalist on economic policy, and in relation to the global political system.” He is similarly unhappy about America’s traditional allies whom he sees as freeriding on American power. Trump wants to renegotiate the liberal status quo, not overthrow it altogether.
President Trump won the election on a promise of change—not kumbaya-change à la Obama but cold, hard change of the kind that pains your enemies and benefits you and yours: America first. Trump now sits atop a system that, as a whole, does not share this ambition. It is therefore to be expected that in order to effect change, he would come into conflict with other commanding heights of American society. Places where the elites—which Trump defines as President Obama and many of his predecessors—have sought to entrench the status quo as the final form of government.
If one sets aside moral panic, one can see the controversy about the temporary entry ban for refugees, in part, as a power struggle between the Executive and the Judiciary over control of the borders. The conflict with the media, likewise, can be seen as a power struggle over the right to define societal truth—about values rather than facts. The dispute with the intelligence services is also, at least in part, a fight over the bureaucracy’s loyalty to elected representatives. Controversies over trade agreements concern the balance between market and state, involving, by extension, a critique of the eventual universal benefits of free trade, which is the core rationale for globalization.
Some will resist the very notion of treating Trump as a rational actor. Recently a gaggle of psychiatrists, psychologists, and social workers warned in the New York Times about Trump’s mental health in an apparent breach of their own profession’s ethical injunctions against remote diagnosis. Their assessment was partly motivated by the President’s nocturnal Tweets. Now, no one can deny that his tweeting and public persona are, at the very least, unconventional. But great care must be taken to distinguish clinical diagnoses from the personal, non-professional view that liberalism is synonymous with rationality.
This assumed monopoly on rationality is confirmed by the eye-rolling satirical shows from which surprisingly many educated people get their news and views. These shows are not funny in a LOL sense; rather they deliver a different feel-good commodity: prejudice confirmation. Satire has only recently become a byword for taunting one’s ideological opponents. John Oliver provides essentially the same service as Alex Jones in this regard. Both peddle cheap tribalism—the fact that one is Cambridge-educated only reflects that the liberal tribe likes to have their bigotry wrapped in university-level invectives. I mention this because confusing opposing views with irrationality is a recurring theme in panics.
There is a long history in the West of communities suffering something resembling a collective panic attack. Most are familiar with the history of witch-hunts on both sides of the Atlantic—from Salem to to Würzburg. Since then, Western societies have intermittently experienced waves of moral panic, some more justified and others less so. Geoffrey Pearson’s delightful book Hooligan: A History of Respectable Fears (Macmillan, 1983) contains a treasure trove of newspaper quotes from assorted panics. To choose one: “For the first time in a century and a half, since the great conservative reformer Robert Peel set up the Metropolitan police, areas of our cities are becoming unsafe for peaceful citizens by night, and some even by day.” No one is safe!
The United States experienced two “red scares” (1917–20 and 1947–57) driven by fears that communists were subverting American society. More recently, in the 1980s, the AIDS panic swept across much of the West, ably described in David France’s new book, How to Survive a Plague. Since then we have had a number of other scares motivated by everything from drug abuse to rape to video games and Dungeons & Dragons. In the early 1990s in Norway, sociologist Eva Lundgren lit the fuse on a moral panic over an imaginary satanic cannibal cult. In the 2000s a few clashes between biker and immigrant gangs led the docile Danes to fear an incipient civil war.
There is surprisingly little scholarship on collective emotions in general, and moral panics in particular. A notable exception is Stanley Cohen’s Folk Devils and Moral Panics (Routledge, 1972). Cohen dissects the moral panic that swept across Britain and that found focus in the “war” between Mods and Rockers in 1964. The following year, The Who released the album My Generation, which for many confirmed their belief that civilization itself was at stake.
Cohen ties moral panic to media coverage. The media often cover a phenomenon in such a way that the coverage itself becomes a symbol of a break with established norms, and then that break is taken as further evidence that one element in society is spoiling things for everyone else. The media heightens the sense of panic by focusing on reactions to the phenomenon without considering whether the reactions are justified or proportionate. Panic thus breeds more panic.
Cohen argues that moral panics can also be seen as by-products of unresolved issues that are controversial but nevertheless not openly discussed because they touch on cultural taboos. For conservatives such taboos include sexual minorities, feminism, and ethnic minority identity politics, while liberals feel ill at ease discussing white ethnicity, Western culture, and national identity. The negative feelings directed at Trump reflect understandable distaste and disagreement, not all of it exaggerated, to be sure. But the intensity of some of the disgust on display seems driven by the fear and loathing that many feel merely when confronted by a political agenda other than their own.
This is not to say that there is no rational basis whatsoever for Trump fears in the United States. The U.S.-led West is very much an “empire of the mind”—a network of reinforcing intersubjective premises—given strength by institutions, norms, and rules built up over many decades.
Indeed on that score there does seem to be cause for concern. Trump seems to misread profoundly how the prevailing national and international orders work, and to what purposes they should be directed. For that reason he will likely trigger countervailing forces at home and abroad that will seek to balance against his policy objectives. Nevertheless, Trump’s more unhinged critics run a similar danger of misreading the strength, elasticity, and purpose of democracy. There is a deeply anti-democratic undercurrent to much of the criticism of the new President, borne aloft by an assumption that democracy is too important to be left to the voters. That undercurrent is perhaps no less dangerous in the long run than the President’s own flaws.