Anxiety can be defined as worrying about something bad happening. Worry is based on something that we’ve already experienced or something that we can imagine experiencing.
There are worries that derive from personal affairs, like not having as much money as you’d like or getting nervous about interacting with someone. It’s easy to imagine things heading south in a lot of everyday situations based on something that didn’t go right before.
And then there are those things you might worry about because you’ve been exposed to them through the media or, God forbid, through some wrenching experience, e.g.:
Getting shot by a white nationalist while shopping or going to a movie.
Hearing that your kid’s school is under some sort of attack.
Getting wiped out by a flood caused by climate change.
Having desperate immigrants show up after fleeing horrific conditions at home.
Being caught flat-footed in the face of technology that is going to eat your job.
One Republican presidential candidate, Bill Weld, talks about anxiety. I went to one of his fundraisers, and he said, “I’m traveling around and meeting all sorts of people, and one thing is the same everywhere: Everyone is anxious.”
And he’s right. Even though many people have money in their pockets, almost everyone feels some sense of dread. Much of this is the result of the political polarization in the U.S., divisions our president is doing everything he can to stoke to his own advantage. In particular, Donald Trump’s promotion of white supremacy as part of his brand is amping up the fear factor in the U.S. exponentially.
In a recent column in The New York Times, James Comey pointed out that the belief that white people are inherently superior to people who don’t have their skin pigmentation has been a constant in American life since about 1660, when this doctrine first started showing up officially in Maryland and Virginia.
Since Brown v. the Topeka Board of Education in 1954 opened the door to civil rights legislation, the U.S. has made significant strides toward the eradication of racist thought and action. Clearly, we have a very long way to go. But, when our president repeatedly inflames racial animosity by referring to people of color, their neighborhoods and the countries they come from in disparaging terms, he is pulling the scab off a wound that needs to heal.
The U.S. continues to be the world’s largest economy, and it exerts global leadership in many ways. Unfortunately, under the current Republican administration, that leadership is taking us and the world as a whole backward. The U.S. is in a position financially and technologically to inspire new and thoughtful action on many fronts, such as climate change, but it is emphatically choosing to not do so. Instead, under Trump, it is tragically reinstituting racial and ethnic hate as an American family value.
Between 1861 and 1865, white supremacy created hell on Earth for the U.S. About 700,000 people died as a result of the Civil War, including many from the area served by this newspaper. That would be the equivalent of about 6 million people today. The blood lust of people like the Dayton and El Paso murderers and the hundreds of “very fine” neo-Nazis who showed up for the “Battle of Charlottesville” demonstrates that there are more than a few who remain eager to torment people because of their skin color, ethnicity or creed.
Their mean-spirited tribalism has delivered chaos and violence to this country before, and they relish the idea of doing so again. Comey compares the dismantling of the legal and behavioral restraints on racial bigotry going on now to the removal of a nuclear power plant’s control rods. Consider the magnitude of the explosive chain reaction that would happen if the control rods at Seabrook were to malfunction. It would definitely be time to get out of Dodge.
Societal meltdown awaits us if the mechanisms that constrain racial hatred in the U.S. stop functioning. It has taken this country 350 years to get somewhat past the unintended negative consequences of racial and ethnic prejudice. We’d still have much work to do even without Trumpism. Going in reverse is only making matters worse.
And this is part of what Weld means when he notes that anxiety is everywhere. A bunch of really bad genies are being let out of the bottle during this ignorant and aggressive era.
They permeate the atmosphere, psychically and materially. They are making bad things happen now, and they’ll make worse things happen in the near future. No wonder anybody who’s paying attention is worried.
Michael Sales lives in Newburyport.