Ruling by fear leads to ruling by fear

Here’s the thing about ruling based on appealing to fear: you can’t stop doing it, not if you want to stay in power. It’s the basis of your ascension and your legitimacy.

So follow the train of logic. Trump’s executive order that bans refugees from certain countries and his explanation that we’ll give preference to Christians is a hot mess if you care about freedom of religion. The edict basically gives the government the power to define a person’s religion. Otherwise the order doesn’t work. How can they give priority to Christians unless they (the government, not the person of faith) label the refugee?

And so now, the First Amendment which grants us freedom to worship as we choose, is junked out of fear. Think about how breathtakingly huge that is. Meanwhile you’re more likely to die as the result of being crushed by furniture than as a victim of a terrorist attack (I kid you not).

And then, success! We shut out all the undesirables. Thank our politically convenient God that we’re safe.

But ruling by fear doesn’t work that way. It’s never enough. If people lose their fear, they consider their options. Maybe they vote for the opposition party. It endangers your agenda.

So with the old undesirables swept away, we need to make a new class of undesirables in order to stay in power. We kept out the Muslims, so now perhaps we turn inward and attack Muslims here legally in the U.S. Maybe we start with those on visas, but eventually we go after citizens. The administration announced this week they’re going to publish weekly reports on crimes committed by undocumented immigrants — completely contextless, of course, and selectively edited so we don’t know things like what percentage of this population is committing a crime. It’s propaganda 101. Selective release and control of information that frames how people see issues.

If you’ve read about countries torn by civil war in the past couple hundred years, you’ll see a common pattern. It starts with demonizing a group of people based on identity, not actions, and blaming them for all sorts of unconnected ills. If you need a recommendation, read about the Rwandan civil war (Jared Diamond’s excellent “Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed” has an excellent chapter on Rwanda).

But hey, success! We got rid of the ones we already let in too!

But eventually we start parsing “Christian.” Sure, it was easy to make the label broad when we wanted to restrict Muslims, but now we have the precedent to declare what the right kind of Christian is. I mean, there are lots of Christians living in the Middle East in places Trump doesn’t support. Palestine, anyone? Oh those liberal Christian from Mainline denominations and their constant push for social justice. Can’t have that.

The thing about fear is that it never stops with targeted groups. Eventually they come for you, because we run out of Others to target and have to create new ones. So we face a choice now, one that requires courage. Will we stand up because it’s right, not because it’s happening to us?

Or maybe we just complain about how Facebook has gotten too political.

This isn’t paranoia. It’s history. It’s what we have to guard against, and what should drive us to make our leaders hold Trump accountable — or else we replace them. No small act against civil liberties puts us under tyranny. It’s a succession of small ones that make us lower our guard without thought. Things that make us allow for degradation of others’ rights because it’s not an attack on us.

There is nothing about our democracy that is self-executing, as Elliott Lusztig recently said. The Constitution is a piece of paper unless people enforce it and follow it. We take peaceful transitions of power for granted, but they happen only because people respect our institutions and customs. When we are able to jettison them out of fear or convenience? That’s when it’s time to get engaged; in fact, it’s probably past time.