Before Donald Trump entered his eponymous Tower's atrium in June 2015 for his presidential announcement speech, “Rockin' in the Free World” blasted from the loudspeakers. As the candidate appeared at the top of his golden escalator, the song became narrator, deftly summarizing the trajectory of his campaign with an efficiency he would never muster. “I see a woman in the night / With a baby in her hand,” Canadian Reaganite turned Bernie supporter Neil Young sang. Trump gave the crowd below a thumbs-up and a smirk as his soundtrack continued to explain why the world sucks. “Now she puts the kid away / And she's gone to get a hit / She hates her life / And what she's done to it.” Nearly an hour later — after mentioning rapist immigrants, escaped convicts, and ISIS — Trump ended his speech on a note of uplift by suggesting that the American Dream was dead.
So fear-based fanfic was in the DNA of the 2016 presidential election from the very beginning, as was Trump's promise to save us all from the dystopian fairy tale he kept unfurling. It didn't matter that his vision of America wasn't true; 46 percent of voters believed him. His "Bob the Builder in the Upside Down" remix of “Yes We Can” was the only promise of his entire campaign, really. The specific policy details ebbed and flowed, but their intent remained the same: Trump was both political Prozac — “I alone can fix things” — and the reason we thought we needed help in the first place. “I have a message for all of you,” he said when accepting the nomination at the Republican Convention, just over a year later. “The crime and violence that today afflicts our nation will soon come to an end. Beginning on January 20, 2017, safety will be restored.”
In the meantime, however, he just freaked everyone out. His supporters worried that Hillary Clinton would cheat her way to a victory, while his detractors worried about their immigration status or health care. Clinton joined in the fear-for-all by spending much of her campaign reading Trump Stories to Tell in the Dark.
In October, the American Psychological Association reported that 52 percent of Americans cited the 2016 election as a very or somewhat significant source of stress. Three months later, it's clear that this stress didn't have an expiration date, as the future seems no less unpredictable than it did in November. And if we are “anxious, jealous guardians of our democracy,” as Barack Obama said in his farewell speech, it could be useful to know how this fear might be making us do its bidding.
But first, it's probably best to explain the difference between fear and anxiety. Although the word "fearmonger" has gotten a lot of play recently, and will continue to, the forces that kept voters berserk in 2016 — politicians, purveyors of fake and real news — were mostly anxiety-mongers, who kept Americans in a perpetual state of dread by encouraging us to dwell on the uncertainty of the future. “In the case of fear,” NYU neuroscientist Joseph LeDoux, author of the book Anxious: Using the Brain to Understand and Treat Fear and Anxiety told MTV News, “the threat is present and in your face. In the case of anxiety, it is in the future, it's unpredictable, it's uncertain. It may never happen, and yet we worry about it.”
Those threats, real or imagined, can have a great impact on how we perceive the world. A few years ago, University of Nebraska political science professor John Hibbing and his colleagues did a study on threat sensitivity and politics, finding that those who looked at a picture of a crowd and zeroed in on the angry faces tended to also prefer a heavy dose of law and order in their leaders. “If you keep seeing threats in your life,” Hibbing told MTV News, “you want someone who promises to solve those threats.”
The president-elect was a dream candidate for threat hypochondriacs. Hibbing found that conservative voters seem most responsive to perceived human threats — which is why less-immediate threats like climate change have little sway. The world that Trump conjured up in his freestyle Seussian soliloquies posited that everyone outside his rallies was a threat — the “other” he planned to protect his supporters from. The less threat-sensitive you are, the more bewildered you'll be when those policies become popular. It's not the best recipe for electoral harmony, especially when voters are so politically segregated that it's possible to never meet anyone with different political fears. Hibbing knows that there are many other factors responsible for the election's outcome, but he also says a campaign-long game of Whac-A-Threat definitely didn't hurt Trump's chances.
A sensitivity to threat doesn't leave those who love law and order depressed, however — those on the right usually get high marks on well-being assessments. Hibbing suggests that this might be because they also see easy solutions to the world's teeming ills, like buying guns, or building a wall, or electing a businessman. Before Election Day, 7 percent of Trump voters said the country was on the right track, per Morning Consult. Immediately after the race ended, that number jumped 20 percentage points. For everyone else who didn't vote for him, however, and who might not be as politically motivated by threats — or the racism, sexism, and intolerance that accompanies a campaign that sees a world rife with “others” — the solutions can seem far less clear.
Anxiety could also have led voters to ghost on the election completely. Another study conducted by the University of Nebraska found that people with higher cortisol levels — i.e., more stress — were less likely to vote.
It could also be making us get existential. Sheldon Solomon at Skidmore College has spent decades studying how the knowledge of our eventual death affects humans. A study he did in 2016 found that dwelling on mortality made people more likely to support Donald Trump, a man who constantly tells us that crime and terrorism are happening somewhere. “His popularity is contingent on a perpetual state of existential anxiety,” Solomon told MTV News, adding that “it feels like we're living in a Monty Python meets Ingmar Bergman film.”
But now that the election is over, it's clear Americans' political anxieties are going to simmer on evermore, at least as long as we have unlimited access to bad news on cable and social media and increasingly distrust the institutions tasked with interpreting said miasma of informational muck. Do the academics have any ideas of how we're going to get people to chill out? “I hate to say it, but I really don't,” Hibbing says. “It's difficult for a person to go to a group of people and say objectively, ‘You are overreacting.’ We don't know what's going to happen in the world.”
“If I could answer that question,” Solomon adds, “I'd be chugging rum out of a coconut on the beach with my Nobel Prize.”
Mary McNaughton-Cassill, a professor of psychology at the University of Texas at San Antonio, suggests that those feeling anxious about politics find something constructive to do. “If I see a report about starving kids in Africa,” she told MTV News, “it's really easy to say, 'I can't watch this anymore, I just need to turn it off and forget it.' But that doesn't fix the problem either. So don't watch more coverage of kids you can't help in Africa, but figure out ways you do something you can do in your community with the food bank.”
Barry Glassner, a sociologist at Lewis & Clark College, has made a career of reminding people that we live in one of the safest times in history while people run around tweeting that the sky is falling. He says being able to identify the tricks fearmongers use to scare us can neutralize some of their effectiveness. When you see someone treating an isolated incident as a widespread phenomenon, freeze the frame and don't let yourself get anxious. Remember that you are more likely to be killed by a wobbly TV than a terrorist attack (or maybe just don't think about death at all). When you hear a politician prey on your fears about job insecurity by talking about immigrants, think about his motives and realize that he's basically performing the rhetorical equivalent of the penny-in-your-ear trick.
Of course, suggestions like this are usually easier said than done. Dr. Yuval Neria, a professor of medical psychology at the Columbia University Medical Center, did a study on PTSD after September 11 and found that Americans far away from New York felt the effects of trauma long after the attacks. Immigrants and low-income people of color were among those most likely to suffer — and probably had few resources to alleviate it. But, Neria says, there are a few simple things you can do if you're feeling overwhelmed by the news or politics, regardless of where you are.
Exercise regularly. Do breathing exercises. Also, just go to bed. The world will still be there in the morning, but maybe some rest will help you realize that at least a few of the threats you saw out there were mirages all along — leaving you plenty more time to think about what you can do to stop the things that really are worth worrying about. “You can't feel bad about every single injustice in the world, because you will end up depressed,” McNaughton-Cassill says. “As humans, we want to take action. We want to fix things.”
And when you're just waiting for the sky to fall, everything can feel hopeless. When LeDoux isn't studying brains, he performs with fellow scientists in the band The Amygdaloids. Most of the songs involve the scientific subjects that the musicians tackle during their day job, so inevitably there is one about fear and anxiety. The song “Fearing” is adapted from a poem by Emily Dickinson, and it shows that the emotions people are struggling with right now have been around for centuries. Although the science has changed, LeDoux thinks Dickinson still had some insight that we'd do well to keep in mind when we're worried about what might come next. “What she said was that waiting is the worst,” LeDoux says. “It ties you up in knots. But by the time the danger gets there, it's not so bad.”