So what, then, should be the right mix—of addressing fears and dealing rationally with them—for political leaders? Today clearly we need a better tone—some balanced middle ground that lies in between the approaches of Donald Trump and Barack Obama on the treatment of Syrian refugees, on the use of U.S. power in fighting ISIL, in the balance between national security and civil liberties. In some ways Trump has more accurately read the public temper, even if his responses—Build a wall! Close the mosques!—are often over the top. As one White House correspondent noted of the gap between the president and the public: “Obama has a high opinion of people and thinks they can see things in a measured way. But Americans like to do shit. They don’t want to think about refugees, they want to clobber Islamic State, and journalists are the worst.”
Finally, if you’re a pessimist about the ability of the political process to resist the darker implications of fear, here are two considerations that will strengthen your dyspepsia. First, as Joe Trippi argues, there is no penalty for feeding a spasm of panic. “Remember when we were all going to die from Ebola and they called out the president’s fecklessness for allowing those ‘deadly’ Ebola patients in the U.S. They fueled the hysteria then, too, nothing happened—no Ebola outbreak, nothing. They poured gasoline on the fire, and no one remembers or cares. No elected official suffered at all for the misinformation.”
Second, the idea that the public will turn to prudent, experienced voices in moments of legitimate fear seems to rest on very shaky ground. Especially in the present era.