Halloween 2020: America’s Great Fear

Greetings from the United States.  Happy Halloween to all.

I was going to write about the holiday, recommending some stories, and reading one out loud.  I’m still planning on the latter, but it seems awkward if not outrageous to focus on imagined terrors when the nation is really in the grip of others.  Here I’d like to look into the fears criss-crossing our culture and polity, with a look ahead to where they might take us.

What is America afraid of now?

Dread of the pandemic is perhaps the leader.  Infections are soaring:

coronavirus world spread US_91-DIVOC_2020 Oct 31coronavirus world spread US_91-DIVOC_2020 Oct 31

This rise is happening across the country, which represents a change from more localized breakouts earlier in 2020:

coronavirus US by region_2020 October 31 91-DIVOC

Deaths are also rising, although not at so steep a rate, thankfully.  As I write this the CDC claims 9,024,298 American infections, or cases amounting to close to 3% of the total population.  They also cite 229,109 deaths, which is likely an undercount by a significant amount.

(World numbers are much higher.  WHO cites 45,428,731 confirmed cases and 1,185,721 deaths, but non-US virus news doesn’t engage most Americans from what I’ve seen.)

Obviously this gives rise to fears for most of us who follow the viral course.  Such fears are more present to those who have experienced infection in their friends, family, and communities.  Non-medical sources amplify the dread, including news media and anti-Trump political actors.

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Personally, I’m a full-throated extrovert.

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  I love being with people.  Crowds charge me up.  And now, after nine months of COVID-19, the sight of a single person makes me twitch.  I even find myself getting anxious at times just watching movies with people in close proximity.

Back to those media and political actors.  Tv news is in full throated fear mode, from what I can make out.  Pro-Trump Fox News and anti-Trump everyone else zero in on any clashes, chaos, or danger that fits their respective Gothic programming styles – which isn’t new, as I and others have pointed out for a while.  The election carnival mentality, which tv news stokes, just heightens the horror.

And the election!  Both campaigns are passionately detailing the horrors that will come to pass if the other old man wins.

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  Trump paints a Biden portrait complete with savaged suburbs, rampaging immigrants, cities on fire, corruption, and an economy in ruins.  Biden portrays a second Trump term as saturated with racism, sexism, corruption, escalating inequalities, and a world shambling towards climatological disaster.

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  Additionally, each party dreads fringes of the other to varying degrees of realism or fantasy: antifa, Proud Boys, Black Lives Matter marchers, white supremacist militias.

Behind these immediate and short terms fears lurks the vast specter of climate change.  In many ways the events of 2020 have crowded the planetary crisis off the collective radar, but that concern remains for a good number of Americans – a majority in this poll, a growing minority in this one.  Beyond the level of survey responses, there might be deeper psychological effects of climate change, from mourning to a sense of rootlessness, as Bruno Latour argues.

To shift to a personal angle again, when I raise climate change as a topic to various audiences, academic and otherwise, they tend to be receptive, yet thoughtfully quiet.  Few others have brought up the issue in the various fora and venues I’ve attended since COVID-19 burst out.   It lurks.

I called this post “the Great Fear” to reference French events in 1789. This was a rolling combination of rumor, panic, and local uprisings, which combined to help drive things to a revolutionary boil.  Will this mix of fears haunting America also yield social transformation?

So much depends on the presidential election, just a few days away.  Yet these fears can shape how we go through the voting process, especially how we respond to its results as the hours, then days proceed.  Others have gamed out options, based on polling data and the reactions of political leaders.

It seems reasonable to presume that increasingly scared people are likely to act erratically and/or violently.  Militias, for example, fearing a Biden presidency would destroy the America they envision, might be more likely to open fire if they feel themselves under threat. Antiracist protestors could be more apt to chuck a rock at opponents they see as driving us towards fascism (i.e., it’s ok to punch Nazis).  Once this kicks off it can trigger a round of intensifying followup actions, as extremists can harden in their positions and justify violence, since the others guys did it.  Media representations, both through professional sources and social media, would then egg things on.  Moderates, in turn, could be radicalized by these events and become more likely to accept, support, or at least turn a blind eye towards violence.

On the other hand, humans can accept large charges of fear without acting out.  We do this in entertainment, from roller coasters to action movies to… Halloween. We can respond to televised horror news with the networks’ favorites responses: continued watching and buying stuff. We can also become numb to certain horrors, bored even, and so much less likely to storm a police station or drive over a protestor.

So much depends on how the election plays out.  A clear victory by either party could reduce changes of people contesting the vote. Either winner would have the option to try soothing the nation – something Trump is demonstrably disinterested in.

Back in 2016, again in 2018, and also in 2019 I asked how likely America was to fall into civil unrest.  Each post raised various flashpoints and configurations, from native American opposition to pipelines to anti-ICE actions.  Commentators added more, including personal violence (individual shooters), reactions to presidential impeachment, and minorities already experiencing violent oppression.  2020 has seen the closest realization of these possibilities, between nationalwide protests and strikes, public demonstrations by armed groups, and some individual acts of violence.

Looking ahead to the next few months, 2020’s intensity could be ratcheted up as our fears encourage us to act, buttressed by various degrees of real world evidence, projections, and fantasy.  Our own Great Fear might lead to an American tumult.  The view from Halloween can be a dark one indeed.

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2 Responses to Halloween 2020: America’s Great Fear

  1. Joe says:

    In less than a week, we’ll know how realistic our fears were. I am hoping that we’ll all be pleasantly surprised and a smooth transition of power, or a grudging acceptance of four more years of a tragically incompetent President, will follow.

    See you in a week for some post-election prognosis.

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