Fear Makes Power

Don’t panic is rotten advice,” Peggy Noonan advised in her column in last weekend’s Wall Street Journal. A stream of similar opinions in the New York Times and from CNN, reminded me of Machiavelli’s historical observation that “whoever controls the people’s fears becomes master of their souls.”

The formula for achieving such mastery has not changed in millennia: stoke any fear, turn the fear to hate of whomever and whatever you accuse of standing in the way of safety, and make yourself the agent of that hate.

The formula works when its dynamic embeds itself in the masses’ behavior—even when the master himself is the one to be feared. That is because stampeding humans readily give up their souls and become no more mindful of their own interest than steers. Hence, whoever manages to madden crowds while directing their hysteria onto his enemies stands to reap power.

Our 21st-century “developed” world, which so touts its own rationality, is now engaged in the historically unprecedented attempt to shut down most social and economic intercourse for the sake of mitigating the effects of a virus the lethality of which is far more like recent strands of the flu than that of the plague. One reason we do not know how many persons have been infected by this virus is that most infections in most people are so mild as to be unnoticed. That is also why we do not know the virus’s true lethality. Of course it is especially lethal to the old and otherwise infirm. What isn’t?

Hence, we really have no basis for believing that, left unchecked or dealt with as just another round of seasonal respiratory diseases, the Coronavirus would devastate modern life. After all, having no cure for it any more than 17th century Europeans had for the plague, the only real weapons we have against it are the same that served long ago: heightened hygiene, social distancing, quarantine and self-quarantine. It is not clear what good the rest of the restrictions do.

By contrast, we have far better basis to gauge the effects of what the “developed” world’s governments are doing to our societies and economies, and to judge that these measures are certain to reduce the general population’s prosperity and quite likely to result in a substantial transfer of even more power to those who already have too much of it.

Why then do so many in high places advocate this global shutdown so vehemently? And does the question answer itself?

The shutdown of schools, offices, all manner of public venues—in short the imposition of something like national and international time-outs—does not hurt everyone. For government employees, for most people in the media and for professionals it is more like a paid vacation than anything else.

But for most small businesses and their employees, who must work in order to get paid, any significant idleness means inability to meet basic obligations, and hence either going into debt or out of business. Who will pay the utilities? The tuitions? Who will pay for the food and gas and mortgage or rent?

Big businesses, like big government, will be largely unaffected. But for much of the rest of Americans, the shutdown is sure to be a disaster that no one has begun to think about undoing.

At best, if those who suffer receive from the government as much money as they lost from forgone labor, they will merely have traded independence for dependence. Few will be happy about that—except those in charge of managing the dependence.

All the above would be bad enough were those advocating the shutdowns—and mostly managing them—were doing so in a politically dispassionate manner. But no. Almost uniformly, such advocacies are at least as much about Donald Trump as about the coronavirus.

Those who fault the Trump Administration’s response to the virus would be a lot more credible had they not spent the past three years blaming him for everything imaginable. Also, their credibility would rise to threshold level were they not so obviously inconsistent in their advocacy of domestic shutdown and of open external borders.

The establishment’s pundits and politicians who cheer for higher death tolls from the virus and for more straitened circumstances, especially for their independent fellow citizens, who blow upon the flames of panic, all the while indicting their socio-political enemy, must imagine that enough people in their audience are fearful enough to have abandoned all critical faculties—fearful enough to follow the fear-mongers.

Thus they are showing that the virus of partisanship has already hurt America far more than the coronavirus ever can.

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About Angelo Codevilla

Angelo M. Codevilla was a distinguished fellow of the Center for American Greatness. He was professor of international relations at Boston University and the author of several books including To Make And Keep Peace (Hoover Institution Press, 2014).

Photo: Timothy A. Clary/AFP via Getty Images

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