More than any other group, elites take the initiative and reap the benefits of political fear. By elites, I mean those figures of influence who own or control the lion’s share of power and resources, who are well positioned to act politically on their own—and society’s—behalf.

Elites who create and sustain fear comprise neither a conspiracy nor a cabal. In fact, they often have surprisingly little in common, in terms of their interests, affiliations, and worldviews. The elites who spearheaded political fear during the McCarthy years, for instance, included anti-modern, pro-big business, and often racist officials like J. Edgar Hoover and Mississippi congressman John Rankin; liberals like Harry Truman, Hubert Humphrey, and Herbert Lehman; industrial magnates; Hollywood moguls; university presidents; and newspaper columnists. Each of them had their own, often conflicting agendas. But creating or sustaining fear requires elites to share neither unity of purpose nor identity of interest. It merely requires that they cooperate—despite their differences, or because of them. After all, elites possess particular kinds of power, housed in particular institutions, and they lead different constituencies. These particularities and differences make their power local and limited. To be truly effective, they must combine their power, doing together what each cannot do alone.

This cooperation in fear takes the form of most cooperation in the United States: It arises from bargaining and exchange, where one set of elites gives to the other what the other lacks, and vice versa. Hoover, for instance, was an empire builder of the first order, but his empire required the cooperation of Congress, which pays the bills. So Hoover put pluralism in the service of repression. He strategically leaked information to key congressmen, and he had FBI agents chauffeur individual representatives around Washington and do odd jobs for them. Hoover, claimed Truman’s attorney general Tom Clark, was “rather meticulous about his relationships with Congress.” And it paid off. After the war, when Truman submitted to Congress his budgets for the FBI and the OSS, the precursor to the CIA, Congress cut the latter budget by $4 million and increased the former by seven million. Of the last twenty-two budgets that Hoover proposed, only two were ever revised by Congress—both upwards.

When bargaining and exchange do not work, elites can always turn the weapons of coercion they ordinarily use on their victims upon their fellow elites. One of Truman’s most fateful decisions, for example, was his March 1947 issuance of Executive Order 9835, which launched investigations of every federal employee for signs of political subversion and authorized the firing and refusal to hire of anyone suspected of communist sympathies. More than any single government policy, EO 9835 chilled the political air, making it difficult to sustain leftist views without fear of sanction. But Truman was reluctant to issue EO 9835. Convinced that the threat of communist infiltration had been overstated and could easily be contained by less repressive measures, he worried that EO 9835 would only empower the FBI, which he likened to the Gestapo and the Soviet secret police. Though historians still disagree about why he issued it, one of his motivations was his fear of retribution—to himself, his party, and the executive branch—from Hoover and congressional Republicans.

Elites who organize these coalitions of fear—like Hoover and congressional conservatives, as opposed to the liberal Democrats who reluctantly joined them—anticipate not just an immediate loss of privileges, but a threat to their power and standing, which allow them to enjoy those privileges in the future. Such situations elicit a combination of rational concern and moral revulsion, which is the hallmark of political fear. Elites cherish the material components of privilege but also believe that they are entitled to privilege. That belief is sustained by their larger image of the political cosmos, in which their high standing is equated with the well-being and survival of society. Inequality, in their eyes, is not simply a ladder of inequities but a form of rule, in which those above expect and receive deference from those below. It is that rule, in the minds of these elites, that makes for social cohesion and civic vitality. Without it, all would be lost.

When Abigail Adams, for example, suggested to her husband John that he and his colleagues “Remember the Ladies” as they drafted laws for the new nation, he instantly spied the specter of social breakdown in her request. “Our Struggle,” he complained, referring to the American Revolution, “has loosened the bands of Government every where.” “Children and Apprentices” are now “disobedient,” “schools and Colledges” have “grown turbulent,” black slaves “insolent to their Masters.” “There will be no end of it,” he gloomily concluded. More recently, when the Supreme Court overturned the Texas law banning same-sex sodomy, Justice Antonin Scalia foresaw “a massive disruption of the current social order” and an end to laws prohibiting “bigamy, same-sex marriage, adult incest, prostitution, masturbation, adultery, fornication, bestiality, and obscenity.”


Among elites, few circumstances elicit this sense of cosmic threat—and the corresponding imperative for elite cooperation—more forcefully than war and its rumors, for war bears a contradictory relationship to social order. On the one hand, meeting the threat or reality of foreign attack requires the unity of society, a unity that can dampen dissent. On the other hand, wars shake up established arrangements, threatening to bring new groups to power and topple old elites. From the white planters after the Civil War to the tsar during World War I to Lyndon Johnson after the Vietnam War, history is littered with examples of elites taking a fall upon losing a war or failing to win it with sufficient speed.

Modern war in particular has a way of imposing itself upon the everyday experience of men and women, throwing upon the stage new actors and classes. Roused by the grand drama of history, ordinary people send their sons and daughters into combat or factory production—and begin to air their long suppressed claims for advance. Compressing decades of inequality and conflict, wars simultaneously push the lower classes to stand up and bow down, giving elites more reason to fear for their own power—and more instruments to advance it. To stem these challenges from below, elites must perform a delicate alchemy, fusing the nation’s fear of its enemies with their own fear of movements for domestic reform. This alchemy is not cynical: Many elites sincerely believe that reform movements pose a threat to their power, national unity, and civic order; and in wartime, these three items comprise a seamless triptych.

We can see particular evidence of this elite fusion of foreign and domestic fears during the Cold War. J. Edgar Hoover, still an unappreciated influence on the course of American anticommunism, was born and raised in turn-of-the-century Washington, D.C., at the time the northernmost outpost of “Southern, white, Christian, small-town” civilization. Racism and segregation were his articles of faith; religious pluralism meant that Lutherans, Presbyterians, and Methodists worshiped within walking distance of each other. When Hoover deemed communism a menace to civilization, it was this civilization he thought menaced. So he turned the FBI on everyone from the NAACP and Martin Luther King to Sammy Davis Jr. and Cesar Chavez, all of whom he deemed, as he would later declare of the women’s movement, “part of the enemy, a challenge to American values” and thus a threat to the “internal security of the nation.” Hoover found many allies for his campaigns among congressional conservatives, who saw red in virtually every brush stroke of the New Deal. As one influential anticommunist North Carolina senator put it, “Once we abandon the voluntary principles [of laissez-faire capitalism], we run squarely into Communism...There can be no half-way control.” The reformist policies of the New Deal National Labor Relations Board, claimed one congressional report, were “tinged with a philosophical view of the employer-employee relationship as a class struggle,” which was “foreign to the proper American concept of industrial enterprise” and out of step with “the preservation of the capitalist system of private enterprise.”

Such views actively influenced the course of repressive anticommunism in the United States, leading to the suppression of not only the Communist Party but the labor and civil rights movements as well. Government loyalty boards asked employees whether they believed the blood supply of the Red Cross ought to be desegregated, the poll tax abolished, and federal anti-lynching legislation passed—all policies advocated by the Communist Party. Affirmative answers to such questions prompted further investigation and firing.

As the chair of one board explained, “Of course, the fact that a person believes in racial equality doesn’t prove that he’s a Communist, but it certainly makes you look twice, doesn’t it? You can’t get away from the fact that racial equality is part of the Communist line.” Or, in the words of the chair of a state legislative committee, “If someone insists that there is discrimination against the Negroes in this country, or that there is inequality of wealth, there is every reason to believe that person is a Communist.” The effect of such ideologically fused fears, where civil rights and labor unions were associated with communism, could be devastating.

Throughout the 1930s and 1940s, to cite just one example, Local 22 of the Communist-led Food, Tobacco, and Agricultural Workers Union organized thousands of mostly women and black workers at the RJ Reynolds tobacco plant in Winston-Salem, North Carolina. The union also encouraged its members to join the local chapter of the NAACP, turning a moribund seminar of eleven into a movement of almost two thousand. In 1947, after the union led a strike against RJ Reynolds, HUAC paid a visit. Holding widely publicized hearings on the links between the Communist Party and the union’s officers, HUAC made the workers think twice about supporting leaders whose affiliations had provoked a government investigation. Not long after, more quiescent leaders assumed control of the local, and by 1950, virtually nothing remained of its original dynamism. And what happened to the NAACP chapter? Its ranks fell to below five hundred.

In other parts of the world, elite fusions of foreign and domestic fears were even more pronounced. In 1957, one of the leading doctrinaires of the Argentine counterinsurgency argued, “We must emphasize that the character of this conflict [between capitalism and communism] corresponds to the religious wars of the past. … Its probable consequences: The survival or disappearance of Western civilization.” Emphasizing the inequalities that civilization entailed, a successor of his wrote in 1964:

Communism wants to destroy the human being, family, fatherland, property, the state and God. … Nothing exists in Communism to link women with home and family because, proclaiming her emancipation, Communism separates her from domestic life and child raising to throw her into public life and collective production, just like men. … The father is the natural head of the family. The mother finds herself an associate of this authority. … According to the will of God, the rich should use their excess to alleviate misery. The poor should know that poverty does not dishonor, nor making a living with work, as the example of the son of God proved. The poor are more loved by God.

The Uruguayan military claimed its main mission was to combat “subversion,” which it defined as “actions, violent or not, with ultimate purposes of a political nature, in all fields of human activity within the internal sphere of a state and whose aims are perceived as not convenient for the overall political system.” The Brazilian military provided officers with 222 hours of instruction in internal security, 21 in defense against external aggression. Equating the free market with the national interest, the high command thought it more important to learn how to suppress a mobilized domestic opposition against capitalism than to defend against foreign attack. For them, the suppression of a mobilized opposition was the essence of defense against foreign attack.


Elites cannot simply rely upon a popular belief in the connections between reformist movements and foreign threats. They must create such associations in people’s minds, through public relations and coercion. In 1946, Hoover launched a major campaign to make the threat of communism real to Americans, who he believed did not sufficiently appreciate its perils. Hoover instructed his subordinates to “prepare education materials which can be released through available channels so that in the event of an emergency we will have an informed public opinion” about communist subversion. Hoover deemed it especially important to convince the “people who think,” for scholars and intellectuals would help transmit the fear of communism throughout the wider society. He personally authored some sixty articles in law reviews and professional journals, while the FBI helped Hollywood make four films. Such campaigns are seldom pure propaganda: They usually cite real facts about groups like the Communist Party, which not only had financial and political connections to the Soviet Union, but also spied on its behalf. But elites also exaggerate—not necessarily deliberately—these facts, as did the FBI bureau chief who declared Martin Luther King “the most dangerous Negro in the future of this Nation from the standpoint of communism, the Negro, and national security.”

Also helpful in generating popular fear of these movements is the use of government and private coercion. The sheer fact that the government and private elites are willing to punish their opponents often convinces ordinary citizens that the threat these groups pose is real. As much as repression is inspired by fear, so does it inspire fear, inculcating a sense in the wider population that those being targeted must have done something to deserve such attention.

“Say what you like,” a woman commented to Nadezhda Mandelstam about Soviet prisoners, “there’s no smoke without fire.” In 1949, for example, the Justice Department invoked a little-known piece of legislation called the Smith Act to prosecute the Communist Party leadership in court—not for espionage or attempting a violent overthrow the government, but for conspiring to organize a party to advocate the violent overthrow of the government. The sheer number of nouns and verbs the law and indictment cited to link the defendants to an actual crime—“conspiracy,” “organize,” “party,” “advocate”—suggests just how far removed the defendants were in this case from anything resembling criminal activity. It didn’t matter, because the purpose of the trials, explained one of Hoover’s deputies, was not prosecution but pedagogy, or pedagogy through prosecution. They were meant to teach Americans “that Communism is dangerous,” that the “patriotism of Communists is not directed towards the United States but towards the Soviet Union.”


In the years since 9/11, the United States has again been at war, and once again we have seen this elite fusion of domestic and foreign fears. Though the connection between external threats and reformist dissent has been more tenuous this century than it was during the Cold War, and though such dissent has posed much less of a challenge to the powerful than it did in the past, many elites after 9/11 did connect domestic dissent to terrorism and did implement policies with a potential chilling effect upon that dissent. As in the Cold War, it has been difficult to know whether this effect was intentional or unintentional; sometimes, it was, other times not.

When the FBI, for example, pays a visit to a bookstore worker in Atlanta after he is seen toting an article titled “Weapons of Mass Stupidity” decrying the war on Iraq, the combination of motives inspiring the bureau’s investigation seems fairly benign: One nervous or zealous citizen sees the pairing of “weapon” and “mass” and alerts the FBI to suspicious activity; low-level officials, reeling from accusations that FBI negligence contributed to 9/11, follow up the tip; and suddenly Marc Schultz finds himself explaining to two FBI men why he reads what he reads, opening his car to an FBI search, and wondering how he can keep off their radar screen in the future. In other cases, as we shall see, the repression of dissent is clearly intended. But in a certain sense, the intent behind these acts is irrelevant, for it is their repressive consequences, the fear that they arouse, that make them so lethal to political reform. And even when those consequences are intended, the elites who produce them often believe, sincerely, that they are acting on behalf of the national interest, which they equate with their own power and standing.

After 9/11, conservative elites and even some liberal voices in the media followed the twin tracks of public relations and coercion—as did their predecessors during the Cold War—to awaken the American public to the connections between foreign terrorism and reformist ideas and movements at home. One group, Americans for Victory Over Terrorism (AVOT)—led by William J. Bennett, Frank Gaffney, and R. James Woolsey, all former officials from the Reagan, Bush, and Clinton administrations—took a full-page ad out in the New York Times declaring that “the threats we face today are both external and internal.” The latter threat includes “those who blame America first and who do not understand—or who are unwilling to defend—our fundamental principles.” Such domestic dissenters, the ad claimed, are inspired by “either a hatred for the American ideals of freedom and equality, or a misunderstanding of those ideals and their practice.” Promising to “take” such individuals “to task,” AVOT also called for holding “scholarly research” about Islam “to a serious and rigorous standard.”

Another group, chaired by Lynne Cheney, wife of Vice President Richard Cheney, and former Democratic senator Joseph Lieberman, decried liberal and leftist academics as the “weak link” in the war on terror. These public relations campaigns were designed not simply to arouse public awareness, but also to influence government action. And they did. After taking hours of testimony from conservative intellectuals decrying the pernicious influence of Edward Said on Middle Eastern studies, for example, the House of Representatives unanimously adopted in the fall of 2003 a bill requiring academic departments receiving federal funding to tailor their scholarship and curriculum to “better reflect the national needs related to homeland security.” Under that rubric, according to a report in Salon, the government could use the carrot and stick of federal money to make sure that “international studies departments…show more support for American foreign policy.”

In the early 2000s, the New Republic opened a different domestic front in the war on terrorism, targeting the anti-globalization movement. Condemning a planned protest in Washington, D.C., in late September 2001 against the IMF and the World Bank, the magazine’s editor declared that if the protest came off, the antiglobalization movement would “in the eyes of the nation, have joined the terrorists in a united front.” He continued:

This nation is now at war. And in such an environment, domestic political dissent is immoral without a prior statement of national solidarity, a choosing of sides. By canceling the upcoming protests—and acknowledging that it is less important to ruin the meetings of the IMF and the World Bank than to let Washington recover—that is exactly the statement the anti-globalization movement would be making.

Antiglobalization activists and intellectuals quickly felt the power of such rhetoric: Many, including the AFL-CIO, stayed away from the protest, and the movement quickly fell into abeyance.

Though editorials in little magazines rarely have much effect on national politics, U.S. trade representative Robert Zoellick credited this one with convincing him of the links between terrorism and the movement against globalization. In a speech before a Washington think tank, Zoellick hinted at the “intellectual connections” between Al Qaeda and “others who have turned to violence to attack international finance, globalization, and the United States.” In the Washington Post, he urged Congress to grant President Bush “fast track authority” to negotiate trade agreements, arguing that this would “send an unmistakable signal to the world that America will lead.”

During the congressional debate in late fall 2001 on fast-track renewal, Republican Speaker of the House Dennis Hastert took up Zoellick’s theme, declaring, “This Congress will either support our president who is fighting a courageous war on terrorism and redefining American world leadership, or will undercut this president at the worst possible time.” New York Democratic congressman Charlie Rangel—and even free-traders like New York Times columnist Paul Krugman—denounced such tactics for casting globalization’s critics as unpatriotic and dangerous to national security, but to no avail. Where the antiglobalization movement and congressional Democrats had managed to deny fast-track authority to President Clinton in his second term, the combination of a silenced opposition and an emboldened Republican Party ensured the granting of such authority to President Bush by the summer of 2002.

Beyond these exercises in the war of ideas, various security agencies operating in the interest of national security leveraged their coercive power in ways that targeted dissenters posing no conceivable threat of terrorism. FBI officials and local police departments repeatedly took individual statements of opposition to U.S. foreign policy or the Bush administration as a sign of possible terrorist inclinations, leaving the individuals targeted for investigation with a fear of being watched and pursued for their beliefs. Various government agencies established “no fly” lists, so that members of the ACLU, Amnesty International, the Green Party, and the Catholic Church were stopped at airports and held for lengthy questioning, sometimes overnight.

The FBI targeted the antiwar movement in the United States for especially close scrutiny. Even though an internal FBI memorandum acknowledged that the bureau “possesses no information indicating that violent or terrorist activities are being planned as part of these [antiwar] protests” and that “most protests are peaceful events,” the FBI carefully tracked the movement’s activities, alerting local police to the use of video cameras by protestors to monitor possible police brutality and to the movement’s use of the Internet “to recruit, raise funds and coordinate their activities prior to demonstrations.” Few of these cases approached the level of concerted coercion used against dissenters during the McCarthy or Vietnam years, and often they seemed inspired by the bureau’s fear of being caught sleeping on the job. Nevertheless, they do indicate an association in the minds of government officials between dissenting views and terrorist activities. And as their intended targets pointed out, they had a chilling effect upon any movement seeking to change the course of American foreign policy.

This is the third in a series of five posts this week on fear in the age of Trump, drawn from Fear: The History of a Political Idea.