Here’s a fun fact: Years ago, in the early 70’s as I recall, the Village Voice hired some kind of polling firm to determine what were the best-read parts of the paper. I’m sure it wasn’t done because the editors were thinking of covering more of the stuff that the most people read. If that was why they ran the survey, they would have probably quickly dropped the classical music criticism of the wonderful Leighton Kerner, the Voice’s critic in that area, who wrote of classical music as if he were conducting an orchestra of words in his head. No, I think the survey of readers was probably done at the behest of the display advertising department, who could then take the figures from the survey and adjust advertising prices based on how many people read the rock and roll or theater sections, for example.
Well, can you guess what turned out to be the best-read page in the paper? The letters to the editor column. The letters ran on page four, with Jules Feiffer’s cartoons across the bottom. There wasn’t any advertising on page four, but there was on page five, so they must have boosted the rates for the ads on the facing page. The letters page, of course, was the comments section of the era, when readers got their opportunity to vent, telling Voice authors what they thought of them, complaining that their favorite political issue, or their favorite entertainment venue, or their favorite playwright or artist or dance company wasn’t getting the attention it deserved.
I realize I’ve written about this before, but I got my start as a writer in the letters to the editor column of the Voice, writing cranky, rather conservative critiques of the stories I read. My first one drew counter-criticism the following week from an array of New York intellectuals that included Dwight MacDonald, Paul Goodman, and Aryeh Neier, who at the time headed up the New York office of the ACLU and went on to become a founder of Human Rights Watch. Each of them gave the upstart cadet from West Point a good political spanking, which I replied to the following week in the letters column, of course.
People turned to the letters column in the Voice first, it seemed to me, because that was where the action was – writers complaining about other writers, pissed-off old lefties lecturing new lefties who they found ignorant about the origins of this, that, or the other thing…you get the picture. The letter writers were uniformly smart, informed, and some were quite funny as they took on the established writers in the Voice.
You may recognize in the ferment of the Voice letters column a familiar ferment in our own comments section of my Substack newsletter. Although I don’t often reach into the comments and post replies, I read them with great interest. When I was on the staff of the Voice, I made it my policy not to reply to letters to the editor that criticized my pieces. I figured that I had the privilege of being in the Voice as a staff writer, and my pieces spoke for themselves. The letters column was for readers, not Village Voice writers. By and large, I treat the comments section the same way.
But for the first time the other day I posted a column opening a thread for readers, inviting them to comment generally about what was on their minds, and I also invited them to suggest areas they thought would deserve my attention. To put it mildly, I was stunned by the response. I jumped in and left replies here and there as I filled a couple of pages of a reporter’s notebook sitting next to me with a long list of suggestions for stories. Some just aren’t in my wheelhouse, as they say, and would be fine for another columnist to write about. Others, such as the one in the title of this piece, fit me like a well-made suit.
Ralph T. suggested that I consider writing about “the layers and layers of fears driving a majority of Republican voters.” Helpfully, he provided a list, which I will quote from selectively here:
Afraid of vaccines.
Afraid of voters.
Afraid of drop boxes.
So afraid of Democrats that they’re willing to believe they’re killing abducted babies in the basements of pizza joints.
Afraid to go out in public without an arsenal strapped to their flak jackets.
Afraid of LGBTQ folks.
Afraid of Black folks.
Afraid of Latin folks, especially the ones across our southern border who we desperately need in our workforce.
Terrified of Jewish folks.
Afraid of immigrants, although that’s what 98% of us are, having pretty much killed off the local natives when we got here.
Afraid of women, especially smart women.
Afraid of respectfully facing our past.
Afraid of the future.
Afraid of change.
Afraid of books, which I suppose comes from being afraid of reading, or simply not being able to read.
Ralph T. went on to list more fears many Republicans share, but that one stopped me in my tracks, and not because I’ve written books, write a column, and for more than 50 years have depended on readers in order to make a living.
Have you been in a house that has no books? No magazines, no reading material of any kind, with the possible exception of a cookbook or two? I have.
I’ve been in houses of people who were poor, perhaps too poor to afford books and magazines, but I’ve also been in houses of middle-class people who just did not read. Out in L.A., I was even in a beach house in Malibu owned by a very wealthy person in the movie business that contained no books at all. There were some very nice, and very expensive, pieces of art on the wall, but no books, not a one, not even a cookbook, and the owner was not a Republican. People in the movie business like the person from Malibu had what they called “readers,” assistants whose job it was to read books and screenplays that were being considered to be bought to make movies. I didn’t understand why these executives wouldn’t, or couldn’t, read the material they spent so much money on until I realized it was the prospect of failure that made them afraid. They needed to be told what they were supposed to have read was “hot,” that other executives in the business were after the same property so they could contend with their fear that they would spend all that money and the project would end up as a failure.
What all of the people who lived in those houses shared, including the person from Malibu, was fear. They were afraid of different things. In the deep South, I found people afraid of the future, of change, of outsiders, of people of other races and creeds, people who were simply unlike themselves. The phrase “ignorance is bliss” comes to mind, but not as a truism. Ignorance on that level is anything but blissful, bringing with it a closed off-ness that causes such a vacuum of knowledge and surrounding darkness that it’s impossible to deal with on any level whatsoever. To be without accurate and learned information is to be alone with yourself – alone with your fears, as it were.
When I lived in the deep South, I once asked a man who was overtly, openly racist why he was that way. I probed, and not very gently. Did something happen to him as he was growing up? Had he been mugged or beaten up by a Black person or Black people? Did he even know anyone who was Black in a way beyond thanking a server in a restaurant for a refill of his coffee? The answer to every one of my questions was no. It was revealed that there was no reason behind his racism. It just was. He had been raised in what you would call a culture of racism, and so it infected him in the way a virus gets into you. It was in the air he breathed. It was all around him in the lives of his friends and family members and the people he worked with and hunted with and spent holidays with. They were racist, so he was racist. There was a kind of comfort in their community of racism and the fears they shared. The rest of them were afraid to breach the barrier they had built around themselves, and so was he.
Their fears encompassed other things on Ralph T.’s excellent list. Another person in the deep South I spoke to came right out and told me he thought Black people should not have the right to vote. He was afraid of their votes, because they weren’t his votes or the votes of his white friends and neighbors. It didn’t take but a moment or two to see that he was afraid not just of Black people themselves, and Black people voting, but of living in a world in which he felt surrounded by things he did not understand, people he didn’t trust, ideas he was afraid of because to start with, he was unfamiliar with them. He didn’t want to acknowledge the legacy of slavery that was all around him where he lived in the South – the Black side of town had unpaved streets, no sidewalks, no streetlights, shack-like houses – hell, the town didn’t even run its sewage system into the Black section.
The only public thing the Black people in his town had, really, was the right to attend the public schools, and that right, in his opinion, was forced on the town and its people, its white people, by a Supreme Court and a Congress that he felt did not represent people like him, people whom the laws and the culture and the rest of the nation, in fact, had left behind. He was afraid of people who were unlike him; their ideas were unlike his, and crucially, there was nothing he could do about it, at least in part because Black people could vote.
Republicans have come up with a new catchphrase to appeal to voters like this man, and to the people in whose houses I had been who did not have books. Critical race theory. They didn’t even have to define it, to tell anyone what it meant. It didn’t need a meaning, because everyone it was intended to appeal to knew exactly what it meant. The phrase, critical race theory, has a meaning as an academic discipline, but that’s not the way Republicans are using it. In a political sense, from the politicians who conceived of the phrase as a scare tactic, they’re saying we are on your side. We acknowledge your fears. In fact, your fears are our fears, so vote for us, and we will do whatever we can to assuage them. We will put Black people, and liberals, and everyone else you’re scared of in their place.
It's beyond us against them. It’s beyond playing on their fears. It’s taking fear and turning it into a weapon.
Armies use fear as a weapon on the battlefield in wars. That’s what artillery and rockets are all about – suddenly, without warning, out of the sky comes something that will blow you up and kill you. But it didn’t work when the Germans rained down bombs and V-1 rockets on London during World War II, and it’s not working as the Russians do everything in their power to break the will of the Ukrainian people with rockets and drones and artillery shells.
Fear in politics is beginning to exhibit its shortcomings as well. “Owning the libs” was fun for Republicans while it was being driven by Donald Trump and his machinery of hate and fear, but he lost. The Republican Party, which was supposed to sweep the midterms in a red wave, even while they will control the House of Representatives with a very slim majority, is wounded.
Sure, fear works as political weapon for Republicans and they’re not going to let go of it any time soon. But the thing about fear is that it’s not fun to be afraid all the time. That’s why horror movies work: you watch them and you can be afraid for a time, but you know that the movie is going to end, and you won’t have to be afraid anymore.
The kinds of fears Ralph T. was good enough to list for us are not fun. They’re stultifying, they’re dark, and there is no way out of them except embracing at least a few of the things you’re afraid of, like reading and seeking knowledge and allowing yourself to look at what is around you with open eyes and a least a tiny crack in your closed heart.
So fear not. A corner is beginning to be turned. Donald Trump, if he is the nominee of the Republican Party in 2024, will lose again. Republicans, unless they find a way to appeal to folks who are not congenitally fearful, will see their power as a political party wane.
There is, in fact, an end result of the fears we have discussed here at the behest of our friend, Ralph T. It’s called losing.
Lucian K. Truscott IV, a graduate of West Point, has had a 50-year career as a journalist, novelist, and screenwriter. He has covered Watergate, the Stonewall riots, and wars in Lebanon, Iraq, and Afghanistan. He is also the author of five bestselling novels. You can subscribe to his daily columns at luciantruscott.substack.com and follow him on Twitter @LucianKTruscott and on Facebook at Lucian K. Truscott IV.