Last weekend, as Hurricane Irma barreled into Florida, Donald Trump opined on the immense peril. The hurricane was, he announced dramatically, a “big monster.” In a video released after a Camp David briefing, the climate change-denying president averred of the huge, possibly climate-change-magnified storm that “we’ve never seen anything like this.”
Trump wasn’t alone in his eyes-agog approach to Irma. As the storm hit, the headlines got progressively more lurid: On Sept. 8, with the hurricane carving a swath of destruction through the Caribbean, the front page of the Los Angeles Times’ print edition, quoting a south Florida politician, called it a “Nuclear hurricane.” Days later, The Sacramento Bee reprinted a Washington Post article on the aftermath, headlined: “Zombielike survivors roaming Caribbean.”
Newspapers quoted residents, waiting for the winds to hit, saying they had never been so scared in their lives. Anorak-clad television journalists, flown into harm’s way for a few days, took turns trying to scream their lines above howling winds and torrential rains.
This is the stuff of cartoon nightmares: monsters and zombies, unleashed by nature, almost maleficently conspiring to cause mayhem, both physical and psychological. It is also the stuff of dark-age legends: dragons and ogres, witches and trolls. It is the imagery of evil myths and dark omens conjured up in an increasingly anti-scientific milieu to explain events that may be too large to process in normal, analytical, ways.
We have been warned, for the better part of a week, of storm surges that could drown thousands and swamp large parts of the entire state of Florida. We have been presented with nonstop satellite images of the revolving eye of the vast storm. Seen from above, on television, annotated with vivid graphics, accompanied by breathy commentaries, it is indeed something monstrous, a giant one-eyed Cyclops waiting to devour its hapless victims.
Before Irma, of course, there was Harvey. We had wall-to-wall Harvey coverage for more than a week too, pictures of roads in Houston turned to raging rivers, of families stranded on roofs, of rescuers trying to navigate their boats amidst the detritus of tens of thousands of ruined homes and suddenly, brutally, shattered dreams.
In between these two nature-run-amok events, we were treated to a few days in which we could ponder the perils of hydrogen bomb warfare with a crazed North Korea. We were presented with various scenarios of city-destroying bombs, each one packing more than the total explosive power unleashed during the six years of World War II, speeding towards America’s great West Coast metropoli, or of electromagnetic pulses, caused by a high altitude nuclear explosion, destroying the country’s power grid.
And, before all of the hurricanes and the nuclear chest-thumping, we faced the unnerving prospect of Nazis – actual, genuine, Jew-gay-and black-hating, flesh-and-blood goddamn Nazis – coming out of the woodwork to wage war on the streets of an American college town.
As if all of this wasn’t enough, over the last several months we have witnessed a summer of low-grade terror attacks in Europe, in which one city after another saw cars and trucks used to deliberately mow down pedestrians in centers of tourism.
This is, truly, the summer of fear, when new Stephen King movies and current events blend into one great yawp of terror. Our entertainment, information, and political systems are all coming together at the moment into a smorgasbord of fearsome imagery. And, as a culture, we are responding by sliding into a sort of casualized, normalized, state of collective hysteria.
We’re in the mood for zombies and monsters, craving our next fix of adrenalin, our next shot of fear- and stress-produced cortisol. We compulsively watch the approaching eye of the storm, obsessively check for the next catastrophe hovering off in the wings, and the one after that one, too.
As a result, we are, increasingly, making our most fundamental decisions – about community, about parenting, about politics – while surrounded by the blinding, swirling, disorienting fog of fear. In such fog, monsters, demagogues, and other creatures of the deep do, indeed, tend to thrive.
Sasha Abramsky’s 2013 book,“The American Way of Poverty,’ was listed by The New York Times as one of the 100 notable books of the year. His new book,”Jumping at Shadows: The Triumph of Fear and the End of the American Dream,” was released this month by Nation Books. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.