The Dictator of Our Imagination: Karen Bender on Trump’s Exploitation of Conservatives’ Fears


Karen Bender

The writer Ursula LeGuin says: “The imagination is truly the enemy of bigotry and dogma.” This statement makes perfect sense—the imagination can take us out of ourselves to help us inhabit the world of another person, thus creating empathy. But after the spectacle of the Republican National Convention, and the unending and confounding popularity of Trump, I also think that bigotry can be a result of too much imagination—or imagination manipulated by a demagogue like Trump, settling in the fertile ground of fear.

As a writer, I am wary saying that we should be careful with our imaginations. For imagination is one place where we can, as individuals, be completely free, where we cannot and should not be censored. But the problem with imagination as manipulated by authority figures for power was clear to me during the RNC.

Imagination that resides within a person, controlled by oneself, is what makes us unique as humans—our own imaginations are a free entity, and yes, can lead to empathy, to innovation, to solution, to distraction, to comfort. But imagination directed by another, toward simplistic generalization, is something else. At the RNC, the Trump campaign only too happily directed the audience’s imaginations in ways that were intended to frighten, and could, with their vitriol, lead to harm.

An imagination in overdrive led to one of the eeriest moments during the  Republican convention, when grieving parents described the death of their children. As the parents spoke, a tag ran under their names that said: Victims of  Illegal Immigrants.” The children had indeed been killed by individuals who were illegal immigrants. But the focus of the label and the  imaginary threat were misleading. It was the first time I had ever seen someone speak on television in which a speaker was labeled as a victim of an entire group of people. I had seen descriptions of victims of say, a hurricane, or victims of a school shooting, or victims of a terrorist attack, but never as a victim of a group. The usual emphasis in this construct would be the action itself. In fact, the labels that would generally have been used in this situation would have been Victims of Drunk Driving or Victim of Gun Violence. But labeling a group had a different potential outcome. It gave the audience a specific group of people to worry about. This had the effect of demonizing all illegal immigrants, which, of course, sparked an unsubstantiated fear.

Then there was the moment in which the NRA President, Chris Cox, set out a scenario that is supposed to justify all gun ownership: the dreaded specter of home invasion. He talked about the mother at home alone with her child (of course), the “three-time loser released” because of a politician’s “empathy,” and, of course, the myth that a gun in this situation would save you. It was a story created solely for the purpose of promoting gun ownership and creating fear, and the audience loved it. The problem is that home invasion is not what the public should actually be worried about; gun ownership itself is more dangerous. According to Evan DeFillipis and Devin Hughes, writing in Slate, the per capita chance of death in a home invasion is 0.0000002 (basically, zero). Gun ownership doubles the risk of homicide and triples the risk of suicide. Thinking based on reason, then, would point to not owning a gun. But Cox’s story used imagination to create fear of an unknown stranger coming to attack that trope of vulnerability, the mother alone with her child.

We live in a nation in which imagination and fear are acutely bound, in ways that are often deadly. Trayvon Martin, a young man, walking down a street, is killed by George Zimmerman, a man who imagines, for no reason other than his skin color, that Martin is a threat. Police officer Darren Wilson kills Michael Brown, describing him as a “demon.”Writer Claudia Rankine says, “Because white men can’t police their imagination, black men are dying.” An imagination corroded by fear leads to the image of a transgender person assaulting a woman in a bathroom, which leads to a law like North Carolina’s recently-passed HB2. According to an article in Identities.mic, spokespeople from the Transgender Law Center, the Human Rights Campaign, and the American Civil Liberties Union said that “no statistical evidence of violence exists to warrant this (HB2) legislation.” (However, 70% of trans people had experienced harassment as they tried to use a restroom.)

Imagination can lead to deadly consequences when it is focused on defining a group. Trump delights in manipulating the nation’s imagination in this way. He declares Mexicans to be “murderers and rapists,” and calls for a ban on all Muslims entering the U.S., with the imaginary story that they are all terrorists. He declares himself (“I alone”) to be the one person who will save our country, inserting himself into our imaginations as an omnipotent father, a hero. Trump’s cronies jump in and carry out his work for him. David Duke, the former KKK leader, who traffics in hate fueled by the imaginary existence of Jewish world conspiracies, blamed Melania Trump’s plagiarism on Jewish speechwriters who sabotaged her. Al Baldasaro, a New Hampshire state representative and Trump advisor, uses his imagination in a way that leads him to make a threat that he finds acceptable to share with the nation: “Hillary should be put in the firing line and shot for treason.”

On what Trump offers the Party, South Carolina senator Lindsey Graham recently told ABC News that “he’s appealing to fear and prejudice, and there’s a market for that.” (Graham went on to say that this wasn’t good for the country, even though “a market for this” was in place.) I was struck by the idea of fear and the imagination being appropriated in a marketing scheme. One could say that Trump is combining fear and an overactive imagination in a diabolical marketing scheme, creating a narrative in which he sells the electorate stories of Muslims, Illegal Immigrants, and Crooked Hillary as the terrifying figures who will destroy them. Essentially, Trump wants us to purchase the idea of him as the savior, which is also relying on our imaginations—our vision of him–an ignorant, impulsive, inexperienced, often bankrupt businessman and reality show star–as somehow a solution. Our imaginations are his currency.

We need to access our rationality to combat Donald Trump’s abuse of our imaginations. During this election, right now, we need to be especially aware of the distinction between fiction and reason, and we need to stand up against bigotry and stereotype that is arising from the misuse of fiction. We need to vote for Hillary Clinton, the candidate who respects science, the candidate of knowledge and a breadth of experience, who understands the importance of reason, of fact, in governing a nation. Let’s commit to the very real-world action of voting against the dictator of our imaginations, Donald Trump, in November.


Karen E. Bender is the author of the story collection Refund, which was a Finalist for the National Book Award in fiction, shortlisted for the Frank O’Connor International Story Prize, and longlisted for the Story Prize. She is the author of the novels Like Normal People and A Town of Empty Rooms. Her fiction has appeared in The New Yorker,Granta, Ploughshares, Zoetrope, Best American Short Stories and the Pushcart Prize series. Bender is currently a Distinguished Visiting Professor of Creative Writing at Hollins University in North Carolina.

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