If you are a Republican candidate in 2018, chances are pretty good that you’re running hard on the politics of fear.
In Florida, after the African American mayor of Tallahassee, Andrew Gillum, won the Democratic primary for governor, the Republican candidate, Ron DeSantis, ominously warned Floridians that voting for Gillum was a vote to “monkey things up.”
In Arizona, the Democratic candidate for Jeff Flake’s seat in the Senate, Kyrsten Sinema, is on the wrong end of attack ads alleging she is soft on child prostitution.
Elsewhere, Republican candidates are running “stop illegal immigration now” ads blaming Democrats for purported crime waves, drug dealing and the spread of gangs such as MS-13.
Meanwhile, Fox News has spent much of the last few months focusing on crimes carried out by “illegal aliens” against one white woman after another. So egregiously did they politicize the killing of Mollie Tibbetts that her own father was compelled to intervene and tell conservatives to stop using his daughter’s death for their gain.
Fox News has spent much of the last few months focusing on crimes carried out by ‘illegal aliens’ against one white woman after another.
There’s nothing new, or partisan, about mining fear for political advantage, of course; both parties have done so for decades. After the 9/11 attacks, fear was marshaled to rally support for the invasion of Iraq, to reshape American foreign policy and to sanction the use of previously banned torture techniques.
In the mid-1990s, at a moment when President Clinton wanted to insulate himself from charges of being soft on crime, he played to growing public fear of crime and of young “super-predator” criminals — a fear fueled mainly by an increasingly sensationalist media, especially local TV news — by pushing policies that turbocharged the mass incarceration machine. Clinton’s strategy was disingenuous: In fact, crime rates had already begun a steep fall-off a couple of years earlier.
George Bush Sr.’s operatives created the infamous Willie Horton ad in 1988 to scare suburban white voters away from the Democratic presidential candidate, Mike Dukakis.
Fear of atomic conflict led to a cascading series of Red Scares in the 1950s. And in the 1930s, fear of migrant “Okies” coming in to take jobs in Depression-era California led vigilantes to set up roadblocks to turn back the itinerant workers. And so on. We have always tended to do bad things and make bad policy choices when consumed by fear.
But today’s Trumpian GOP takes the fear-mongering much further. Its strategists are, in meaningful ways, using the same propaganda playbook as did the fascists of earlier eras in Germany and Italy. Shout the big lie often enough and people will believe it; make people fearful enough and they will follow you down any dark road.
Too many Americans are following the Trump administration and GOP down their dark roads, tolerating what should be intolerable. Watching from the sidelines as officials put immigrant children and asylum seekers behind bars. Standing by as they challenge the citizenship status of Americans who have the “wrong” names and “wrong” ethnic heritage and the misfortune to live near an international border. Acquiescing to the actions of an autocratic leader who wants to sic the country’s justice apparatus on his opponents, and who rants about how immigrants “infest” the country.
Trump speaks about fear in almost sensuous terms. Bob Woodward’s new book, “Fear,” takes its title from a comment Trump made during an interview in 2016, when he was running for office: “Real power is, I don’t even want to use the word: Fear.” It’s the sort of deeply creepy quote that one would expect from a deviant, Marquis de Sade-type character.
During the campaign, the tycoon-cum-candidate publicly fetishized torture in a horrifying way — describing it not as a perhaps-necessary evil, but as a cleansing agent, a good in itself. “Torture works,” he explained at one point. But, he continued, “even if it doesn’t work, they deserve it.” And his audiences, primed to be both fearful and wrathful by an increasingly shrill media and online culture, rewarded him time and again for these tirades.
Trump didn’t manufacture all the angst coursing through modern-day American life, but he has milked it to extraordinary effect. Perhaps only one other man in US political history has used fear so potently, so skillfully.
In the late 1940s and 1950s, Joe McCarthy carried around fake lists of communists he said were embedded in government departments, cultural institutions, the media, the academy. It was all performative, designed to make people so afraid of “Reds under the bed” that they would seek salvation by ceding power to men of the gutter such as himself.
Trump learned his noxious speaking methods at the feet of McCarthy’s henchman, the attorney Roy Cohn. In the 1970s and ’80s, Cohn was Donald Trump’s attorney. Throughout, he tutored Trump in the dark art of sowing fear to reap power.
The GOP has followed Trump faithfully; and now, in the 2018 election season, Republicans have no other game but fear to play. They pander to, and seek to stimulate, white distrust of black people and brown people, Christian distrust of Muslims, heterosexual distrust of gay people. Make enough people fearful about enough things, GOP strategists seem to believe, and you can neutralize distaste for all the chaos and cruelty of Trump’s administration and its enablers.
Bombarded with rhetoric about violent crime, 7 in 10 Americans believe crime is going up. In fact, the violent crime rate today is barely a quarter of what it was in the early 1990s.
Although Americans on the whole have become less fearful of Muslims in recent years, 68% of Republicans do not consider Islam part of mainstream society, and more than 1 in 3 believe that most Muslims in the U.S. are anti-American, according to a 2017 Pew survey.
Republican ads this election season highlight everything from mask-wearing “antifa” protesters to Black Lives Matter demonstrations. All are seen as an undifferentiated threat.
This fear-mongering is fraying the political fabric of the country in ways that will be extraordinarily difficult to repair, institutionalizing intolerance, and normalizing the previously unspeakable. Trump will, one day, be gone. But the longer he remains in power, and the longer the GOP hews to his toxic politics, the more enduring his shameful legacy will be.
Sasha Abramsky is a journalist whose work has appeared in the Nation, the Atlantic, the American Prospect and other publications. His latest book, “Jumping At Shadows: The Triumph of Fear and the End of the American Dream,” was published by Nation Books in 2017.