In the 1995 movie, The American President, President Andrew Shepherd (Michael Douglas) dissects the politics of conservative Sen. Bob Rumson (Richard Dreyfuss) in a fiery White House speech. Shepherd declares:
We have serious problems to solve, and we need serious people to solve them. And whatever your particular problem is, I promise you, Bob Rumson is not the least bit interested in solving it. He is interested in two things and two things only: making you afraid of it and telling you who’s to blame for it.
Fast forward to 2020. This movie soundbite perfectly captures the American right wing’s relentless fixation on fear and blame. Fueled by a continuous supply of dry kindling from conservative media like Fox News and the rhetoric of President Donald Trump, the wildfire of paranoid panic on the right rages in a moment of worldwide pandemic and societal upheaval.
The 2020 Republican National Convention (RNC) gave us a microcosm of the fear-fanning and blame-naming that now defines the right-wing Trumpist political world. The RNC decided not to propose a policy-based party platform for the convention, but rather declared support for Trump’s populist “America first” agenda and reiterated the 2016 policy platform. Hearkening back to red meat for the conservative base, speaker after speaker embraced a tacit platform of authoritarian loyalty laced with a cocktail of fright and finger pointing.
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Politics is a battle of competing stories, and convention speakers spun passion-filled tales to stir the base. Above all, political culture is an exercise in moral storytelling that maximizes the power of the rhetorical symbol to emotionally activate core supporters. Right-wing storytellers engaged a tried-and-true strategy linking two potent symbols: the scarecrow — who to fear — and the scapegoat — who to blame.
Build up fear. Give it a name. Put a face to the name. Blame the face. Attack the face. Rouse the followers to do the same. Repeat as necessary.
Keep the loyal followers continually terrified — and always on alert.
Conservative anxiety is activated primarily through three scarecrows, each of which provide many targets for blame. Assembled from the straw of the classic “us” and “them,” these scarecrows point toward scapegoats deftly fashioned from toxic, coded language around race, class and gender.
Scarecrow #1: They Will Take Our Safety
The first scarecrow is the threat to safety. In the mind of the right-wing voter, the threat to safety takes two main forms: physical safety and financial safety.
As nationwide protests have exploded following the police-perpetrated murder of George Floyd and other cases of police brutality, racialized language around safety has been increasingly obvious in the national discourse. Perhaps the best example of scapegoating of the threat to safety at the 2020 RNC was the inclusion of Mark and Patricia McCloskey, the gun-wielding couple who threatened peaceful protesters in front of their St. Louis home. In their convention speech, they railed about “Marxist liberal activists” and “criminals,” an “out-of-control mob” out to “abolish the suburbs.” In addition to these fears for physical safety, they also appealed to financial safety, calling out zoning laws that keep “low-quality apartments” out of suburban neighborhoods. In the right-wing worldview, protecting property (and property values) has become almost as sacrosanct as protecting life and limb.
This kind of demagoguery pervades Trump’s entire presidential term, including his remarks to the RNC. Describing Joe Biden’s mission as an “attack on public safety,” Trump painted those who oppose him as anarchists and criminals out to take away conservative American values. Whether it be a travel ban targeting Muslim-majority nations full of “hatred” for the U.S., “savage” MS-13 gang members threatening families, poor immigrants coming to the U.S. from “sh**hole countries,” caravans of “dangerous” migrant refugees headed for the southern border, or violent antifa “thugs” and looters coming for suburban neighborhoods, both conservative media and the president consistently prop up racist straw men in the service of the safety scarecrow.
Scarecrow #2: They Will Take Our Liberty
The next scarecrow is the threat to liberty. For this threat, physical liberty, religious liberty and “thought” liberty are central. In other words, they are coming for your guns, your God and the mind of your college student.
The RNC began with Kimberly Guilfoyle’s screaming (and meme-inspiring) message of panic:
They want to destroy this country and everything we have fought for and hold dear. They want to steal your liberty, your freedom. They want to control what you see and think and believe so that they can control how you live.
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell echoed her fear: “They want to tell you when you could go to work, when your kids go to school … what sources of information are credible and even how many hamburgers you can eat.”
In the right-wing worldview, it seems that “they” are always finding new ways to steal your freedom.
None of these stories quite riles the embattled base like the left’s alleged existential menace to religious liberty. But for right-wing Christians who form the core of the party, “religious liberty” means the control of religion in the public square. It also means exemption from following nondiscrimination laws designed to protect the LGBTQ community or require employer-provided health insurance to include contraception coverage. While they claim such mandates are a threat to their liberty, they’re actually a threat to their control. Accustomed to a position of privilege in matters of law and identity, those on the Christian right easily interpret protections of marginalized groups as their own loss of freedom.
Cissie Graham Lynch, granddaughter of Billy Graham, attacked Democrats on the first night of the convention as a threat to religious liberty. She even portrayed the COVID-19 pandemic as a mechanism for Christian persecution, saying, “Some Democratic leaders banned church services, while marijuana shops and abortion clinics were declared essential.”
Issues from abortion to gun control legislation to environmental safeguards to liberal college professors continue to be rallying cries for “protecting freedom” for the right.
Scarecrow #3: They Will Take Our Culture
The final scarecrow is the threat to culture. So much of conservative rhetoric now centers on framing a grand assault on a way of life, perceiving any loss of cultural control as some kind of catastrophic loss of personal freedom. Conservative Christian activist Charlie Kirk captured the essence of this scapegoat on the first night of the RNC:
Trump was elected to protect our families from the vengeful mob that seeks to destroy our way of life. Our neighborhoods, schools, churches, and values. President Trump was elected to defend the American way of life.
In this statement, Kirk claims his as the only true American culture — and he names the vengeful mob that will take it away from the “true” Americans.
The threat to culture scarecrow embodies their deepest fears. In the removal of Confederate statues or the Confederate flag, the challenge to white supremacist versions of history in the classroom, the “disloyalty” of taking a knee during the national anthem, or the elimination of privilege for the Christian right, resentful grievance dominates the right-wing mind. And in this worldview, the “liberal” media, Hollywood elites, “Marxist” university professors, LGBTQ activists and “socialist” Democrats are the convenient scapegoats to blame.
As a former evangelical minister now liberated from the right-wing worldview, I deeply understand the power of these symbols and the emotions they provoke. The narrative of fear and blame finds fertile ground with Christian-right believers because of their own psychological tale of scarecrows and scapegoats — a vindictive and exclusive divine who reinforces human self-blame — blame that is internalized and then projected as hostility toward others. Demands for obedience, purity and “responsibility” transform a religious perspective into a political culture constantly looking to preserve privilege and scapegoat the nonconforming.
As November approaches, progressives have the opportunity to challenge the rhetoric of fear and blame by looking deeper than right-wing propaganda. By challenging the foundational stories at the root of this moral worldview, progressives can resist and replace them with stories of justice, compassion and reason — shifting minds and not just political fortunes.