“Stoking fear — a strategy that helped get Trump elected — is emerging as a central part of how he plans to carry out his governing agenda.” That’s not exactly news. But when The Washington Post, the news source that every decision-maker in the nation’s capital reads every day, devotes a whole story to it (“Trump’s Rallying Cry: Fear Itself”) and gives it a prominent place at the top of the website’s homepage, that is news.
In the past, the mass media have largely ignored presidential fear mongering, treating White House warnings about danger as fact, not tactic. No longer. And that’s a welcome change.
However, if The Washington Post story refuses to be complicit in a cover-up of what’s going on today, it continues the cover-up of the past. The story claims that Trump’s “playing upon the nation’s anxieties … stands as a stark contrast to how presidents have lifted the country out of actual crisis in the past.”
That’s misleading. It too easily suggests that past presidents didn’t rely very much on the language of fear, which is a common view. Dan Rather, for example, writes: “Every American president I can think of relied on the rhetoric of hope more than fear.” Previous presidents’ use of fear must remain invisible, it seems.
In fact, presidential fear mongering is not rare, nor a stark contrast to the past. It is the common pattern of the past in all living Americans’ memory.
Presidents and Fear: An Old Story
Most Americans can remember clearly the fear that George W. Bush evoked in the wake of 9/11. Evil “knows no boundaries,” Bush warned, as he called the nation to a war with no foreseeable end. “Thousands of trained killers are plotting to attack us.” “The civilized world faces unprecedented dangers.” “The future of the world is at stake.”
The US public was ready to accept these frightening words as fact because we had been trained to believe it through four decades of Cold War. The emotional pattern for that long war was laid by president Dwight D. Eisenhower.
Just a few months after becoming president in 1953, Eisenhower warned the nation to “arm and be ready for the worst … for an indefinite period of time. … Our danger cannot be fixed or confined to one specific instant. We live in an age of peril.” (He told his speechwriter: “This phrase of not an instant but an age of peril — I like that fine.”) Indeed, this was the US’s “age of greatest peril,” Eisenhower proclaimed. “There are many roads to disaster.”
He kept up that message for eight full years. His farewell speech is remembered now only for his warning about the “unwarranted influence” of “the military-industrial complex.” But few remember the sentence that preceded that famous warning: “We recognize the imperative need for this development.” Why imperative need? Because “the danger [communism] poses promises to be of indefinite duration.” So, Eisenhower concluded, the US still faced a “prolonged and complex struggle.”
Democratic presidents have stoked fear just as well as Republicans. On the day he took over from Eisenhower, John F. Kennedy picked up the thread without missing a beat. In his famous inaugural address, he declared that freedom was “in its hour of maximum danger.”
Lyndon B. Johnson insisted that, “If we quit Vietnam tomorrow we’ll be fighting in Hawaii, and next week, we’ll have to be fighting in San Francisco.” That was well over a year before he ordered the first big buildup of US troops in Vietnam. For nearly a decade after that, both LBJ and Richard Nixon used fear-inducing words to justify their war.
Just as Americans readily embraced post-9/11 fear because they had been conditioned by all those years of Cold War, they also embraced the bipartisan Cold War message of fear because they had so recently been through the terrors of World War II. Those terrors began well before the US actually entered the war. Americans were, at first, terrified not by what was actually happening, but by what they imagined might happen to them.
It was Franklin D. Roosevelt, more than anyone else, who fueled and shaped their imaginings. A year and a half before the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor, he warned about the prospect of Germany conquering England. Then, he contended, Americans would somehow be “lodged in prison, handcuffed, hungry and fed through the bars from day to day by the contemptuous, unpitying masters.”
A few months later, FDR sounded even more dire: “Never before since Jamestown and Plymouth Rock has our American civilization been in such danger as now.” Over the next year, he kept up an incessant flow of fear-inspiring rhetoric.
Before Pearl Harbor, then, as historian Arnold Offner has written, “Roosevelt had already forged the ideology and basic systems for the national security state.” Another historian, Michael Sherry, agreed that the years immediately before Pearl Harbor were “a training ground for the new age of national security, an unwitting rehearsal for the Cold War.” Perhaps it’s more accurate to call this the new age of national insecurity, an age that has lasted for some 77 years now and shows no signs of ending any time soon.
This does not necessarily mean that presidents have been cynically manipulating us, inculcating fear merely as a way to dupe us into supporting their policies. Presidents after FDR may have meant their fear-stoking words quite sincerely. They may have felt the fear just as much as their audiences, or perhaps not. The available evidence doesn’t let us answer that question with any certainty.
Words have a power of their own, though. Presidents’ words about threat and danger are bound to stoke fear, regardless of what the speaker believes or intends.
Who Will Buy What Trump Is Selling?
So we know for sure that by now it’s not at all difficult for a president to make vast numbers of Americans feel afraid.
That may help to explain why somewhere between 40 percent and 47 percent of Americans approve of a president who relies so heavily on stoking fear. He is selling radically new policies, like a ban on immigration from seven predominantly Muslim countries, using fear as the central theme of his advertising campaign, and nearly half of the public is buying.
It’s helpful to think of this president, or any president, as an ad executive — what we now call a “mad man”— because it reminds us that we should not just look at the person doing the selling. We also have to ask why the public is buying the ad, and therefore the product.
Advertising, no matter how well done, doesn’t always work; the public is not merely a vast collection of puppets on strings. Does anyone remember “the new Coke,” introduced with such an expensive ad blitz in 1985? It flopped and eventually disappeared because people just would not buy it.
Advertising definitely does not always work in politics. Remember Eric Cantor? He was the House Majority Leader and a rising, well-funded GOP star until a totally underfunded campaign defeated his re-election bid in 2014.
Or go back to 1990, when the first Bush administration, intent on going to war against Iraq, advertised that defeating Saddam Hussein’s army would create “jobs, jobs, jobs” here in the US. That campaign, with its promise of a better future, fell flat. The administration had to come up with a message that the people would buy. “Saddam’s nuclear threat” did the trick. The people were buying fear. They got sold the first Persian Gulf War.
Once again, in 2017, a president is using fear to sell his policies, and lots of Americans are buying. It’s not a majority, at least not yet. But it’s close enough to half that Trump sees no need to scale back his assault on the prevailing norms and assumptions (unless forced to by the courts). In that sense, his ad campaign is working. Too many Americans are buying the product. And we have to ask why.
By now, fear of “enemies who would destroy us” has become something like a habit for the bulk of the populace. It’s the foundation of our national identity, the only rhetorical and psychological glue that has any chance of holding us together. If we did not have enemies to fear, how would we know what it means to be an “American”?
Actually, the one bright spot in this picture is that, contrary to The Washington Post report, Donald Trump is, so far, less successfulless successful than many previous presidents at stoking the public’s fear. His 40 percent to 45 percent approval is a record low for a brand new president, and surely for a president ramping up national fear. But the pattern is there for him to play on.
That is not his fault; he did not create the pattern. It is we, the public, who have bought the product, nurtured the fear and allowed it to become so deeply ingrained in our national culture. By now, a majority of Americans may be ready to buy any war the Trump administration wants to sell — as soon as the administration decides who to go to war with.
The process of creating fear and enemies is a two-way street. We are not mere puppets, with our leaders pulling our strings. We have the power to decide which advertising campaigns will succeed and which political products we will buy. We have the power to decide which presidential campaigns of fear will succeed and which will fail. That’s one thing we cannot blame on Donald Trump.
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