Posted on July 20, 2019 by Diana Roberts
We are soon to enter the presidential and congressional election year of 2020. It’s not politics as usual. Politicians have long fabricated fear connected to posturing themselves as the savior, as a campaign technique. Let’s look at a famous, or infamous, one from the past.
On February 7, 2004, George W. Bush sat in the Oval Office and was interviewed by Tim Russert for NBC’s “Meet the Press.” A major topic of discussion, amid flagging public sentiment that the war in Iraq was necessary in order to somehow defend our national security, was President Bush’s continuing assertion that Saddam Hussein had possessed weapons of mass destruction along with the ability to use them against us. During the interview, the President said, “Saddam Hussein was dangerous with weapons. He was a dangerous man in a dangerous part of the world.”
Question: Was he a direct threat to America?
Bush’s rhetoric was intended to instill the notion that Hussein was the embodiment of the evil our country faced, and that Bush, our president, our protector, was the strong leader who had rid the world of the threat before its capacity to destroy us was realized. Bush said, “There are people who kill in a moment’s notice... When we see that threat we deal with a threat because they become imminent... Saddam Hussein was a danger to America... As President of the United States, my most solemn responsibility is to keep this country safe.”
One might wonder how many people tried to envision what was actually being suggested here --- Saddam supplying the terrorists with a large stash of chemical or biological weapons that would be smuggled in undetected. Logically, that is going to be quite difficult from halfway around the world, plus the life of such weapons when transported and used is short and cannot cover a wide area. If citizens would think, they would see that such a threat would not justify a trillion-dollar war. And why Iraq? Why not Syria or Iran? Or for that matter the Saudis, who were responsible for 9/11? But foresight would also heed the available geopolitical advice that any such war, on any of these countries, would upset their own balance of power in their own region, sucking America into more war and costly war reediness in the region for years to come.
The rhetoric of “I must protect you” continued. “The war against terrorists is a war against individuals who hid in caves in remote parts of the world, individuals who have these kinds of shadowy networks, individuals who deal with rogue nations..” Notice how Bush’s terrorist description merged with the description of Saddam and his henchmen.
Since it is difficult to actually quantify the real threat of disaster, it is easy for politicians to manipulate the public thinking based on fear of the unknown or the worst-case scenarios. Fear became a major theme of the 2004 presidential election campaign. While Bush was speaking to thousands pushing fear, Gore made a futile attempt to make voters see what his opponent was doing. He said that a rush to war was itself a form of terrorism. “President Bush and his administration have been force-feeding the American people a grossly exaggerated fear of Iraq that was hugely disproportionate to the actual danger posed by Iraq.”
He provided a historical perspective, showing how fear of terrorists had been used throughout American history to justify restrictions on our liberties. Examples included the Alien and Sedition Acts of 1798, the internment of Japanese Americans in WWII, and the McCarthy abuses of the Cold War. He said "There are only two politics. The politics of fear, and the politics of trust." One says “You are encircled by monstrous dangers. Give us power over your freedom so we may protect you. The other says: "The world is baffling and a hazardous place, but it can be shaped to the will of man."
Of course, we know what happened. The Supreme Court ruled that Bush won the presidency by a narrow margin. Our military destroyed Iraq with a trillion-dollar war, and neither peace nor democracy took hold in the Middle East. Yes, there are still many groups of Islamic terrorists out there.
Most politicians who use fear as a resource incorporate fear with accounts structured as narratives that personify morality plays. The focus is on the individual misfortune or a personification of the victim. This can be manipulated. For example, at the beginning of the U.S./Mexico border problems, the victim was the immigrants seeking asylum from Central American dictatorships. However. As Trump blocked the border, stoking the fear of those who had not yet fled the dictatorships and needed an escape, the blocked border exacerbated the exodus. Trump then successfully changed victimization to the appearance that it was the USA that was being victimized by being overrun by illegals. Thus, America must be protected by whatever method he chose to use.
The majority of topics, problems, and issues presented on-line or the press involves those framed as a problem. Suffering, misfortune, distress, and inconvenience. That’s understandable, and it’s not the problem. The problem characteristics are part of the problem format (fear this, but I can protect you) around a narrative that begins with a general conclusion of reasonableness. This is where a narrative that has a few valid facts thrown in can morph into unfounded assertions as if they were supported by facts.
Finally, every politician or political party strives to establish a meme in the minds of the voting public that can be associated with them. When a word is repeated frequently and becomes associated routinely with certain other terms and images, a symbolic linkage is formed. In election years, it is revealing when tracking discourse permits gauging how closely together similar words appear as part of the thematic emphasis and discursive practice of creating fear.
Now, let’s take a look at what all this means for the 2020 Presidential election. As for President Trump, he is in the driver’s seat. From his position as President and news coverage, he can churn up fear in the voting public from many different sources. What could he do to create maximum voter fear? Start a war. Of course, it wouldn’t be presented that way. It would be presented that we had been attacked. Our area of interest and our troops were being put in harm's way by a vicious enemy. Actually, it was the war decisions in our foreign policy that led to this reaction. We are not without blame for enticing a confrontation. In 2020, as voting time gets closer, look for some geopolitical emergency arising, and particularly look for it if Trump is behind in the polls.
As for the democratic nominee, that person is not in much of a position to create mass hysteria, not they wouldn’t if they could. This is a favorite technique of every politician. However, coming from a nonincumbent, it would sound hollow. No, the Democratic nominee is going to have to stay with arguments on domestic policy in 2020.