Posted on August 20, 2019 by Diana Roberts
We Americans have short memories, particularly as we are experiencing something that is happening currently that actually happened in the past.
Will the 2020 presidential election campaign be a remake of the 2004 presidential election campaign? You don’t remember? Let’s refresh that rusty memory. Fear became a major theme of the 2004 campaign. As Frank Rich wrote in the New York Times on July 25, 2004, “In the fear game, the Democrats are the visiting team, playing at a serious disadvantage. Out of power, they can’t suit up officials at will to go on camera to scare us … while the Republicans seemed to be counting on the historically proven paradox that the less safe we felt, the more likely we would be to stick with a familiar face come Election Day.”
John Harwood of the Wall Street Journal wrote on September 1, 2004 “The leitmotif of the 2004 election is fear.” While Republicans were promoting Bush as the securer of safety and denigrating Kerry as “unfit for command,” Democrats, in turn, were warning of the danger of another four years with Bush, especially with regard to civil liberties. The American Prospect, a leading reflector of liberal Democratic sentiment, was running covers depicting an elephant’s trunk around the neck of the Statue of Liberty, and labeling Bush “the Most Dangerous President Ever.”
The goal of each party and the effect of the back-and-forth was to make the public feel even more unsafe. Why these tactics? Will we see this again in 2020?
Certainly, after watching the rhetoric of President Trump for three years and how the Republican Party stands behind him in his Tweets, we should assume so. As for the Democrats, it’s hard to say. They are the visiting team, again, but they too have been known to use the fearmongering technique. Why? Because it works on a gullible, non-independent thinking, public. From ancient political philosophers to modern behavioral economists, we know that the way to create the “We versus Them” and “In group versus Outgroup” is to encounter, discover, or fabricate a threat.
Since it is difficult to quantify the real risk of disaster, it is easy for politicians to manipulate the public based on fear of the unknown of worst-case scenarios. Time after time, the far-reaching fear and increased sense of vulnerability is used by a candidate or political party in its cry to protect us. What will it be in 2020? The Republicans have a vast inventory to choose from: Hormuz Strait, South China Sea, trade, Iran and much, much more. It remains to be seen what the Democrats come up with, as they debate to nominate a candidate.
In 2004, much of the voting public followed the circumlocutive argument that unless we extinguish these terrorists now, they could mushroom into nuclear-weapon-wielding menaces who could blow up our cities. Isn’t it a small price to give up some liberties now rather than face an ineradicable danger later on? This is where the conclusion is made that at least half the voting public knows little of American history and the cost of giving up any right that we have. The answer is no, if one believes that we can’t allow fear to control us. Despite terrorism, the risk to the individual remains quite low, and no, a dirty bomb might cause some temporary damage, but certainly can’t destroy a city.
We don’t know what fear games are going to be put upon the citizenry in the 2020 presidential election. But you can bet, it is tailor-made for the appeals to traditional in-group-out-group hatred and distrust, economic insecurity and status anxiety, old-fashioned ethnic and religious bigotry approach, with Twitter and Facebook fueling the fire. It will be anything that creates a threat locus that is exterior, specific and easily defined, particularly with a meme or even a bumper sticker.
The followers feeling the need for critical protection will feel a sense of immediacy, urgency, and solidarity that confers meaning to their lives. The threat becomes a perceived instant problem and this problem becomes THEM --- the Muslims, the Illuminati, the 1 percent, the Republicans, the Democrats, the feminists, the immigrants, etc. The demagogue always and everywhere speaks to the problem of complexity. As John Harris put it in The Guardian: “Their basic approach is: a withering look at the labyrinthine realities of trade, technology, population movement, international agreements, and the rest, followed by the simplest of answers: “Take back control, “Make America Great Again.”