Trump Can't Sell Fear Unless the Public Buys It

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Ira Chernus is a professor of religious studies at the University of Colorado and author of MythicAmerica: Essays.

"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, devotesa 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. ...




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