Is Fear Going to Work for Bush Again?

News Abroad

Mr. Chernus is Professor of Religious Studies at the University of Colorado at Boulder. He is the author of Monsters to Destroy: The Neoconservative War on Terror and Sin.

“Republicans care more about catching Democrats than catching terrorists," said Rep. Rahm Emanuel (Ill.), chairman of the House Democratic Caucus. "They have spent years taking Roosevelt's notion that we have nothing to fear but fear itself and given us nothing but fear." Republicans manipulate us with fear. Democrats free us from fear, following in the footsteps of the iconic liberal, FDR.

Really? Let’s check a few facts.

First, Roosevelt never said “We have nothing to fear.” He said, “The only thing we have to fear is fear itself -- nameless, unreasoning, unjustified terror.” It’s a common mistake. Lots of people like the sound of “We have nothing to fear.” They’d love to believe it.

But FDR never would have said that. He always told the voters they had something to fear. He spent his political life naming those sources of fear -- only occasionally was it “fear itself” -- and convincing the public that he was tough enough to stand up to the terrors and defeat them.

As a young state legislator in New York, FDR had hardly any positive program. He made his name fighting against the evil power brokers of Tammany Hall. By the time he became president, of course, the enemy was the depression. If FDR had said, in that first inaugural address, that the U.S. had nothing to fear, no one would have believed him. When he said the only thing to fear was fear, no one took him literally. Everyone knew what they were really afraid of: poverty.

And FDR’s famous speech was a stirring call to arms against this new enemy, a plea to treat the depression “as we would treat the emergency of a war.” He was already skilled at the language of warfighting. He had learned it from an expert, his revered Democratic mentor, Woodrow Wilson,.

FDR also learned from Wilson that the first casualty of war is truth, and the second is civil liberties. To gain public support for an unpopular war, Wilson mounted the largest propaganda effort the federal government had ever seen. To win the war, Wilson and his administration appropriated unprecedented power for the federal government -- including the power to throw people in jail for writing or speaking out against the war (made legal by the Espionage Act and Sedition Act). Wilson’s success taught Roosevelt that the art of manipulating public opinion was essential to being a great president. No one ever did it better than FDR.

Again, his first inaugural address is fine evidence. Roosevelt said he would fight the depression just like he would wage a war. And if Congress didn’t give him what he wanted, he would ask Congress for “broad Executive power to wage a war against the emergency, as great as the power that would be given to me if we were in fact invaded by a foreign foe.” Here he was threatening to become a virtual dictator, and even the arch-conservative Chicago Tribune applauded: “President Roosevelt's inaugural strikes the dominant note of courageous confidence.”

But how much confidence can you create when you build your whole program around a negative, fighting against “unreasoning, unjustified terror”? That’s the question Rahm Emanuel raised. Certainly the Republicans try to present themselves as the great American warriors against terror. They forget that the real terror we have to fear is our own unjustified feelings of terror, which far exceed the reality of the threat we face.

But if Rep. Emanuel wants us to believe that the Republicans are the only purveyors of fear-based politics, he’s forgotten how FDR ramped up American’s unjustified terror in the late 1930s. Even before Germany invaded Poland, Roosevelt was conjuring up images of the Nazis conquering South America and sending their bombers to destroy New Orleans and Kansas City, adding that the Japanese had designs on conquering the Western hemisphere too. Although no foreign army was closer than 3,000 miles away, he told Americans that the Germans and Japanese were “gangsters and bandits” trying to break into their homes and murder them. He wielded those frightening images so skillfully that most Americans were ready to support war well before Pearl Harbor was attacked.

Once the U.S. was in the war, Roosevelt remembered the other lesson he had learned from Wilson. He played on the nation’s terrors to abridge civil liberties on a scale that makes the Bush administration look something like the ACLU. The internment of the Japanese was the archetypal example, though only the most egregious of many. As crazy as it seems today, when all the Japanese-Americans were either locked up in concentration camps or shipped overseas to fight for the USA, most white Americans probably did feel safer.

So Democrats as well as Republicans have played the fear card. They still do. The leading Democratic candidates for president all want us to believe that somehow the war will be brought to an end while tens of thousands of U.S. troops remain in Iraq indefinitely -- to fight terror, of course, and to be a bulwark against the specter of chaos that is supposed to terrify us. Like FDR, they craft their political message around the public’s terror. Unlike FDR, though, they don’t acknowledge that the unjustified terror that plagues us most is our own.

But perhaps the Democrats follow in FDR’s footsteps not out of belief (no one knows what they really believe, just as even the best historians can’t figure out what he believed), but out of common political sense. They see one unmistakable fact: The appeal to fear works. In the last month the Bush administration has turned the tables on antiwar Democrats, who are now running for political cover by embracing half-measures that offer no real hope of ending the war.

The conventional wisdom says the hawks are flying higher because of all the good news coming out of Iraq: We are turning the tide, light at the end of the tunnel, etc. But with all the bad news that still flows from Iraq, there’s no compelling reason to believe the new rosy scenarios -- unless you want to. Enough people want to, it seems, that the political tide is beginning to turn.

Why? Because it gives them a way to accept the larger framework of Bush’s war story: If we don’t fight them there, they will follow us and attack us here. It’s FDR’s New Orleans and Kansas City scenarios all over again. The great unjustified terror now is that if we let down our guard in Iraq, chaos will erupt that will soon engulf not just the Middle East, but our homeland. Like the fear of Japanese-Americans in World War II, it doesn’t matter how crazy it seems to thoughtful observers. What matters is how real the terror is that grips the average American. That terror drives many to grasp at any shreds of good news, any reason to justify continuing the war.

So this fall we’ll have to endure the spectacle of the two major parties fighting to see who is better, not at fighting terror abroad, but at cultivating terror here at home. While we watch, it’s worth remembering that all of them, Republican and Democrat alike, are still walking in the shadow of FDR.

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Hal Brown - 11/19/2007

This article compares FDR to George Bush, and WWII to the Iraq war. Talk about a non sequiter, everything about the men and the wars are different. FDR did not have to create the fear leading up to the second world war; it was going in in Europe and as any school child knows, Hitler had to be stopped. There was no doubt the Japanese attacked the US. In other words, we knew who the enemy was on both fronts.

In short, FDR saved the world, even though he undoubtedly used his political savvy at times to do so. Conversely, George Bush is destroying, or has already destroyed not only the US, but turned most of the world against us.

If you need to make comparisons, why not use Attila the Hun vs George Bush.

Peter K. Clarke - 10/9/2007

With his "fear itself" line, FDR was trying to boost consumer confidence to tap it as partial antidote to the 1930's Depression.

A better analogy to the present would be G.W.Bush's call to support the "war on terrorism" by going shopping.

John H. Kimbol - 9/28/2007

Lawrence Brooks Hughes writes:

"The people our troops are killing in Iraq today belong to the same organization that caused our people to jump off the World Trade Center."

FALSE. Al Quaeda had nothing do do with Iraq before we invaded. Saddam Hussein gave them no money, no weapons, no logistical support, no base of operations. The foreign fighters who are there now comprise around 5% of the total insurgency; the rest are native Iraqis who hate our presence there.

"We are killng them over there so they won't come over here again."

FALSE. Of the nineteen 9/11 hijackers, fifteen were from Saudi Arabia, two were from the United Arab Emirates, one was from Lebanon, and one was from Egypt. No Iraqis, no Iranians. None had ties to the Hussein government.

"They don't care whether you are a Protestant, Catholic or Jew, atheist or agnostic, black or white, they want to kill you because you are not a Wahabi Muslim."

FALSE. They want to kill us because we are extremely powerful and we exercise that power whenever and wherever we feel like it. From their point of view we are the schoolyard bully who picks on the weak and innocent. We overthrow their governments. We kill their women and children and call it "collateral damage." We keep a large military force on their doorstep so we can make them feel afraid to do anything we don't like.

Agree or disagree with that viewpoint, that IS how they feel, and it is why they want to kill us. When we stop pretending to be the world's police force and start talking to them with respect, we'll start getting the results we want.

"They would just as soon kill you by cutting off you head. *** Those people are madmen from the 8th century who cannot be reasoned with."

This is, of course, a very bigoted and myopic view of a culture that is different than ours and that we don't really understand. You are nothing more than a xenophobe.

"As Lucianne Goldberg remarked yesterday, 'Love of country is a terrible thing to lose.'

As George Orwell once said, "The nationalist not only does not disapprove of atrocities committed by his own side, but he has a remarkable capacity for not even hearing about them."

Lawrence Brooks Hughes - 9/13/2007

If you were confronted with the choice of burning to death or jumping to your death off the 87th floor of the World Trade Center, I think you would say you had some real fear... The people our troops are killing in Iraq today belong to the same organization that caused our people to jump off the World Trade Center. We are killng them over there so they won't come over here again. What is so difficult about that to understand? They don't care whether you are a Protestant, Catholic or Jew, atheist or agnostic, black or white, they want to kill you because you are not a Wahabi Muslim. They would just as soon kill you by cutting off you head. You may not be willing to declare you are afraid of them, but I am. And I don't see anything "unjustified" about my fear. Those people are madmen from the 8th century who cannot be reasoned with. We should be very thankful we have Gen. Petraeus and 162,000 other stout-hearted volunteer soldiers over there protecting us extremely well, and also thankful they are finally winning. We should be proud of our soldiers, and especially one like Gen. Petraeus, who makes our other generals look like nonentities, but proud of the uniform, too, regardless who is in it. As Lucianne Goldberg remarked yesterday, "Love of country is a terrible thing to lose."