Tag Archives: demagogues

The Appeal to Fear

                                commons wikimedia

For our times we can update Samuel Johnson’s famous remark about patriotism: fear is the last refuge of a scoundrel.

If historians were looking for a label to characterize the dominant theme in our public discourse these days they could do no better than call it “The Age of Fear.”  It may be true that crime rates in most parts of the country have generally fallen, and that the chances of being the victim of terrorist attack are less likely than getting struck by lightning.  Nonetheless, we live in an age where too many voices in our political and news-gathering systems depend on fear as their most reliable theme. Acts of terrorism like the recent attack in Manchester England are sufficient for cable news networks, among others, to go into narrow and repetitive coverage.  Jerky cell phone videos add all of the video they need to endlessly mull  the imagined ghosts in the room, with the added effect of overstated  conclusions that we are not safe and terrorism is rampant.

The same thread is endlessly recycled by the President, who uses much of his public rhetoric to focus on threats allegedly coming from undocumented immigrants, Syrian refugees, Muslim extremists, Mexican drug smugglers,  Chinese banks, Australia, Germany, to mention just a few from his long list. We learned that we were in for a three-alarm Presidency when Donald Trump broke tradition in his inaugural address to rehash warnings that were endlessly recycled to his followers on the campaign trail.  He talked of the “American carnage” of too few jobs, insecure borders, abuse at the hands of our allies and more.  The speech was significantly out of the norm: less a ritual celebration of the transfer of presidential power than a victim’s list of grievances against others. And it surely resonated then as it does now with too many Americans with who have little patience to deal with the complexities of modern life. They do not know that the world is generally more understandable and actually less threatening if understood in 2000-word clarifications rather than 20-word rants.

Because we are hardwired first for survival, we look for threats before opportunities; self-preservation before self-actualization.

We can update Samuel Johnson’s famous remark about patriotism and reset it in our times: fear is the last refuge of a scoundrel.  It’s easy if not responsible for a demagogue to conjure malevolent ghosts in our midst.  This is the rhetorical thread that connects figures from the margins of our civil life as diverse as “Pitchfork Ben” Tillman, Huey Long, Joe McCarthy, George Wallace and any number of public figures who built a political base by motivating concerns about “Them.”  Using this thread usually provides an unearned advantage. Those nameless others inside and beyond our borders are almost always portrayed as  immoral, unclean or dangerously powerful.  The irony is that most Americans have no right to claim a nativist ideology.  Our ancestors came from somewhere else.  Even so, it thrives.

Fear appeals gain a natural advantage from the human impulse to fantasize about what we do not fully know or understand.  Fear always builds from the predicate of potential harm we can imagine. Because we are creatures hardwired first for survival, we look for threats before opportunities; self-preservation before self-actualization.  As any lover of film-noir knows, another person’s shadow is all we need to envision the worst.  It follows that verbalizing threats against survival is easily rewarded.  The beneficiaries may be political scoundrels, cable news companies, and various agents who have seemingly simple solutions to sell: everything from home security alarms to firearms to grotesque projects like a massive border wall.

Our Iconoclastic Moment?


When did burning down the house become the preferred solution for sorting out its various problems? 

In the best of times persuading someone to do or believe something is difficult.  And these are definitely not the best of times.  One could be forgiven for assuming that self-destruction is not in our nature: that it doesn’t need to be proved or argued.  But watch enough Youtube videos of people engaging in behaviors that can only end badly, or Britons willingly separating their nation from its European neighbors, or voters who seem comfortable channeling their free-floating anger into a political movement, and you begin to wonder.  When did burning down the house become the preferred solution for sorting out its various problems?

A common theme on this site is that we are distracted and over-committed.  It’s harder to be thoughtful when time and fatigue overtake solid values like risk avoidance and forbearance.  The exasperation we all feel at times when incrementalism and caution seem too tepid sets us up to accept non-incremental change, even if adopting it means trashing rational impulses like fact-finding and circumspection.  Both are tools for informed change that can seem too slow to deal with the wounds of class, ethnic resentments, or the sloppy machinery of self-government.  They are easily vanquished  by the incendiary language of a demagogue.

If we are lucky, this phase of seeking big change with little understanding is only one moment in a political cycle that will change. That’s the conventional wisdom.  But a better case can be made that we are steadily moving toward a new kind of American politics where many in Congress and those seeking the presidency are motivated more by expressive opportunities than the actual work of governance. In the parlance of older members of the Senate, these folks are “show horses” rather than “work horses.”  Even shutting down the government–a draconian step taken by Ted Cruz in 2013 to deny a vote for the Affordable Care Act–was done with more defiance than shame. Governing through compromise and cooperation seems to not be in their nature, leading to outcomes where the spotlight on the successful conciliators would have to be shared. By contrast, demagogues inclined to use bumper-sticker solutions that resonate with an angry electorate may know that their methods are at odds with the deliberative nature of their work, but they also know that throwing rhetorical grenades will mean that they can have the spotlight to themselves.

This is a pattern that great writers on American democracy like Walter Lippmann worried about. The public, he noted, can be dangerously out of step with national needs, converting trumped up fantasies into the urge to push for too much too soon, or too little too late. Such it was with the Communist witch-hunts of the 30s and 40s, or the current fashion for deprecating diplomacy in favor of the raw application of military power.

The questions that are white-hot right now are part of the same maelstrom:  Should we block entry to the U.S. based on a visitor’s religious beliefs?  Will it help us in the long-run to strong-arm China, which owns so much of American debt? Should we deport the mostly hard-working undocumented families woven into the American fabric? These are blunt proposals, better written into the third acts of revenge films than ginned up to be the policy positions of a great nation.

There’s a Tom Cheney cartoon in the New Yorker of a frustrated office worker standing over his computer with his desk chair in his raised arms.  He’s ready to bring it crashing down on the non-functioning device, with its innocent screen command to “Strike any key to continue.”  We know the feeling, and there are times when we would give anything for the shortcut a grand unilateral gesture. But the current preference for trashing caution will fill us with regrets later.

Comments: woodward@tcnj.edu