Tag Archives: political rhetoric

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.

The Tacky Business of ‘Affirmation by Denial’

Roman masks commons wikimedia.org
Roman masks                          commons wikimedia.org

All of us have probably engaged in some form of the dark gambit of ‘affirmation by denial.’ But it’s a long way from the more honest style of expressing only those accusations  that we are prepared to own.   

Sometimes we try to produce a rhetorical sleight of hand when we pretend to not notice the effects of what we’ve said.  We can do this with a “stage whisper” that everyone can overhear. Or we may throw out a “marker”—an added verbal modifier—that puts a certain spin on everything else that follows, as with “the Mexican-American judge” or “the Jewish banker.”  The source may pretend not to notice the obvious and intended effect created by the unnecessary word.  But that feigned innocence makes as much sense as a child who tries to disappear by covering their eyes.

So it is with the simple rhetorical maneuver of “affirmation by denial.”  This is usually a statement in which a questionable claim is repeated, but then innocently disavowed. The wily speaker thinks he has been able to have it both ways: repeating a slander or untruth as an innocent piece of information, then stepping out of the way and feigning a degree of neutrality.  The rhetorical advantage is that the idea has been put in play.

Listen to some samples from Donald Trump and you find a variation on this.  He often starts a comment in a speech with some form of the expression, “A lot of people think. . .”  Then a dubious “fact” is inserted, creating just the kind of indirect assertion that wounds but leaves no fingerprints.  For example, “A lot of people are think that . . .

  • President Obama is not even an American
  • Hilary Clinton in not well
  • the Clintons killed a former law partner
  • Ted Cruz is not an American citizen
  • Ted Cruz’s father was involved in the Kennedy assassination.”

This kind of rhetoric of innuendo is never pretty.

Sometimes he goes on to suggest that he’s not sure.  Or the prior statement isn’t necessarily his view.  It’s a maneuver that allows deniability.  But it’s intellectually dishonest, and downright scary in a potential leader who needs to measure the effects of words carefully.  This kind of rhetoric of innuendo is never pretty, especially in a president.

To be sure, all of us have probably all engaged in some form of affirmation by denial.  Sometimes we want to put more cards on the table than we can play.  But it’s a long way from the far more laudable style of expressing only those accusations  that we are prepared to own.

Comments: Woodward@tcnj.edu