I felt an intolerable weight oppressing my breast, the smell of the damp earth, the unseen presence of victorious corruption, the darkness of an impenetrable night. ~ JOSEPH CONRAD, "Heart of Darkness"
Our friend is middle aged, leans liberal, is well educated, well traveled and well read with a comfortable home, a good job and a loving family. And she is scared to death.
She is unable to articulate exactly of what or of whom she is so afraid. After all, violent crime is down in the rural burg where she and we live, and way down in New York City, where she grew up and frequently visits her parents. But only a few minutes of watching Fox News would seem to give her ample reason to cower in fear: ISIS and the Islamization of America, illegal alien Mexican rapists, Planned Parenthood as an agent of holocaust, Barack Obama enslaving people through the Affordable Care Act. So many apocalypses and so little time.
This would seem to make our friend with her inchoate fears a candidate to cross over from the Democratic Party this year, because if nothing else, the Republican presidential candidates almost to a man and woman are banking on scaring people into voting for them.
This has a certain appeal for a political party pretty much bereft of new ideas. Recycling old ideas like giving enormous tax breaks to the rich and deregulating the very financial industry that caused the Great Recession a few years back lack a certain appeal compared to "Your Muslim neighbors are spying on you" (Donald Trump), "Our way of life is at stake" (John Kasich), "Americans are really scared" (Marco Rubio), "World War III has already begin" (Chris Christie), and "We are at a time of war" (Ted Cruz). The problem with dismissing President Obama's emphasis on calm and fortitude is that once a Republican wannabe succeeds in scaring the bejezzus out of you, there's little to offer unless its arming kindergarten teachers or carpet bombing the Middle East.
But it's the idea that counts, right?
Fear has been an oft-used page from the Republican playbook. Richard Nixon's Southern Strategy, which appealed to racism to gain the support of Southern white voters, was a clever application of the use of fear, although the 9/11 attacks were a crucial turning point.§
The Bush administration, employing a toxic combination of demagoguery, hubris and obfuscation, stole a march on FDR's most famous words: "We have nothing to fear but fear itself." Americans were told to fear people with funny names and skin colors. To fear people who did not worship the Christian God. To fear people who were not red-blooded Americans. To fear people who didn't spout patriotic slogans or wear flag lapel pins. And never mind giving up the very civil liberties, including free speech, that we were supposed to be defending in striking back against Al Qaeda.
Fear, along with John Kerry's pathetic campaign, were deciding factors in George W. Bush's 2004 reelection victory as enough voters bought into the "flypaper theory" that he was pinning down jihadists overseas so they couldn't attack America.
Fear has continued to play a roll in more recent elections.
Remember the hysteria over Ebola and the imprecations of the execrable Louie Gohmert of Texas, who said President Obama was going to bring Ebola to the U.S. because he would not impose a travel ban? "I guarantee you," Gohmert declared, "We're going to find out, he has cut a deal with African leaders. They’re going to bring people in."
Well, the hysteria over the virus went poof! the day after the 2014 midterms.
"Fear is electoral gold for the GOP," writes Paul Waldman in The American Prospect, but that particular sword cuts two ways because the fear mongering fuels the very enemies that Republicans want to crush.
The Republicans' seeming monopoly on fear actually gives Democrats ammo to campaign on other, less acknowledged fears: Fears of losing jobs to offshore workers, not being able to make mortgage and car payments, send the kids to college or pay the medical bills of elderly parents if Republican policies were enacted.§
Republican candidates themselves have something else to fear: Their base, which has become so radicalized over thousand mile border walls, Muslim registries and killing the wives and children of terrorists as to make many candidates of the onetime Party of Lincoln unpalatable to voters who don't want a demagogue in the White House. (This also is why House Speaker Paul Ryan's honeymoon will be short.)
Then there is the thing we all have to fear the most but is mentioned the least: Crazy white men with guns. Republicans certainly don't want to talk about them, but unfortunately neither do too many Democrats too much of the time.
Politix Update is written by veteran journalist Shaun Mullen, for whom the 2016 presidential campaign is his 12th since 1968. Click HERE for an index of previous columns. © 2015-2016 Shaun Mullen.