Since the beginning of time, fear has been a great motivator. Sometimes just the mere hint of a pending invasion by another country was enough to make nations surrender. Leaders know that the scarier they make something appear, they can get their citizens to respond in ways that often seem irrational.
During the Cold War, as America and the Soviet Union faced each other down in Europe and built stockpiles of nuclear weapons, all of us lived in fear of an all-out nuclear war. They called it “Mutually Assured Destruction” or MAD, and it worked incredibly well. Just search YouTube sometime for examples of films like “Duck and Cover,” which were shown to young schoolchildren convinced that their classroom desk could save them from a Soviet ICBM.
In the 80s at the height of the Reagan era, I went to high school in Omaha, Nebraska – not too far from Strategic Air Command – otherwise known as “Ground Zero, USA” because so many Soviet missiles were aimed at it. In fact, Strategic Air Command always kept a plane flying in the air over Omaha with a general who held the launch codes for an all-out attack on Russia. Needless to say, it felt quite ominous when it flew over my house.
In our personal lives, fear also governs much of what we do. We put up fences around our homes, buy extra padlocks and alarm systems, and avoid certain parts of town after dark. And in the American tradition, if owning one gun is good, owning two must be even better, right?
So it’s not surprising that some individuals running for political office through the years have used fear in order to rally people behind their cause. In 1964, President Lyndon Johnson suggested that Republican Senator Barry Goldwater was eager to use nuclear weapons against North Vietnam. In 1984, Democrat Walter Mondale ran a TV spot against President Reagan, saying that the Strategic Defense Initiative or “Star Wars” would actually lead to an escalation in the nuclear arms race.
And not to be left out, the Republicans have certainly used fear in their campaigns. In 1988, George Bush painted Democrat Michael Dukakis as “soft on crime” and aired the famous Willie Horton ad, featuring a man who committed a rape while he was furloughed from prison in Massachusetts. The implication was that if Dukakis were elected, the gates of America’s prisons would swing open on Inauguration Day, allowing hardened criminals to roam the streets.
Most recently on the Republican side, fear has been the preferred campaign weapon of choice for billionaire and professional talker Donald Trump. First, Trump warned us about rapist Mexicans coming to steal our jobs, then it was women in the news media, then it was Senator John McCain, then he mocked disabled people, then it was immigrants from everywhere. He has encouraged his fans to “rough up” Latinos and African-Americans at his rallies. And now he wants to ban all Muslims from entering the United States, even if they are citizens or returning from serving abroad in our armed forces.
Why do glorified carnival barkers like Trump use fear when running for such an important office? Because it works, pure and simple. But as long as we understand what it is, and recognize when it is being used, we don’t have to stand for it.
It’s time for all of us, Republicans, Democrats and Independents alike, to find leaders who can motivate us through optimism and positive ideas for our country, rather than seeking to divide us. There’s no reason it can’t happen if we want it to.