President Donald Trump is being reviled for wildly exaggerating the peril of Muslim refugees. Some commentators fret that his rhetoric signals a new fascist era descending on America. A recent Washington Post news analysis derided Trump’s fearmongering: “Playing upon the nation’s anxieties about what might happen also stands as a stark contrast to how presidents have lifted the country out of actual crisis in the past.” But presidential fearmongering has a long and sordid history.
We cannot understand the perils that Trump poses without recognizing how prior presidents used similar ploys. Unfortunately, much of the media is dismally failing at this task. Many Washington reporters and pundits write as if they were not born until January 20, 2017. For instance, that Washington Post article hailed George W. Bush as one of the presidents “who seemed to grow into the job as they summoned the nation to defy what it feared rather than succumb to it.”
But Bush relied on shameless fearmongering to pull the nation into a war against Iraq that continues to destabilize much of the Middle East. Administration officials knowingly exaggerated the perils from Iraqi Weapons of Mass Destruction, climaxing with Vice President Dick Cheney’s ludicrous assertion that Saddam Hussein possessed reconstituted nuclear weapons.
There are ample reasons to be wary of Trump nominees such as Jeff Sessions, with his unbridled lust for asset forfeiture and the drug war. But nothing that Trump’s team has yet said or suggested compares to Attorney General John Ashcroft’s declaration to a Senate committee in December 2001: “To those who scare peace-loving people with phantoms of lost liberty… your tactics only aid terrorists for they erode our national unity and… give ammunition to America’s enemies.” The newly-created Department of Homeland Security subsequently urged local police departments to view critics of the war on terrorism as potential terrorists, urging them to keep an eye on anyone who “expressed dislike of attitudes and decisions of the U.S. government.” The Bush administration often showed contempt for protestors and critics alike while unleashing the National Security Agency to illicitly destroy Americans’ privacy.
Many folks now wringing their hands over Trump’s rhetoric have forgotten the low-ball 2004 presidential race. A Bush re-reelection television ad showed a pack of wolves coming to attack home viewers as an announcer warns that “weakness attracts those who are waiting to do America harm.” Moises Naim, editor of Foreign Policy, observed that the Bush 2004 campaign was “using the fear factor almost exclusively… It’s nothing but a reflection that it works.”
But the 2004 campaign was downright mellow compared to the 1964 Lyndon Johnson presidential campaign TV ad which showed a young girl “picking the petals off a daisy before the screen was overwhelmed by a nuclear explosion and then a mushroom cloud and Mr. Johnson declared, ‘These are the stakes.’” The ad implied that a victory by Republican nominee Barry Goldwater would annihilate humanity. LBJ was running as the Peace Candidate – which was ironic, considering how he subsequently plunged the nation far more deeply into the Vietnam War.
That Post article praised President Barack Obama for avoiding some of the inflammatory phrases used by Trump. But Obama often greatly exaggerated threats to push his pet causes. In a speech last year at the funeral of slain Dallas police officers, he asserted, “We flood communities with so many guns that it is easier for a teenager to buy a Glock than get his hands on a computer or even a book.” But Amazon doesn’t deliver Glocks to your doorstep. Washington Post fact checkers noted that “there’s no minimum age or a background check required to get a book or use the computer for free at a public library” and awarded the president Three Pinocchios.
Obama also frequently invoked the threat from terrorism, using it to create a new prerogative for presidents to serve as judge, jury, and executioner for suspected bad guys. More than a thousand people were slain by Obama-authorized drone attacks, including some Americans and far too many innocent civilians. By the end of his presidency, the Nobel Peace Prize winner was bombing seven foreign nations. The Obama administration exploited the fear from one blundering would-be underwear bomber to entitle Transportation Security Administration agents to pointlessly grope millions of travelers. More recently, the Obama team warned of horrific consequences unless the feds were permitted to hack into everyone’s iPhone.
Rather than an odious novelty, fearmongering has practically been the job description for presidents. H. L. Mencken observed a century ago: “The whole aim of practical politics is to keep the populace alarmed and hence, clamorous to be led to safety—by menacing it with an endless series of hobgoblins, all of them imaginary.” Mencken’s quip was inspired by President Woodrow Wilson, whose administration whipped up public fury during World War One against beer, sauerkraut, and teaching German in schools.
Trump’s opponents should beware of presuming that prior presidents as a mythical combination of George Washington and Jesus. But presidents are most dangerous when they seek to frighten us into submission. Citizens cannot cower on presidential cue without forfeiting any possibility of keeping rulers on a leash. History proves that bogus fears can produce real servitude.
An earlier version of this column ran in USA Today.