America’s Crisis and the Politics of Fear

Photo by Dryhead | CC BY 2.0

Photo by Dryhead | CC BY 2.0


America is in crisis fueled by the politics of fear and the expansive use of social media.  My research on propaganda and fear suggests that President Trump’s support and actions reflect the politics of fear, or decision makers’ promotion and use of audience beliefs and assumptions about danger, risk, and fear in order to achieve certain goals. The new President’s executive orders have compromised cherished American values of freedom of religion, welcoming of immigrants and political refugees, respect for international organizations (e.g., U. N.,NATO), and trade agreements. He proudly states his beliefs in matters that are factually incorrect, such as 3-5 million fraudulent votes in the 2016 election, the efficacy of torture, and denies the impact of human pollution on climate change. Nevertheless, he is actually fulfilling many of his pledges made in a vulgar and uncivil campaign.

There are three major contributors to our current politics of fear. First, while many voters claimed to be angry, anger is based on fear, and there have been several decades of fear promoted mainly by the entertainment oriented mass media and popular culture presenting non-stop fear about crime, violence, drugs, gangs, immigrants, and more recently, terrorism. And most of this has occurred during a time when the crime rate, especially violent crime, was declining. This still goes on; 25-40% of local TV news reports are about crime and violence. Second, the 9/11 attacks initiated an intense anti-terrorism propaganda campaign waged by the Bush and Obama administrations that expanded surveillance and heightened fear of terrorism linking it to crime, drug sales, and immigration. News reports and advertisements joined drug use with terrorism and helped shift drugs from criminal activity to unpatriotic action. A $10 million ad campaign that included a 2002 Super Bowl commercial stated that buying and using drugs supports terrorism, or, as President Bush put it, “If you quit drugs, you join the fight against terror in America.”

The development of the internet as well as Fox News and right wing talk-radio that were devoted to more conservative positions encouraged more fear, as well as anti-Obama screeds, including the Trump led “birther movement.” The major focus was the news media. As shown in Kathleen Hall Jamiesen and Joseph N. Capella’s book, Echo Chamber: Rush Limbaugh and the Conservative Media Establishment, the prevailing mantra was that most institutional news organs in the United States (e.g., NBC, CBS, ABC, CNN, The New York Times), are liberal, biased, anti-Christian, and anti-American. Donald Trump’s campaign stoked fear about crime, minority groups, immigrants, Muslims, and terrorists, stressing that they threatened American safety and jobs. These became the targets of anger. The fear-based anger of the electorate was channeled through populist appeal with uncivil discourse attacking all opposition.

Social media was the third factor that channeled fear into personal feelings and perceptions. According to the Pew Research Internet Project, in 2000, about 46% of Americans had access to the internet, while over 87% did so in 2014. Cell phone usage increased from 53% to 90% during the same period. And smartphone ownership– quite rare in 2000—soared to nearly 60% in 2014. Communication became more personal, instantaneous, and visual with the development of social media, especially interactive smart phones. Individuals could focus on personal networks (e.g., Facebook) and not only share personal information, but more importantly, could share their own opinions and select information sources and content that they preferred, regardless of its veracity. Treating all facts as mere opinions promoted the development of “fake news,” or what a Trump advisor referred to recently as “alternative facts,” that appealed to the frightened voters. They voted and fear won. It usually does.

More articles by:

Dr. David L. Altheide is Regents’ Professor Emeritus at Arizona State University. A recent book is Media Edge, and a forthcoming book is “The Media Syndrome.”

November 15, 2018
Kenneth Surin
Ukania: the Land Where the Queen’s Son Has His Shoelaces Ironed by His Valet
Evaggelos Vallianatos
Spraying Poisons, Chasing Ghosts
Anthony DiMaggio
In the Wake of the Blue Wave: the Midterms, Recounts, and the Future of Progressive Politics
Christopher Ketcham
Build in a Fire Plain, Get What You Deserve
Meena Miriam Yust
Today It’s Treasure Island, Tomorrow Your Neighborhood Store: Could Local Currencies Help?
Karl Grossman
Climate of Rage
Walter Clemens
How Two Demagogues Inspired Their Followers
Brandon Lee
Radical Idealism: Jesus and the Radical Tradition
Kim C. Domenico
An Anarchist Uprising Against the Liberal Ego
Elliot Sperber
Pythagoras in Queens
November 14, 2018
Charles Pierson
Unstoppable: The Keystone XL Oil Pipeline and NAFTA
Sam Bahour
Israel’s Mockery of Security: 101 Actions Israel Could Take
Cesar Chelala
How a Bad Environment Impacts Children’s Health
George Ochenski
What Tester’s Win Means
Louisa Willcox
Saving Romania’s Brown Bears, Sharing Lessons About Coxistence, Conservation
George Wuerthner
Alternatives to Wilderness?
Robert Fisk
Izzeldin Abuelaish’s Three Daughters were Killed in Gaza, But He Still Clings to Hope for the Middle East
Dennis Morgan
For What?
Dana E. Abizaid
The Government is Our Teacher
Bill Martin
The Trump Experiment: Liberals and Leftists Unhinged and Around the Bend
Rivera Sun
After the Vote: An Essay of the Man from the North
Jamie McConnell
Allowing Asbestos to Continue Killing
Thomas Knapp
Talkin’ Jim Acosta Hard Pass Blues: Is White House Press Access a Constitutional Right?
Bill Glahn
Snow Day
November 13, 2018
Patrick Cockburn
The Midterm Results are Challenging Racism in America in Unexpected Ways
Victor Grossman
Germany on a Political Seesaw
Cillian Doyle
Fictitious Assets, Hidden Losses and the Collapse of MDM Bank
Lauren Smith
Amnesia and Impunity Reign: Wall Street Celebrates Halliburton’s 100th Anniversary
Joe Emersberger
Moreno’s Neoliberal Restoration Proceeds in Ecuador
Carol Dansereau
Climate and the Infernal Blue Wave: Straight Talk About Saving Humanity
Dave Lindorff
Hey Right Wingers! Signatures Change over Time
Dan Corjescu
Poetry and Barbarism: Adorno’s Challenge
Patrick Bond
Mining Conflicts Multiply, as Critics of ‘Extractivism’ Gather in Johannesburg
Ed Meek
The Kavanaugh Hearings: Text and Subtext
Binoy Kampmark
Concepts of Nonsense: Australian Soft Power
November 12, 2018
Kerron Ó Luain
Poppy Fascism and the English Education System
Conn Hallinan
Nuclear Treaties: Unwrapping Armageddon
Robert Hunziker
Tropical Trump Declares War on Amazonia
John W. Whitehead
Badge of Shame: the Government’s War on Military Veterans
Will Griffin
Military “Service” Serves the Ruling Class
John Eskow
Harold Pinter’s America: Hard Truths and Easy Targets
Rob Okun
Activists Looking Beyond Midterm Elections
Binoy Kampmark
Mid-Term Divisions: The Trump Take
Dean Baker
Short-Term Health Insurance Plans Destroy Insurance Pools
George Wuerthner
Saving the Buffalohorn/Porcupine: the Lamar Valley of the Gallatin Range