Politicizing Fear Through the News Media

News coverage of fear, threat, and violence continues to influence and be manipulated by politicians attuned to network TV criteria for coverage. President Trump sent armed federal agents to several cities, to battle “terrorists” because he says some cities run by Democrats, are out of control.

“Look at what’s going on — all run by Democrats, all run by very liberal Democrats. All run, really, by radical left,” Mr. Trump said. He added: “If Biden got in, that would be true for the country. The whole country would go to hell. And we’re not going to let it go to hell.” (New York Times, accessed July 27, 2020)

He took these drastic steps in order to deride the news coverage of nationwide protests following the slaying of George Floyd by a Minneapolis police officer. Opinion poll analysis suggests that a majority of Americans were sympathetic to the Black Lives Matter protests. Heightened awareness of systematic institutional racism against minorities, especially black people, was conducive to media messages about nationwide reflection for changes in policing, and criminal justice discrimination in general. And the public was less supportive of the President’s self-promotive coronavirus briefings that were typically short on facts and long on political attacks. Indeed, several networks stopped providing live coverage of what several reporters regarded as campaign speeches.

President Trump countered with violent political theatre that would assure televised confrontations with Portland protesters to provide dramatic visuals that power the politics of fear. He dispatched a cobbled array of unidentified and improperly trained federal agents in unmarked vehicles to combat protesters in front of TV cameras, despite the demands to cease by Portland’s mayor, police commissioner, and Oregon’s governor, who expressed confidence in their local and state police forces to deal with the protests. The skillful use of news media for propaganda provided visuals of conflict that were widely presented by TV networks, which the President claimed was proof that the country is out of control and “going to hell.” Atlantic writer Anne Applebaum referred to this as “performative authoritarianism,” adding:

“This is being done partly for the photographs. . . “This is a way of messaging — that ‘we’re in charge, we’re doing something, we’re restraining these forces of violence.’ And that’s designed to appeal to a certain kind of voter who wants to see this control put onto contemporary events.”

Those opposing this distorted coverage had to rely on interviews and “talking heads,” rather than the more entertaining conflict visuals. John Sandweg, former director of Immigration and Custom’s Enforcement (ICE) observed: “I think it’s an abuse of DHS [Department of Homeland Security]. I mean really the president’s trying to use DHS as his goon squad. That’s really what’s going on here.” During a Congressional Hearing about presidential abuse of power, William Barr, the Attorney General, was chastised for coddling presidential overreach and supporting the use of Homeland Security agents against protesters at the White House and in Portland, Oregon. Congressman Nadler stated: “The president wants footage for his campaign ads, and you appear to be serving it up to him as ordered.” “You are projecting fear and violence nationwide in pursuit of obvious political objectives. Shame on you, Mr. Barr.”

Most efforts to use fear to win elections relied on rhetoric. For example, George W. Bush’s reelection campaign in 2004 used threats from terrorism. Fear was expanded with the 9/11 attacks against any group or country that was labeled “terrorist.” After he was elected in 2012, President Obama used fear to justify escalating drone attacks against suspected terrorists, but Presidential candidate Donald Trump took the politics of fear to a new level by promoting the fear of immigrants, especially Mexicans, while demonizing Muslims. Many American citizens supported this fear with ballots as well as large increases in hateful attacks on Mexican Americans, Jews, Muslims, and minority groups. Creating political theatre with clashes between unidentified federal agents and protesters is a new level of manipulation, one that is aided by TV networks’ pursuit of exciting visual coverage that can distort a more complex reality.

David L. Altheide is Regents’ Professor Emeritus at Arizona State University. His most recent book is Gonzo Governance: The Media Logic of Donald Trump (2023).