Fear is a core psychological and biological emotion that often overrules logic. That’s according to Arash Javanbakht, a neuroscientist who specializes in trauma. Fear is one of our most intimate feelings, which is why it can be so easily abused in tribal politics. The Republican Party learned this decades ago, and has mastered that abuse.
The Republican Party’s entire pitch for holding office rests on fear: fear of immigrants, fear of socialism, fear of protesters. Yet in reality, all of those fears stem from something more fundamental: fear of progress, fear of change, and fear of sharing privilege. Trump’s racist “law and order” trope, which is the exact same one Richard Nixon used 50 years ago, isn’t about law and order, but rather trying to maintain the status quo by curbing dissent. In fact, the 2020 Republican campaign comes down to “scary dark-skinned people coming for the suburbs … and there being no armed police left to protect the (white) people living there.
Fox News has been running headlines nonstop featuring buildings on fire and images of marauding mobs. When Fox couldn’t find any, they weren’t above using digitally manipulated images. I thought they would at least take a break with the passing of Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, a civil rights icon. Nope. They actually tried to tie RBG to their violence campaign. Their headline the day after her death was “SCOTUS battle prompts threats, calls for arson: ‘Burn Congress down’.”
Yes, fear-mongering is disgusting, but very effective—once you understand the psychology behind it.
At one time, I used to have a very abnormal fear of spiders, which I can trace back to when I was only 5 years old. For some reason, I was allowed to watch a godawful 1970s film called Kingdom of the Spiders, which showed violent tarantulas taking over a rural western town. The tarantulas organized, attacked, and poisoned people, and somehow broke through windows. This had a psychological impact on me that carried through into my young adulthood.
My idiot college roommates thought it would be hilarious to buy me a tarantula. I was mortified, but they couldn’t take it back, and my feelings of responsibility compelled me to at least make an effort. Long story short, I grew less and less afraid over time. Tarantulas are extremely fragile, and this one was far more terrified of me than I was of him. They don’t want to bite people—you aren’t food to them. Eventually, my fear was replaced with my determination to get him not to be afraid of me. One day, he trusted me enough to let me pick him up. Malachi had a playful personality, and I took care of him for years until he passed.
I recently came upon the film again on YouTube. The film is still disturbing to me (and not just for William Shatner’s performance), but now I’m disturbed for a completely different reason. The live tarantulas were senselessly killed for the film in brutal ways for no reason whatsoever—they were clearly trying to just get away from the screaming actors. I was angry, but not just about the deaths; I was angry that I was manipulated into fearing something for years that I never had justification to fear. Worst of all, my intense, irrational hatred for these beautiful creatures was entirely manufactured.
It’s one thing to exploit unfounded fear for a crappy horror film, but it’s downright remarkably evil to do this to other cultures and communities in service of a power-driven political agenda. At least my fear involved another species—I now realize when I talk to certain conservatives, they speak with the same abject terror about “others” that I used when speaking about hairy, friendly arachnids. A quick look into their online habits explains why, and you don’t have to look very hard.
There is no shortage of ad campaigns that mix violent imagery with people of color. This particular video below was used in the last election cycle, and tweeted by Trump; it shows a violent man of Mexican heritage on trial for murder. The video attempts to link him to every single Central American refugee fleeing violence in their home country to seek asylum in the U.S. For the GOP, this kind of ad works on two fronts: racism and fear.
In 2014, the Republican machine focused on the Ebola virus, which led to fear and hatred of Africans, who were both blamed and viciously attacked. This isn’t much different than what Asian Americans have been subjected to the past few months with COVID-19, thanks to Trump. Six years ago, the right-wing media hyped up the Ebola virus so much that it dominated all the news channels. An analysis done by Media Matters found that “evening broadcast and cable news programs aired close to 1,000 segments on Ebola in the four weeks leading up to the elections.” Immediately following the election, however, it went down to 50 segments, then to zero.
Just two years ago, the Republicans created a new source of terror: the infamous “migrant caravan.” Supposedly, 10,000 migrants were coming to invade our southern border. Trump called a national emergency and sent over 1,000 active-duty military troops to Texas. An entire army was needed to stop them from entering, apparently. He declared, with no evidence, that “criminals and unknown Middle Easterners” were mixed in with the would-be asylum-seekers. The GOP superimposed videos of that same Mexican murderer—as well Salvadoran gang members—onto footage of migrants walking.
Whatever happened to that caravan? Nothing. They came, applied for asylum, and either stayed in Mexico or left. Again, forgotten.
Here in Florida, our state house speaker, Richard Corcoran, ran this gem of an ad, which depicted a Latino immigrant in a hoodie gunning down a red-haired, fair-skinned white woman in a suburb. Corcoran had the temerity to claim that this was based on a real case, but the problem is the case he referred to was an accidental shooting—and the immigrant was acquitted. It also doesn’t align with actual statistics, which find crime rates to be much lower among first-generation immigrants than the rest of the American population.
And this election cycle? The Republicans have manufactured something that’s even a stretch for them: cities under siege by Black Lives Matter protesters and antifa. Elderly activists marching alongside civil rights protesters are suddenly an all-powerful invasion force of anarchy that requires a military intervention.
In the wake of the murder of George Floyd, right-wing media falsely stated that armed members of antifa seized cities, and Trump referred to them as “terrorists.” In reality, a group of largely peaceful Black Lives Matter protesters occupied a few city blocks in Seattle, not unlike the Occupy Wall Street protesters earlier this decade. To make it more ominous, the Republican National Committee was caught using foreign stock footage of riots taken from other countries. The narrative? Entire cities are on fire, scary dark-skinned people had taken over said cities, they’d also gotten rid of the police somehow, and now they were coming for the suburbs. It makes the racist Willie Horton ad of 1988 seem almost quaint by comparison.
The manipulation, fearmongering, and blatant racism is mind-blowing, yet this type of campaign works on people the GOP have spent years conditioning. Notice the campaign focuses entirely on property damage, but says nothing about the actual murders: not the killing of unarmed Black Americans by police officers, nor the killing of unarmed protesters by armed Trump supporters. “Very fine people on both sides,” indeed. To demonstrate the contrast on the same subject, consider this Biden ad, which effectively counters this narrative.
The GOP’s mostly white base can be found in rural areas that are not very diverse, so they believe the violent stereotypes the national party is pushing upon them. As Dr. Javanbakht said, fear is uninformed and illogical. The less you know about or interact with another group of people, the easier it is to dehumanize them; it’s easier to believe that migrants are an “infestation,” and are biologically wired to mule drugs and breed crime. With that limited context, hearing about brown-skinned children in cages or Central American women being forced to undergo hysterectomies against their will just doesn’t faze the Republican base.
It also explains the cognitive disconnect: I know of at least one Trump supporter who expressed fear of being murdered by an “illegal immigrant” because (Democrats) like me make it so easy for them to come here, or something like that. This lady had just lost her mother to COVID-19 because they were convinced that the threat was being blown out of proportion. She would always rant about imaginary migrants trying to kill her family members, when in fact it was Trump who actually did it. Guess which threat she still fears?
Worst of all, fear can turn people violent. Demagogues like Trump turn the fear into hatred towards the “others,” who are clearly responsible for every ill in their lives. This goes well beyond shameful racist rhetoric to gain votes: It’s become a justification to cause harm. For people caught in this fear bubble, suppression of entire communities in all forms isn’t anti-American to them—it’s instead a matter of survival. Eradication becomes the goal. Killing is justified. Killing is now even celebrated.
This tribal regression of the right wing was spawned by politicians who were primarily just seeking to convert fear into votes. Yet this approach has led the right down a path where civilized discourse is no longer an option. It was a bad bargain in the end: Republicans are losing members every day, as the younger, more tolerant generation is horrified at their open racism, even as those remaining in the party are getting more frightened and radicalized.
There is now actually a freaking religious cult within the GOP that party leadership is slowly starting to embrace. They really don’t have much choice, as Republicans everywhere continue to lose power and relevancy. Without any kind of viable governing vision, the GOP’s only plan has been to stoke racial tensions and make it harder for people they don’t like to vote. This is not a long-term strategy, and Republican leaders are growing desperate. Unfortunately, the worst is yet to come.
Although fear can be a very useful emotion in real cases where survival is at stake, in politics, it’s just a tool for control that leads to hatred, desperation, and despair. If you ever find yourself belonging to a group or ideology that has to rely on feeding you a constant stream of frightening images and sensational headlines, please question why that is.
Yes, what’s happening to the Republican Party right now is quite scary to watch, but as I’ve learned thanks to Malachi, it’s never a good idea to give in to unexamined fear.