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“When Is It Okay To Exploit Fear?”: Deliberately Increasing People’s Sense Of Insecurity To Make Them Vote For You

When I saw that President Obama had remote-psychoanalyzed Trump voters, I knew that the right would go crazy and say that it reminded them of his infamous bitter-clinger comments from 2008. At this point, it’s Pavlovian. What I saw from right-wing blogger Tom Maguire was a little unexpected, however.

He took a screenshot of the New York Times headline, which read: Obama Accuses Trump of Exploiting Working-Class Fears. And then he posed a rhetorical question for all of us:

The headline is baffling – exploiting fears is now a political no-no? – and shows a failure of nerve somewhere in the editorial process.

For a moment it was me who was baffled. It took a second to process what exactly Maguire was getting at. To me, “exploiting fears” is a moral failing. Full stop.

For Maguire, exploiting fears is a given in the political process and unworthy of notice.

At first, I was offended. Then I realized that we’re both probably correct in our own way, but with limitations.

I’m sure if I challenged him, Maguire would recite countless examples of Democratic politicians exploiting the fears of the electorate. These would be fears about the Supreme Court overturning Roe v. Wade, or fears about NSA surveillance, or fears about grandma losing her Medicare or Social Security. No doubt, talking about the bad things that may result if the other party wins is a core element of all political campaigning, and it always has been.

I think this is different in kind, though, than using fear itself as a political tool. It’s hard to draw a hard line, and it’s partly about the merit of the threat you’re talking about. Jim Geraghty tried to get at the distinction in a piece he just wrote at the National Review that complains about Democratic accusations of fear-mongering.

…all of other threats that we’re told are more likely to kill us than a terrorist — other drivers, the ladder at home, the stove, the local swimming pool – aren’t deliberately trying to kill us.

…You may fall off your ladder while putting up the Christmas lights on the roof, but it’s not like there’s a sinister group, al-Laddera, plotting to wobble when you’re leaning over to put that last string up above the gutter. There’s not much the government can do to stop you from falling off a ladder, other than PSAs saying “be careful!” But there’s an awful lot the government can do to target terrorists and mitigate the threat they present.

In other words, for Geraghty, it’s legitimate to continually alarm the electorate about a very low-probability threat to their personal safety because there is at least something the government can do to minimize that threat.

For me, though, the responsible thing to do as a political leader is to calm people’s fears both so that they won’t be needlessly or disproportionately afraid and so that they don’t freak out and make unreasonable demands on their political leaders.

What’s really bad, in my opinion, is to deliberately increase people’s sense of insecurity not primarily so that they will demand policies to keep them safe but to make them more inclined to vote for you and your political party. Making people afraid for political gain is cynical and almost cruel.

So, naturally, I see it as dubious when someone like Donald Trump ramps up people’s anxieties and provides nothing solid as actual policy prescriptions. To me, that’s totally different than arguing that electing Hillary Clinton will result in a Supreme Court less inclined to overturn Roe v. Wade or energy policies less favorable to coal. You can scare and motivate people to vote based on accurate information. That’s not a political no-no, and it never has been.

But “exploiting” fears is a little different, especially when part of your pitch is to create fear when none ought to exist (“The president is a secret Muslim”) or to ramp fear up beyond any rational level, which is what the terrorism vs. wobbly ladder comparison is meant to illuminate.


By: Martin Longman, Political Animal Blog, The Washington Monthly, December 22, 2015

December 23, 2015 Posted by | Donald Trump, Fearmongering, Politicians, Terrorism | , , , , , , | 3 Comments

“Like A Rooster Taking Credit For The Sunrise”: Evidence Of Rand Paul Losing Another Fundraising Stream

The relevant details are still elusive, but President Obama is reportedly prepared to propose sweeping changes to U.S. surveillance policy, including an end to the National Security Agency’s bulk data collection. The reforms will be dependent on congressional approval, but for privacy advocates and civil libertarians, the White House’s apparent intentions are most welcome.

But this is still silly.

Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) said he takes some credit for President Obama’s decision to end the National Security Agency’s metadata collection program.

In an interview after Obama announced the change on Tuesday, Paul was asked on “Fox and Friends” if it would make him happy for phone companies, not the government, to retain the metadata.

“Well, you know, I don’t want to take all the credit for ending this, but I think our lawsuit had something to do with bringing the president to the table,” Paul said.

Look, if Edward Snowden and his defenders want to take some credit for NSA reforms, they’re on solid ground. Putting aside the debate over the legality and propriety of his leaks, Snowden’s revelations obviously were dramatically consequential, caused an international controversy, and were directly responsible for the debate that led to the administration’s review.

If Glenn Greenwald, Barton Gellman, and other journalists responsible for reporting on NSA surveillance want to claim some credit, too, they also have a credible case to make, for many of the same reasons.

But for Rand Paul to toot his horn on Fox is just foolish.

For one thing, the senator’s timeline is badly flawed. President Obama delivered a speech in January ordering an internal review of possible changes to U.S. surveillance policy. When did Paul file his lawsuit? Nearly a month later.

In other words, according to Rand Paul, the president didn’t launch this process in response to a global firestorm, but rather, in anticipation of a stunt lawsuit from a senator that hadn’t even been filed yet.

For another, Paul’s lawsuit wasn’t exactly a credible effort. It was a redundant case, largely mirroring a case that had already been filed by someone else, and it was organized through the senator’s political campaign, rather than his official Senate office. (Supporters were supposed to endorse Paul’s lawsuit against “Big Brother” by giving the senator their name, address, zip code, and if they didn’t mind, credit card number.)

It’s very hard to believe the White House was scrambling to change their national-security policies in response to a Rand Paul p.r. stunt.

It makes sense that the senator is trying to turn this into a positive for him, but as a practical matter, if the reports are accurate and the administration is prepared to scrap the controversial NSA program, it’s not evidence of Paul winning; it’s evidence of Paul losing a fundraising stream.


By: Steve Benen, The Maddow Blog, March 26, 2014

March 26, 2014 Posted by | National Security Agency, Rand Paul | , , , , | Leave a comment


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