Fear Mongering and Political Gamesmanship 11-1-2018

Both Democrats and Republicans have been guilty of fear-mongering since the dawn of the American party-system in 1800.  They make up lies that give them an advantage, or at the very least tell half-truths, exaggerations taken from a rumor in the real world and transformed into a horror story to warn the people of just what might be coming their way.


In fact, fear-mongering goes back  much further than Adams versus Jefferson.  The Salem Witch Trials provide us an example that has made such a deep impression on the operation of government that we still use the term ‘witch hunt’ derisively, trying our best to paint ourselves the victim of wrongful persecution.  And it is easy to exploit other people who sometimes feel this way.  They are told they need to take back their nation.  They are told to form a movement as the only true hope to defy the evil witch hunters.


It is the day after Halloween.  Being scared is very different than when I was a child, which really wasn’t that long ago.  If I were to look out at the real world, and all of the exclusive horrors going around in the past, say from my teenage years in the 1980s all that really resonates, and has stuck with me through time are serial dreadful diseases, celebrity serial killers, the fast-paced and sometimes superb narratives of early Stephen King (https://www.abebooks.com/servlet/SearchResults?cm_sp=SearchF-_-topnav-_-Results&kn=stephen+king&sts=t), and the wild rumors of corruption infecting every corner of the world.  This was what fear was to a young person in those days, distracted by primitive video games and our radically terrible hair styles and clothes.


Today it is very different (and the distractions are much more sophisticated and time consuming.)  Not only are we far more hypersensitive as a culture (it is those same diseased, serial killing Stephen King fans who now run the world ), imagining that everything is in some way against us, but everything moves so much faster we can hardly catch our breath before snapping to judgment.  So we allow our fears to take over.  Anything that scares us we crave.  We are an overly emotional group of selfish sociopaths, caring only about the moment before us, neglecting both history and ideas for a better future.  If there is no hope for today, why bother with thinking about anything else?


Remember when the primary hope of parents was to help make sure that their children were more successful than they were, that they would assured to lead better and happier lives?  There was that sense of sacrifice, that anything for the family.  Parents were willing to sacrifice joy so our children could be happy after we’re gone.  Parents used to work themselves to death, thinking only of family.  They hated their jobs and had grow to loath their spouses, but they stuck together out of a sense of shared responsibility.  I am a product of the last generation of children raised within this dream.


Today none of us truly respect our parents, no matter how much love we may feel.  Our parents are wrong about everything as far as we are concerned.  It’s a different world and they just cannot understand what is important today.  Now going to work is the only way to escape the humdrum, exhausting, and finally boring turmoil of home life.  Many of us choose to stay late, not really working any longer, waiting for our younger and single friends to ask us to join them at a bar after work.


Of course our own children feel the same way about us, but why wouldn’t they?  This is the only lesson that we will pass on, outside of the academic, and the futility of morality.  Our moral lessons will not take effect until they have children of their own.  Then they will be born again, evangelized into fearful parents only capable of seeing disaster for their children.  Look at the news!  See that school shooting?  There have been so many and everyone is mentally ill and I am scared of the world, just horrified of it, and what has happened to decency, to community, to the good that we always wanted to do in the world?  This is what we tell ourselves in a panic while imposing our beliefs on everything that is wrong with the world.


Our children are so terrified that they seem not to even care.  They have so many things to distract them–staring at a phone beeping and bopping to some repetitious beat.  They speak in abbreviated characters, drawing them into what passes as a cellphone social life since we smother them and no longer let them out of our sight.  They stare at YouTube videos of similarly isolated children, staying at home and playing video games.   They are all so desperate for someone to talk to that they film themselves in their solitary exercises, with commentary.  I once had to turn off a video of some kid telling us why she is about to kill herself.


Children are not interested in what is going on in the world outside their narrow frame of reference.  All they hear, reading the lunacy and smug lies that people post maliciously, a shadow voice telling people things they could never say in person.   All that sinks in, in the way that Stephen King used to, are versions of bias and prejudice, percolating the narrative of the present until what they are hearing is about six steps away from the truth.  And they don’t care.  The news is boring.  Why does anything happening elsewhere even matter?  All they want, like children of every generation, is to be entertained.  So we entertain them.


And this brings us to horror movies (notice how I did not say books, that I can no longer highlight Stephen King or Robert R. McCammon [https://www.abebooks.com/servlet/SearchResults?cm_sp=SearchF-_-topnav-_-Results&kn=robert+mccammon&sts=t], and other great horror writers of the 1980s and earlier.  People do not read today and for those who do horror stories have taken two different roads, either towards celebration of whatever is popular, or a mercilessly dark apocalypse, ready-made for the silver screen or a streaming, online anthology show).  Horror movies today are more popular than they have ever been.


Oh sure, sure, there has always been a break-out hit of ghoulish terror.  People like being comforted by events worse than they could ever possibly be.  It is life-affirming.  Seeing demons swallow another person’s soul is good for us, shaking off the threat of disappointing our boss or losing our job.  We can for a moment forget about the risk of failing out of school, or never living up to your potential, or having to settle down with someone you will never love.  In a world where zombies are roaming, such considerations seem trite.  The only thing we can do in a world like that where everyone eventually dies, is survive for as long as we can.


We do live in a world controlled by zombies, or at least we do after a fashion.  Today, through the great magic of the internet, we are told about more things to be afraid of then at any time in the history of the world.  And all this comes from our politicians, from the preachers at church, parents and the game show hosts who anchor the television news.  We find a conspiracy theory for everything that can chill your bones and make us sweat.  You can always find something that will confirm the worst of your nightmares.


There is a long history of this in every civilization that has ever existed.  We see it in the revolutions, in an after-the-fact theories that outside agents–Freemasons and Catholics, or another unknowable group might be pulling the strings of existence and driving us toward slavery.  There were witches, another great excuse for a sick child, a dying grandparent, a failing farm and a your house burning down after being struck by lightning.


People we do not like are easy to blame for anything.  Nothing has never been our fault after all.  It is something else that didn’t.  It couldn’t have been me.  It had to have been  something . . . demonic.  That must be it!  Since we can never believe we have done anything wrong there has to be a cause beyond our control; a plot, a secret gang of evildoers or those various anarchists trying to remake the world in their own image.


Early in the 20th century, another paranoid age, just after World War One and the terrifying gravity of becoming a world power turned America into a nervous land filled with self-doubt.  Politicians like Huey Long, and radio propagandists like Father Coughlin, both bigoted crackpots with a great deal of charisma, realized that the best road to success in the current climate was to play off fear and warn the nation that the worst was actually coming soon.


Since there had just been such a barbaric war, and because so many of the newly upstanding citizens had been traumatized by things they witnessed overseas, there was reason not to trust anything but their own nation, and reasons aplenty to suspect that there was something secret happening in the world that no one would ever know.  The Great Depression confirmed this, and made a whole new breed of right-wing, conspiratorial autocrats who moved in rapidly to scare people into voting for them.  They would blame anyone: blacks, Jews, women, homosexuals, Russia or Germany or Croatia or Canada or Mexico or the international cartels or those strange other religions or anything that is far enough removed from our knowledge that to question it could only bring up more fear and doubt.


The media had drastically expanded throughout the post-war technological boom, movie theaters offering news of the week between their six hour shows, and newspapers siding more aggressively with different political agendas, often owned by magnates who wanted to influence the government.  Nations became smorgasbords of opportunity for the wealthy to buy up everything, all of the companies that produced all of the goods and everything we were told we would need to survive.  There were new enemies we had never faced before, and we would listen to rival millionaires call their competitors traitors, warning us what would happen if they continued to gain power.  They would ramp up all of the tensions and anxieties buried in the collective unconscious and watch it spread out like dark mold, poisoning all of our hopes and desires


Hatred spread in ways more violent than at any time since the US Civil War, which itself was a barely healed over scab, prone to infection.  Huey Long rampaged through Louisiana and many lost and angry people suddenly saw a new light.  It was the voice of a man strong enough to not turn away from the threat, a voice from God.  This man was a father who knew how to live and would take care of all the children of America.  We needed someone to look after us.  We needed someone who would tell us the truth that we wanted to hear.


Huey Long was a colorful character who didn’t seem to care what anyone thought of him.  He was brash and frequently rude, and had a habit of mocking and laughing at other people’s expense.  He could not take a joke about himself, and was known to lash out viciously if anyone contradicted him or tried to correct one of his many mistakes, or pointed out his numerous lies.  One time, when he was governor, Long stood next to a political rival at a urinal troth in one of their private club’s bathrooms.  The senator made some cutting remark about a recent policy suggestion of Long’s, and the governor turned with a smile to answer, pissing on the other man’s leg while talking.  Of course a fight broke out, and Long left the bathroom with a black eye and a big smile on his face.  When this story started swirling around the partisans who hated Long felt themselves justified, while his followers admired the brashness of his contempt.


With this personality it is curious how generous Huey Long was.  He was very left-wing on his economic ideas.  Of course with The Great Depression destroying much of the infrastructure throughout the nation, Long looked at first to President Franklin Roosevelt and his wealth distribution plans in the New Deal.  But he soon felt that these measures did not go far enough.  He instituted a program based upon his widely promoted motto, thundered at every meeting and rally: ‘Every Man a King.’


And he meant it, or at least in his own mind.  Long started to ignore federal programs and replace them with his own.  He instituted a share the wealthy program, which was statewide thievery, stealing its way into the bank vaults of the wealthy and leaving them which much less than they thought they had.  Much of this money became Long’s personally, added as ‘campaign funds.’  He also instituted a literal tax on lying.  If someone were caught or discovered to have lied, they were ordered to pay a nominal fine or go to jail.  These cases clogged the courthouse, and since the people arguing their cases were accused of lying in the first place, the truth got lost in the shuffle of power mad political games.  Huey Long never took any of this seriously, and it is uncertain if he truly cared about anyone or anything at all.


Sinclair Lewis, the first American to win a Nobel Prize for Literature in 1930, skewered Long in his frightening novel It Can’t Happen Here (https://www.abebooks.com/servlet/SearchResults?isbn=9780451465641&n=100121503&cm_sp=mbc-_-ISBN-_-used), which tells the story of the slow sinking into fascism of the United States because people stop watching and stop caring, growing complacent and convinced that their new leader has their best interests at heart, while they watched him slowly change the laws of the nation.


As Lewis was finishing up his novel, Huey Long declared himself a candidate for President of the United States.  Long kept with his slogan “Every Man a King,” but it began to take on a darker meaning as on the campaign tour the speeches he gave became increasingly hostile and nasty.  He started campaigning not on the merits of his own programs, but of the dangers to America if they dared to vote for anyone else.  He spoke of the Great Depression getting worse.  He declared that there would come a time when unemployment would reach 100% and there would be no more food and no more water, and schools would close, and the children would grow up ignorant, and invading armies from around the world would storm in and take everything over and slaughter everyone who resisted.  He warned about rapes and the slavery of children and named his opposition candidates in his accusations, screaming that they were agents of Russia or Germany or the Pope or any other number of terrifying things.  He told the people that they needed to beware.


Long started calling FDR a thug to the poor and a weakling to the rich simaultaneously.  He started mocking Roosevelt’s disability, a new disclosure for some because Roosevelt did his best to never be seen in a wheelchair.  Long even stumbled around on stage, laughing, yelling “Does America need a gimp for President?”  The crowd, waving banners and signs, never trusting the federal government, would laugh and laugh.  They could see a hero in Huey Long.  Some even saw the messiah.


What they eventually saw was a martyr.  By this time Huey Long had become a Senator, pounding his fists in the chambers and making demands of the federal government to the horror of most, but for the loving devotion of his Louisiana base.  Although no longer governor, Long maintained control over the state, the new governor helpless if he wanted to keep his job.  Every politician in the state was terrified to say anything.  Huey Long could destroy them with the wave of his hand.


In 1935, the year It Can’t Happen Here was published, Long started a vicious campaign to remove his old political opponent, Judge Benjamin Henry Pavy, from office.  With all of his influence, with strong arm tactics, fear-mongering and lies, Pavy was removed with very little resistance and Long shot up in the national polls, giving his enemies pause.  What will happen if this lunatic actually becomes president?


Judge Pavy’s son-in-law, Dr. Carl Weiss of Baton Rouge, seemed to take Pavy’s hateful dinner talk to heart.  He went out to a rally of Long for President, and then walked up to the man after his speech and shot him point blank in the stomach and the in his sternum, very close to his lungs.  Long, who was by then always surrounded by paroled inmates he had hired to be his body guards, watched them all take out their own guns and start shooting Weiss.  Several of them stopped to reload then went back to shooting the bloody corpse on the ground.  Weiss was shot more than sixty times, mangled apart and splattered into goo all over their shoes.


Long, it is rumored, lay there in contemplation.  The doctors who came were not fans of his.  They saw this as an opportunity to get rid of a dangerous man without having to challenge his popularity.  They worked on him unenthusiastically until Huey Long developed an infection in the wound on his side.  When he died it is claimed that his last words were a pained bark of “I have so much to do!”


Huey Long (https://www.abebooks.com/servlet/SearchResults?isbn=9780394747903&n=100121503&cm_sp=mbc-_-ISBN-_-used) is just one of the more colorful examples of a trend that has been growing not just in American politics, but everywhere in the world, whether it be a Prime Minister, the head general of a military dictatorship, corporate magnates, influential Senators, Governors, Mayors, the superintendent of school districts, city counselors, principals, teachers, parents and children.  There is a yearning to either rule or be ruled, to make every man a slave or a king.


We see this trend developing with Joseph McCarthy, ratcheting up the fear of Communism, threatening anyone who crossed him with bad press (https://www.abebooks.com/servlet/SearchResults?isbn=9780029237601&n=100121503&cm_sp=mbc-_-ISBN-_-used), or Chicago mayor Richard Daley ( https://www.abebooks.com/servlet/BookDetailsPL?bi=30031415023&searchurl=kn%3Drichard%2Bdaley%26sortby%3D17&cm_sp=snippet-_-srp1-_-title5), who instructed police and partisan civilians to brutalize the hippies protesting outside the 1968 Democratic convention in the days after Bobby Kennedy and Martin Luther King were murdered.


According to the historian Garry Willis in A Necessary Evil: A History of American Distrust of the Government (https://www.abebooks.com/servlet/SearchResults?isbn=9780965461726&n=100121503&cm_sp=mbc-_-ISBN-_-used): “There is ample reason to fear and distrust government . . . paranoia can turn these truths that government is in itself . . . evil, inevitable in its denial of freedom, to be attacked on all counts and at all times.”  And these are the deeply embedded fears that populists evoke in order to terrify their followers.  “Everyone is out to get you!” they proclaim.  “And only I will save you from this threat.”  We are told not to trust anyone, and since most people are already halfway there, having been lied to all of their lives, it is an easy jump into the blurry world of fear and hate-mongering.  The followers start espousing these, and other views, a wildfire spreading of terrorized speech.  They become terrorists, everyone.  It catches on, swings both left and right, and creates extremists and radicals willing to do anything in order to survive in a world they now believe is post-apocalyptic.


Fear is one of the most effective political tools.  Alongside greed, it can change a person’s mind from comfortable generosity into a stark phantom from a separate reality, desperately clutching their coins to their chest.  It is easy for our leaders to scare us, to boast that the enemies are already at the gate.  They say that they will stop them, and use whichever active threat they have initiated, threatening again citizens’ precious wallets and their idolized children.  They talk about how there is a definite danger, and how extreme measures must be taken to correct things, no matter the cost.


Demagogues often harp on the putrid rot seeping within, blaming their rivals, the political parties, the foreign nations, and even the press.  They declare people or places or things “enemies of the people” without explaining what they mean.  The frail and thin-skinned egos of the dictator cannot tolerate opposition, and they have no problem lying to invent a new enemy to terrorize their people.  “Distrust all aliens,” they say, making no distinction between those from outer space and migrants from a refuge caravan.  It is important to keep the nation on the edge, to make constant and violently aimless threats against everything in the world that does not follow the demigod’s agenda and that might make them look like failures.  This has happened in history going all the way back to the dawn of time, when tribes banded together and plotted war against their rivals.


Fear has always worked in getting people to do something, or believe in something they never wanted to.  Even faux conviction can influence a crowd, if it comes from the right person and is delivered with the proper urgency.  Fear is a powerful emotion, swaying people to desperate acts they once upon a time thought themselves incapable of committing.   But extreme action in a state of constant terror will give the public a false hope, their first hope in years, and make them feel, at least for a short while, back in control of their lives.  They do not consider what they have done an atrocity, but an urgent necessity in an effort to try and save the world.


It is very easy to stoke fear in this modern internet age, where conversations so often end in name-calling; where most of the fights we have are over belief.  And there are some name-callers with supreme access to the public who will charm and con their ways into your darkest heart and bend you to their will, like some sort of faceless Satan.  They will place you in their army and send you on a crusade.  This becomes the center of your world, this effort–this need–to outrun your lingering fear.

1 thought on “Fear Mongering and Political Gamesmanship 11-1-2018”

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.