My first up-close glimpse into the enduring power of political fearmongering came through a two-way mirror in 2006.
I was watching a focus group of women in southern Ohio discussing a variety of issues, when the topic turned to terrorism. One young mother shared her fear that foreign terrorists might attack her children’s playground in their small town.
“It could happen,” she said, looking around the table. “We all know it could.”
Several of the other women nodded their heads. My notes from that evening describe one of the women shivering as she pulled her cardigan tighter and said, “Really, it feels like it’s only a matter of time before they find us.”
There was no logical reason for these women to believe that in their remote patch of Ohio, a suicide bomber from the Middle East would fly a plane into their children’s school or blow himself up on their playground. But Republican rhetoric had worked its magic, and these women lived in constant fear for their families’ lives. They also seemed likelier to vote for Republican candidates because, not remotely coincidentally, the Republican Party was vowing to protect them from this nonexistent danger. I marveled at the cynicism of it all, even as I felt utter disgust for the tactic.
Ten years later, the Republicans are still at it, bringing their doom-and-gloom show to Cleveland. In one of the more memorable moments, former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani, who recently called the Black Lives Matter movement “inherently racist,” offered an unhinged screed. Repeatedly jabbing the air with his hands as he screamed, Giuliani declared: “The vast majority of Americans today do not feel safe. They fear for their children. They fear for themselves. They fear for our police officers, who are being targeted with a target on their back.”
The Republican Party’s platform insists that parents of gay children should be allowed to force them into “conversion therapy.” Abuse, in other words.
The platform also includes a prescriptive for Donald Trump’s long-touted war on America’s immigrants: “The border wall must cover the entirety of the southern border and must be sufficient to stop both vehicular and pedestrian traffic.”
Because, you know, Mexicans.
The Republican Party of Trump wants us to fear the other.
If we’re straight, we should fear the LGBT community.
If we’re working-class, we should fear the poor.
If we’re white, we should fear African-Americans.
If we speak English, we should fear anyone who speaks with a foreign accent, which is any accent that doesn’t sound like ours.
We should fear Muslims, all of them, always.
In Trump’s world, we should fear anyone who is not like us. What a long, miserable list that would be.
In 1950, Eleanor Roosevelt addressed this fear of the other in a keynote speech to Americans for Democratic Action on Individual Liberty:
“Somehow we must keep ourselves free from fear and suspicion of each other. I sit with people who are representatives of communist countries, and to sit with them is a lesson in what fear can do. Fear can take away from you all the courage to be an individual. You become a mouthpiece for the ideas that you have been told you must give forth.”
Some might argue that Roosevelt spoke for a different time in our country and therefore for a different world.
Fortunately, there is no expiration date for wisdom. As a country, we are as much at risk today of letting fear rob us of the courage to think for ourselves as we were in 1950, when Red-baiting ruined lives.
I understand the seduction of fear. It can feel easier to believe the worst about our world — and rely on someone else to save us — than to take charge of our own lives. If we tell ourselves we are in constant danger beyond our control, we are also more willing to surrender our duties as citizens to those who claim to know better what is best for us. The Republicans count on this.
This fear takes its toll, whittling away at our self-esteem and rendering us timid in a country that needs our strength. It takes courage to accept the truth that though terrorism is surely a threat in the world, most of us Americans are free of danger every day of our lives. Living this truth unleashes our own powers as citizens, emboldening us to elect leaders who reflect the enduring optimism that continues to make this country imperfectly great.
A leader is not someone who reflects the worst within us, leaving us cowering in the shadows.
A leader reminds us who we are — and inspires us to try harder.
Connie Schultz is a Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist and professional in residence at Kent State University’s school of journalism. She is the author of two books, including “…and His Lovely Wife,” which chronicled the successful race of her husband, Sherrod Brown, for the U.S. Senate. Her email is firstname.lastname@example.org.
Photo: The delegates of the Republican National Convention pose for a group photo at the Republican National Convention in Cleveland, Ohio, U.S., July 18, 2016. REUTERS/Mike Segar