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The promotion of fear

Posted: Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Fear again. Not hope, nor patriotism, nor progress, nor any of the nobler emotions and impulses by which human beings are driven. Nope. None of those.

Instead, fear. Again.

We've seen this movie many times. So there is little that is surprising about the Republican National Committee fundraising document recently reported by Politico, the one that offers strategies to get donors to part with their money. Donors can, it says, be persuaded to give by appealing to their egos, by offering them tchotchkes, or by promising them access. And some, the small donors, the five- and 10-dollar Janes and Joes, can be persuaded if you play to their fears.

The sole surprise is that someone actually wrote it down as a PowerPoint presentation and was absent-minded enough to leave a hard copy in a hotel.

Here, then, is the smoking gun, concrete validation for those of us who contend that since Sept. 11, 2001, fear has been the GOP's leading export, that under the aegis of George W. Bush's political guru Karl Rove, the party's message boiled down to a single command: Be very afraid.

And some of us have eagerly complied, fearing Muslim terrorists, Muslim-Americans, Latino immigrants, gay people, black people, even "salespeople" if they say "Happy holidays" instead of "Merry Christmas." Some of us see socialists around every street corner.

The use of fear as a political expedient is neither new nor limited to the GOP. In the '60s, Democrats ran an ad suggesting a nuclear holocaust would ensue if Americans elected Barry Goldwater. A GOP ad from the '80s suggested Willie Horton would kill you if you voted for Michael Dukakis.

But has the drumbeat of fear ever been as intense and unrelenting as it's been since that awful morning in September? "We're Americans," said Colin Powell just days after the terrorist attacks. "We don't walk around terrified."

Maybe you thought for a moment he was right. But of course, he wasn't. We - the nation of moon explorers and frontier tamers, of Iwo Jima and San Juan Hill, of dreamers, makers and doers - have been "very" afraid since that selfsame morning. And this has been largely due to Powell's own party, which, in almost every election of the last decade, exploited a simple truth: frightened people are not thinking people; if you can make someone scared enough, you can make them do or believe anything.

And as winning a formula as that proved to be during the long, tiring decade just ended, it also left you wondering if they could not offer - and we did not "deserve" - better. It left you nostalgic for politicians left and right who sought to move us by nobler expedients, who knew that people are at their best when they rally for, instead of always, and only, against.

Instead, we now had people who told us we actually had much more to fear than fear itself, who said morning in America had become high noon, a never-ending showdown between us and Them, a perpetual face-off against frightening, evil Others.

The document discovered by Politico proves, not that proof was needed, that this fear mongering has been neither incidental nor accidental. And that is inexcusable. That the party knows this can be seen in the stampede of pachyderms rushing to disavow the document. "I"m ashamed of that," said Utah Sen. Orrin Hatch.

We will be able to judge the sincerity of the party's mortification by whether it embraces or shuns fear mongering in the coming election. Forgive me if I don't hold my breath.

Meantime, I leave you with a quote from the eminent philosopher Lucy Van Pelt, who once told her friend, Charlie Brown, "If we can find out what you're afraid of, we can label it."

And who knew Lucy was a Republican?

• Leonard Pitts Jr., winner of the 2004 Pulitzer Prize for commentary, is a columnist for the Miami Herald. Readers may write to him via e-mail at lpittsmiamiherald.com.



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