Monday, September 8, 2008

Rhetoric: "Exploiting Fear, Fear-Mongering, and Scare Tactics"

Politicians and pundits routinely accuse their opponents of "fear-mongering". The accusation is worded in several different ways. The opponent, it is alleged, is:
  • "fear-mongering" or "scare-mongering"
  • "using scare tactics"
  • "appealing to fear"
  • "trying to scare us into doing X"
  • "trying to scare voters into voting for X"
  • "trying to make you afraid"
  • "exploiting our fears"
What are we to make of these sorts of accusations?

Reference to Fear is Unavoidable

The first thing we should note is that there is nothing illegitimate about raising fears in moral or political debate. In fact, it is unavoidable.

If you and I are discussing some moral or political issue and trying to decide what the best course of action is, then we're obviously going to wind up considering the pros and cons of doing different things. In particular, we're going to try to figure out what course of action will do the least harm, will bring about the least injustice, etc., because those are outcomes that we fear.

(In fact, people who make the "fear-mongering" accusation often say something that amounts to this: "My opponent is fear-mongering, and his fear-mongering is something you should fear"!)

It is inevitable that fear -- indirectly, at least -- is going to be a component of our discussion.

Not All Fears are Well-Founded

This, however, doesn't mean that any appeal to fear is legitimate. Certainly, in order to discuss a moral or political controversy, we're going to have to consider negative outcomes -- death, suffering, injustice, etc. -- outcomes which we fear and seek to avoid. But that doesn't mean that every negative outcome that is brought up is realistic, or even actually bad.

To make a legitimate appeal to fear -- that is, to fairly and justifiably say that we should avoid a certain course of action because it would have bad results -- you have to show that:
  1. There is good reason to believe that the action will have a certain result.
  2. That result is a bad one.
So, if I say, "Changing the rules on double-parking is going to lead to mass starvation," I'm making an illegitimate appeal to fear. Even though mass starvation is a bad thing and we should certainly fear it, there's no good reason to think that a change in rules on double-parking is going to make it more likely.

Similarly, if I say, "Reducing the sales tax on clothing is going to lead to an increase in clothing purchases," I'm also making an illegitimate appeal to fear. This time, however, the problem is not that there's a disconnect between the action and the result. The problem is that the result isn't obviously bad or anything that we need to fear.

Now, because we have disagreements about moral priorities and empirical predictions, we often come to disagreements about what is or isn't a legitimate fear. As such, there will be instances where some will think that a politician or pundit is making a legitimate appeal to fear by raising the possibility of some bad outcome, while others will say he or she is exaggerating the likelihood or the badness of that outcome.

Best Response

So, what should we do when someone makes the accusation that their opponent is "fear-mongering," "using scare tactics," or "exploiting our fears"?

Primarily, the burden is on the person making the "fear-mongering" allegation. It's their job to prove that their opponent is raising the prospect of an outcome that is either unlikely or not bad.

But we can also do the work for ourselves.

We should look at whether the opponent in question is trying to get us to be afraid of something that is legitimately fearful. That is, is the opponent trying to get us to be afraid of something that isn't going to happen, or that is very unlikely to happen, or that there is no good reason to fear? If so, they are raising fears illegitimately.

If not, however, then they are simply raising a legitimate issue, and it is wrong to brand them as "fear-mongering".

"That’s the choice you face this November -- between dividing ourselves up, looking for scapegoats, ignoring the evidence -- or realizing that we are all stronger together. If we turn against each other -- whether it's divisions of race or religion -- we're not going to build on the progress we started. If we get cynical and just vote our fears -- or we don’t vote at all -- we won’t build on the progress we’ve started. America has been a story of progress, but has not gone in a straight line. There have been times where we've gone forward, there have been times where we've gone backwards. And what’s made the difference each and every time is citizens voting, and caring, and committing to our better selves. Coming together around our common values, and our faith in hard work and our faith in each other, and the belief in opportunity for everybody, and assuming the best in each other, and not the worst."
-- President Barack Obama, June 25, 2016.

Comment: Obama is calling for setting a higher standard of debate, but at the same time he's demonizing his opponents as not caring about evidence. As a result, his remarks imply that it's mostly his opponents who resort to unfair rhetoric. Also, Obama is using "uniting, not dividing" rhetoric – though, how do you unify with people you accuse of ignoring evidence? – as well as "appealing to fear" rhetoric.

"For a while now, the main contribution of some of my friends on the other side of the aisle – have made in the fight against ISIL, is to criticize this administration and me for not using the phrase “radical Islam”. That’s the key, they tell us. We can’t beat ISIL unless we call them “radical Islamists”. What exactly would using this label accomplish? What exactly would it change? Would it make ISIL less committed to trying to kill Americans? Would it bring in more allies? Is there a military strategy that is served by this? The answer is, “none of the above”. Calling a threat by a different name does not make it go away. This is a political distraction. Since before I was President, I’ve been clear about how extremist groups have perverted Islam to justify terrorism. As President I have repeatedly called on our Muslim friends and allies at home and around the world to work with us to reject this twisted interpretation of one of the world’s great religions. There’s not been a moment in my seven-and-a-half years as President where we have not been able to pursue a strategy because we didn’t use the label “radical Islam”. Not once has an advisor of mine said, “Man, if we really used that phrase, we’re going to turn this whole thing around.” Not once. … So there’s no magic to the phrase “radical Islam”. It’s a political talking point. It’s not a strategy. And the reason I am careful about how I describe this threat has nothing to do with political correctness, and everything to do with actually defeating extremism. Groups like ISIL and Al-Qaeda want to make this war a war between Islam and America, or between Islam and the West. They want to claim that they are the true leaders of over a billion Muslims around the world who reject their crazy notions. They want us to validate them, by implying that they speak for those billion-plus people, that they speak for Islam. That’s their propaganda, that’s how they recruit? And if we fall into the trap of painting all Muslims with a broad brush and imply that we are at war with an entire religion, then we are doing the terrorists work for them. Up until this point this argument about labels has mostly just been partisan rhetoric. Sadly, we’ve all become accustomed to that kind of partisanship even when it involves the fight against these extremist groups. And that kind of yapping has not prevented folks across government from doing their jobs, from sacrifice and working really hard to protect the American people. But we are now seeing how dangerous this kind of mindset and this kind of thinking can be. We’re starting to see where this kind of rhetoric and loose talk and sloppiness about who exactly we’re fighting, where this can lead us. We now have proposals from the presumptive Republican nominee for President of the United States to bar all Muslims from emigrating to America. You hear language that singles out immigrants and suggests entire religious communities are complicit in violence. Where does this stop? … Do Republican officials actually agree with this? Because that’s not the America we want. … We’ve gone through moments in our history before when we acted out of fear and we came to regret it. We’ve seen our government mistreat our fellow citizens, and it has been a shameful part of our history."
-- President Barack Obama, June 14, 2016, referring to (among other people) Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump.

Comment: There is a lot going on here, including "distractions", "talking points", "appealing to fear" and "Americans want" rhetoric. But the bigger issue is distortion. It's not clear who has ever said that using the term "radical Islam" is a necessary or a sufficient condition for defeating ISIS (i.e., that we can't defeat ISIS without using that term, or that using the term is all we need – a "silver bullet" – to defeat ISIS). Maybe some people have taken one or both of these positions – though, has it been their "main" contribution to the issue? – but they certainly haven't been adopted by Republicans in general. Obama needs to name who has advocated these positions, and when and where did so; otherwise it seems like he's knocking over a straw man (a position no one holds). More, if there is no "magic" in using the term "radical Islam", then why avoid it? Obama says that we shouldn't brand all Muslims as terrorists or radicals – and he's correct – but it's not at all clear that using the term does that. Lots of people refer to "Islamic terrorism" while at the same time acknowledging that not all terrorism is done by Muslims and that the vast majority of Muslims aren't terrorists. As I've argued before, you can call someone a "white supremacist" without saying all whites are supremacists, just like you can say Josef Stalin was an "violent socialist" without saying all socialists are violent. Why doesn't the same apply to "radical Islam"? If we support all of Obama's policies and actions on terrorism, but also use the term "Islamic terrorism", are we suddenly validating terrorists and helping them recruit members? Does the term have that much "magic"?

The plan — to encourage fear by suggesting that Washington is actively promoting policies that endanger its citizens — plays directly to the base that rewarded him with the GOP nomination.
-- Pundit Eli Stokols, June 14, 2016, in an article entitled "Trump's Politics of Fear", referring to the campaign of Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump.

Comment: It's true that Trump is appealing to fear, but this is true of many political campaigns. Trump's opponents, for instance, are "encouraging" fear by claiming that Trump will support policies that are harmful. There's nothing wrong with appealing to fear, in principle; the issue is to prove which fears are well-founded, and which fears are worse than others.

"But unfortunately, graduates, despite the lessons of our history and the truth of your experience here at City College, some folks out there today seem to have a very different perspective. They seem to view our diversity as a threat to be contained rather than as a resource to be tapped. They tell us to be afraid of those who are different, to be suspicious of those with whom we disagree. They act as if name-calling is an acceptable substitute for thoughtful debate, as if anger and intolerance should be our default state rather than the optimism and openness that have always been the engine of our progress."
-- First Lady Michelle Obama, June 3, 2016, speaking at City College of New York Commencement.

Comment: Obama is accusing some people – she does not name who – of being opposed to diversity, of inciting fear and suspicion, and resorting to name-calling. It’s impossible to know if these accusations are true until she identifies who they are about (Republicans are the likely target). This seems like the “only my opponent” caricature, as Obama’s fellow Democrats often behave in many of the same ways.

"And instead of telling you what they’re for, they’ve defined their economic agenda by what they’re against -- and that's mainly being against me. And their basic message is anti-government, anti-immigrant, anti-trade, and, let’s face it, it's anti-change. … And the one thing I can promise you is if we turn against each other based on divisions of race or religion, if we fall for a bunch of okie-doke just because it sounds funny or the tweets are provocative, then we’re not going to build on the progress that we’ve started. If we get cynical and just vote our fears, or if we don’t vote at all, we won’t build on the progress that we started."
-- President Barack Obama, June 1, 2016, referring to his conservative and Republican critics, and Republican presidential contender Donald Trump in particular.

Comment: Obama is demonizing his opponents on several fronts. First, Republicans and conservatives certainly want smaller government, but it’s an exaggeration to say they are “anti-government” if that means they want no government at all. Second, while many of Obama’s opponents want illegal immigrants deported, that is not the same as being opposed to all immigrants and immigration whatsoever (i.e., being “anti-immigrant”). Third, some Republicans (though by no means all of them) have called for trade tariffs, but not for a suspension of trade. So how is the Republican position “anti-trade”? Fourth, it’s simply hyperbole to say Republicans are “anti-change.” They propose all sorts of change; just change that Obama tends to disagree with. Lastly, Obama seems to be saying Republicans are appealing to fear. But all candidates do this, Obama included. They point out bad things on the horizon – things that we fear – and pledge to lead us away from them. There’s nothing wrong with appealing to fear, per se; the point is, which fears are rational, and what are the best policies do deal with them?

"There are a lot of Republicans, including myself, who find him morally repulsive. And he’s just not — there are some things more important things than winning an election. And supporting a guy who tears at the social fabric, who insults the office of the presidency by being completely unprepared for it, who plays on bigotry and fear, who is the sort of demagogue our founders feared would upset the American experiment in self-government, well, that kind of guy, you just can’t support, even if it means a defeat."
-- Pundit David Brooks, March 18, 2016, referring to Republican presidential contender Donald Trump.

Comment: Brooks is accusing Trump of being a bigot and a demagogue who uses scare tactics (he is also perhaps using the language of disgust: "morally repulsive").

Rather than champion an optimistic message, which Clinton cannot plausibly sell at this point, she should focus on scaring the daylights out of the average Democratic voter about Bernie Sanders as presidential timber. Clinton can begin by pointing out that this Tuesday’s 5-4 Supreme Court move—estopping President Barack Obama’s climate change regulations—is merely a harbinger of things to come if the party abandons her, allowing the GOP to control all three branches of government come November.
-- Pundit Jacob Heilbrunn, February 10, 2016. His remarks referred to Democratic presidential contender former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, and her chief rival, Democratic presidential contender Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT).

Comment: Is Heilbrunn advocating "fear-mongering"?

The terrorists and demagogues want us to be scared. We mustn’t give in
-- The headline of an opinion piece by George Soros, December 28, 2015.

Comment: This is "demagogue" and "fear-mongering" rhetoric.

"I think that the more than the American people understand what Trump stands for, which among other things is his assertion that wages in America are too high. He wants to, quote/unquote, "make America great." And here's a guy who's a billionaire who thinks that wages in America are too high. He thinks that we should not raise the minimum wage. He wants to give hundreds of billions of dollars in tax breaks to his millionaire and billionaire friends. But I think creating and playing off the anxiety and the fears that the American people have, the fears about terrorism, the fears about our economy, and becoming a demagogue about that, and then trying to get us to hate Mexicans, or to hate Muslims, I think that is a strategy that is not what America is supposed to be about. What I believe, in contrast to Mr. Trump, is that we bring our people together to focus on the real issues, which is the disappearing middle class, massive income and wealth inequality. A corrupt campaign finance system. The fact that we're not effectively addressing the international crisis of climate change. The fact that our kids can't afford to go to college. And moms and dads can't afford child care. Those are the issues that we have to focus on. And we have to look at the greed. The greed of corporate America. The greed of Wall Street, which has had such a terrible impact on our economy and on millions of people. So, I'm trying to bring people together to take on the wealthy and powerful who have done so much to hurt the middle class. Trump is trying to play on fears and divide us up."
-- Democratic presidential contender Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT), from an interview on CNN, aired December 24, 2015. His remarks concerned Republican presidential contender Donald Trump.

Comment: Sanders is accusing Trump of exploiting fear, of being a demagogue, of inciting bigotry, and dividing the country.

Five years ago, I was fired by NPR for telling Bill O’Reilly that, since the September 11th attacks, I get nervous when I see people dressed in Muslim garb getting on an airplane. By admitting the truth of my own fears, I was pointing out the need to avoid politically correctness and acknowledge the legitimate link between radical Islam and terrorism. I also said once the PC muzzles are off the American people— and after all the fears are expressed — it is paramount to keep in mind that the U.S.A. is a country founded on the ideal of religious liberty. I believed then, as I believe now, that we can’t stereotype any group on the basis of the behavior of extreme, violent or criminal behavior from extreme elements. I don’t want anyone blaming me, a Christian, for the Colorado man who cited his faith as the reason he shot and killed three people at a Planned Parenthood facility last month. My point five years ago was that if our leaders pander to public fears they will see political gain in the short-term. But in a nation of many faiths, the political impulse to exploit anti-Muslim passions amounts to bigotry. And in the long run, it undermines our common American identity, a bond across religious beliefs, place of birth, skin color, and political beliefs. In other words, it is contrary to basic American values and undermines American unity — out of many, one people. The Trump Muslim ban is exactly the type of bigoted overreaction I was warning against. Clearly, most Republicans do not see it the same way. … Right-wing politicians get tons of media attention and fundraising boosts when they call for mass deportation of millions of Mexicans, building a wall along the Southern border, barring visitors from Africa over Ebola paranoia, and banning widows and orphans fleeing from Syria over ISIS paranoia. The American right needs a bogeyman and more often than not, that bogeyman is dark-skinned and a foreigner. The Trump solution is to pull up the drawbridge, wall off the United States and abandon the country’s tradition of inclusion and acceptance. Making American great seems to mean taking the country back to a time of more white people, fewer immigrants and certainly fewer Muslims. It is safe to say the odds of it happening are slim. But Trump is selling fear and even his GOP political opponents are buying it.
-- Pundit Juan Williams, December 21, 2015, referring to Republican presidential contender Donald Trump.

Comment: Williams is accusing Trump of fear-mongering, and accusing much of the right-wing of bigotry.

STEPHANOPOULOS: You just heard Donald Trump call you out. He said you lied. He doubled down on that embrace from Vladimir Putin.

SANDERS: I tell you, it really is rather extraordinary. I think -- and I say this straightforwardly -- I think you have a pathological liar there.


SANDERS: Pathological, I really do. I mean, I think much of what he says are lies or gross distortion of reality. Here's the fact. I mean, he's been saying over and over again that he saw on television, as I understand it, thousands of people in New Jersey celebrating 9/11 right the destruction of the Twin Towers. Either that's true or it's not true. And what I understand, there have been a lot of research, they archive what goes on television. You're a TV guy, right? Everything was saying that was going to be archived. Either it is true, it is not true. Nobody has seen a tape of thousands of people celebrating the destruction of the Twin Towers in New Jersey. It doesn't exist. And he keeps claiming it. That's called pathological lying. Yes, he just (INAUDIBLE) a few moments ago accused me of lying when I said last night is that he has suggested that Mexicans who were coming to this country are criminals and rapists. That is exactly what he said. What somebody like a Donald Trump is doing is playing on the fears and anxieties of the American people. And people are afraid.
-- Democratic presidential contender Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT), December 20, 2015, appearing on ABC News' "This Week" with George Stephanopoulos. Sanders was responding to remarks made earlier on the show by Republican presidential contender Donald Trump.

Comment: Sanders is accusing Trump of distortion – perhaps to the point of not caring about truth – as well as exploiting fear.

"Look, I can see why people would support that idea on the surface. But the simple fact is how are we going to garner the international support to take out ISIS if the Kurds who are Muslims would be offended by this? The Jordanians will be offended by this. The Turks, the entire Arab world. Apart from the fact that you have the largest Muslim populations are even in the Middle East. They are India and Pakistan and Indonesia. We have to lead as a nation. The United States is not going to be a follower. We have to lead. And do this, it would be an unmitigated disaster. He knows that. This is dog whistle talk. This is to try to get people who are fearful about where we are to be latched on to him. But I think tonight was a good example of why he may not be the proper guy to be commander-in-chief."
-- Republican presidential contender former Gov. Jeb Bush (R-FL), December 15, 2015, regarding a proposal by Republican presidential contender Donald Trump to ban Muslims from entering the country.

Comment: Bush is accusing Trump of using "code words" and of fear-mongering.

Given Trump's knack for stealing the spotlight, it's easy to think he's alone in his Islamophobic views. That would be a mistake. The other GOP presidential hopefuls may not share Trump's penchant for rabble-rousing, but they're complicit in creating a deeply troubling atmosphere. And I'm not talking about the typical stand-on-the-sidelines sort of complicity. No, these Republican candidates are actively -- and dangerously -- bringing us back to scarier times with their fear-based proposals and angry rhetoric: … Ben Carson compared some Syrian refugees to dogs -- with "mad dogs" among them. Comparing people to animals is textbook propaganda, and it often leads to some pretty nasty places (think: "vermin," "blight," "eradicate"). Just imagine Carson's words blown up on a 20-foot poster. Marco Rubio equated Muslims to "Germans who may have been members of the Nazi party, but weren't violent themselves." Shameful. It was only last century that our elected leaders lumped Japanese Americans alongside our overseas enemies. The end result was internment camps, a concept that Trump refused to dismiss.
-- Pundit Donna Brazile, December 9, 2015, referring to Republican presidential contender Donald Trump's proposal to temporarily halt Muslims from entering the U.S., as well as to remarks by Republican presidential contenders Ben Carson and Sen. Marco Rubio (R-FL).

Comment: First, Brazile is accusing Trump of bigotry, and the Republican candidates more generally of fear-mongering. She also distorts what Carson and Rubio said: Carson did not "compare" Syrian refugees to dogs in the sense of dehumanizing them and saying they were no better than dogs. Rather, Carson said the fact that some terrorists might pose as refugees in order to enter and attack the U.S. shouldn't cause us to despise all refugees, in the same way that one dog with rabies shouldn't cause us to fear all dogs in general. More, Rubio did not "equate" Muslims with Nazis: rather, he said that there is a difference between violent and non-violent members of the Islamic faith, just as there is a difference between violent and non-violent members of any other religion or movement. 

TEXT: Republicans keep saying the same thing.

RUBIO: We are at war with radical Islam.

JEB BUSH: Radical Islamic terrorism.

TEXT: Equating Islam, all Muslims, with terrorists…

TRUMP: We do have a problem radical Muslims.

CARSON: Radical Islamic jihadists.

CRUZ: Radical Islamic terrorism.

TEXT: It’s oversimplification. And it’s wrong. But don’t take our word for it.

GEORGE BUSH: We do not fight against Islam, we fight against evil.

GEORGE BUSH: The war against terrorism is not a war against Muslims, nor is it a war against Arabs. It’s a war against evil people who conduct crimes against innocent people.

GEORGE BUSH: That’s not what Islam is all about. Islam is peace.

TEXT: Inciting fear isn’t presidential.
-- Democratic Party political ad, retrieved November 24, 2015. The ad quotes Republican presidential contenders former Gov. Jeb Bush (R-FL), Ben Carson, Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX), Sen. Marco Rubio (R-FL), and Donald Trump, as well as former President George W. Bush.

Comment: The ad is accusing Republicans of fear-mongering. It is also falsely accusing Republicans (perhaps via code words?) of equating Islam and Muslims with terrorism and terrorists, thereby demonizing them as bigots. Being opposed to radical Islam doesn't mean being opposed to all Muslims, any more than being opposed to corrupt police officers means being opposed to all police officers. Citing George Bush – a Republican – seems like a faulty appeal to authority, perhaps an argument ad hostes. (Plus, the ad cites George Bush selectively: he denounced Islamic radicalism.) 

Don’t worry I won’t make any exceptions, there are none to make.





The lowest of the low in my book, oh, I might offend some of these mouth breathers; so what, fuck em.

Watching the pigswill that is the GOP debates where the vilest, nastiest and most demeaning piece of drivel gets wild applause. If you want to appeal to the dregs of the earth, then go for it, don’t expect my analysis to be bipartisan.

I don’t want to get to know you better, in fact I don’t want you anywhere bloody near me. Vote for this trash and I will regard you as such.

There are not two sides to the debate there is no common ground, we have gone way beyond that, vileness is their motto, hatred their raison d'ĂȘtre.

Greedy, spineless cowards, fearful of anything that moves, hateful of anything different and proud of their ignorance. Proud unreasoning bigots all.

They live in their own vile pool of ingrained mindless doctrine where belief trumps fact, where ignorance is praised as a virtue.

There are those that exploit the fear, loathing and ignorance and they are the worst of the lot, where denial is easier than facing up to the truth.

To those who would send others far braver than themselves into our mindless wars I have nothing but sheer contempt.

You are scum.
-- Pundit LaFeminista, November 21, 2015, in a post entitled, "Republicans Are The Scum Of The Earth".

Comment: This is "disgusting" rhetoric. LaFeminista also accuses Republicans of being bigoted, not caring about truth and reason, and exploiting fear.

"But we are not well-served when, in response to a terrorist attack, we descend into fear and panic. We don't make good decisions if it's based on hysteria or an exaggeration of risks. I think the refugee debate is an example of us not being well-served by some of the commentary that’s been taking place by officials back home and in the media. … And so if there are concrete, actual suggestions to enhance this extraordinary screening process that’s already in place, we’re welcome -- we’re open to hearing actual ideas. But that’s not really what’s been going on in this debate. When candidates say, we wouldn't admit three-year-old orphans -- that’s political posturing. When individuals say that we should have a religious test and that only Christians -- proven Christians -- should be admitted -- that’s offensive and contrary to American values. I cannot think of a more potent recruitment tool for ISIL than some of the rhetoric that’s been coming out of here during the course of this debate. ISIL seeks to exploit the idea that there is a war between Islam and the West. And when you start seeing individuals in positions of responsibility, suggesting that Christians are more worthy of protection than Muslims are in a war-torn land, that feeds the ISIL narrative. It’s counterproductive, and it needs to stop. And I would add, by the way, these are the same folks oftentimes who suggest that they’re so tough that just talking to Putin or staring down ISIL, or using some additional rhetoric somehow is going to solve the problems out there. But apparently, they’re scared of widows and orphans coming into the United States of America as part of our tradition of compassion. First, they were worried about the press being too tough on them during debates. Now they’re worried about three-year-old orphans. That doesn’t sound very tough to me. … They’ve been playing on fear in order to try to score political points or to advance their campaigns. And it’s irresponsible. And it’s contrary to who we are. And it needs to stop, because the world is watching. I was proud, when the attacks in Boston took place, and we did not resort to fear and to panic. Boston Strong. People went to the ballgame that same week, and sang the National Anthem, and went back to the stores and went back to the streets. That’s how you defeat ISIL. Not by trying to divide the country, or suggest somehow that our tradition of compassion should stop now."
-- President Barack Obama, November 17, 2015. He was remarking on objections (frequently from Republicans) to allowing Syrian refugees into the United States, based in part on concerns that some might be terrorist infiltrators from the Islamic State of Syria and Iraq.

Comment: Perhaps Republicans are wrong to object to taking in Syrian refugees, but that doesn't mean their objections amount to politicizing and fear-mongering, as Obama says. They certainly aren't afraid of widows and three-year-old children; that's a straw man Obama has concocted to make Republicans seem ridiculous.

STEPHANOPOULOS: Lot of talk about immigration as well. Donald Trump is speaking about history. He wants to bring back Operation Wetback from President Eisenhower and deportation force. What would that mean?

OBAMA: Well, I think the name of the operation tells you something about the dangers of looking backwards. And the notion that we're going to deport 11, 12 million people from this country, first of all I have no idea where Mr. Trump thinks the money's going to come from. It would cost us hundreds of billions of dollars to execute that. Imagine the images on the screen flashed around the world as we were dragging parents away from their children and putting them in what, detention centers and then systematically sending them out. Nobody thinks that that is realistic, but more importantly, that's not who we are as Americans.

STEPHANOPOULOS: What do you think when you hear people cheer for that?

OBAMA: Well, what I think is that there's always been a strain of anti-immigrant sentiment in America, ironically from folks who themselves two generations back or even one generation back were immigrants themselves. And it's the job of leaders not to play into that sentiment. Now, those sentiments get stronger when people feel insecure. And given what happened in 2007, 2008, given the fact that despite the recovery, I think people still have some post-traumatic stress and are still concerned about prospects for jobs and economic security in the future it's easy to play on those fears. But that's not that's not what you want from your president. And to their credit Republican and as well as Democratic senators and or presidents in the past, including Ronald Reagan, including George H.W. Bush, including George W. Bush have understood that we are a nation of laws, but we're also a nation of immigrants and that proposing radical and necessarily cruel solutions to a problem that can be solved by some good, old-fashioned legislation of the sort that passed on a bipartisan basis in the Senate and I would've been able to sign two years ago if the House Republicans had allowed it to come to the floor 'cause there was a majority on that floor to vote for it we don't want I think, a president or any person in a position of leadership to play on those kinds of fears.
-- President Barack Obama, November 12, 2015, during interview with George Stephanopoulos of ABC News.

Comment: Obama is demonizing those in favor of deporting illegal immigrants, accusing them of being anti-immigrant (i.e., being bigots). But being opposed to illegal immigrants is not the same as being opposed to all immigrants. Obama is also accusing Republicans of fear-mongering, and not being "real Americans".

"Overall, though, we’re making enormous progress, and it does make you wonder, why is it that Republican politicians are so down on America. Have you noticed that? I mean, they are gloomy. They’re like Grumpy Cat. Everything is terrible according to them. We’re doomed. I mean, I know it’s political season, but you listen to them and they’ve constructed this entire separate reality. It’s like the Twilight Zone. And according to their story, their narrative, everything was terrific back in 2008 when unemployment was skyrocketing and uninsured rates were rising and folks were losing their homes and their jobs, we were engaged in two wars, bin Laden was still at large. If you were listening to them, those were like the good old days. The golden years. And then I came in and the Democrats came in, but according to them that’s when everything all went to heck. Which is strange. I mean, it’s a hard argument to make. There was an article, I think, in The New York Times today, or maybe it was yesterday, where they pointed out that it’s very hard for them to make the arguments they make about tax cuts for the wealthy and doing the same stuff that they’ve been promoting, and trying to eliminate regulations on the big banks and all that, when the empirical evidence shows that when Democrats control the White House and we’ve got a Democratic Congress the economy does better and when they’re in charge, it does worse. Just look at the facts. Don’t take my word for it, go back, take a look at – all right, here’s Bill Clinton’s presidency, and then there’s Bush presidency and then there’s my presidency and, take a look. And you’ve gotta feel bad for the fact-checkers, for the Republicans, because they’ve gotta spend hours trying to keep up with some of the crazy stuff that their candidates are claiming. And the reason they have to make up stuff is because they don’t have a record to run on. They’re offering the same policies that caused so many problems in the first place. They ran on them in 2008, they ran on them in 2012, they’re running on them now. … And it's a shame when politicians spend all their time trying to make people feel bad, or more typically, trying to make them feel scared. Talking down the country all the time because it serves your politics. … We [Democrats] have got an optimistic vision about where this country can go if the politics of obstruction and fear-mongering are set aside and we start working together as a country."
-- President Barack Obama, October 23, 2015.

Comment: First, Obama seems to be accusing Republicans of rooting for failure, obstruction, divisiveness and fear-mongering, and saying they are doing so for "political" motives. This is unfair. Obama, when he ran for office in 2004 and 2008, was frequently critical of the country's state of affairs; does this mean he was "down on America"? Second, Obama is distorting Republicans' position: what Republican has ever said that everything was terrific back in 2008? Third, Obama is making a "correlation is causation" argument when it comes to the economy and Democrats, which is additionally flawed because Democrats and Republicans aren't monolithic when it comes to policies (some Republicans have raised taxes, like Ronald Reagan, and some Democrats have lowered them, like JFK), and because Republicans were in control of Congress during the boom years of Clinton's presidency, Democrats were in control of Congress when the Great Recession happened, and Congress is in control of Republicans now that we're making "enormous progress". Of course, sometimes good or bad things happen when a party is in power that were set in motion earlier by a different party, or that are out of anyone's political control altogether.

"My friends, we beat fear with hope. We beat cynicism with hard work. We beat negative, divisive politics with a positive vision that brings Canadians together," Trudeau, 43, told a crowd of cheering supporters in Montreal.

"This is what positive politics can do."
-- Liberal Party leader and Prime Minister-elect Justin Trudeau, October 19, 2015, as related by a Reuters story by Randall Palmer and Rod Nickel.

Comment: Trudeau is accusing his political opponents of resorting to fear, cynicism, and negative politics, while crediting himself with unifying the country.

"Why are all these Republicans so down on America?" Obama said. "Listening to them is really depressing and it doesn't match up with the truth."

Obama urged those attending a fundraiser for Washington Sen. Patty Murray to get involved in local, state and national politics.

"Our system is only as good as what we put into it," he said, criticizing the "false prophets who spout things that under examination don't really make any sense, but feed your biases and your fears."

"I'm proud of the fact that we are not just the party that is against everything," Obama said.
-- President Barack Obama, October 9, 2015, as related by a Politico story by Jennifer Shutt.

Comment: Obama is demonizing Republicans, saying they are fear-mongering and simply being obstructionists. Obama may also be accusing them of rooting for failure.

Normally, when your main geopolitical rivals are shooting themselves in both feet, the military manual says step back and enjoy the show. But I take little comfort in watching China burning money and Russia burning food, because in today’s interdependent world we’re all affected. I also find no joy in it because we Americans, too, have started burning our most important source of competitive advantage — our pluralism. One of our two political parties has gone nuts and started following a pied piper of intolerance, named Donald Trump. … America’s greatest advantage is its pluralism: It can govern itself horizontally by its people of all colors and creeds forging social contracts to live together as equal citizens. But right now we’re messing around with that incredible asset. Yes, we must control our borders; it is the essence of sovereignty. It has been a failure of both our political parties that the Mexican-American border has been so porous. So I am for a high wall, but with a very big gate — one that legally lets in energetic low-skilled workers and the high-I.Q. risk-takers who have made our economy the envy of the world — and for legislation that provides a pathway for the millions of illegal immigrants already here to gain legal status and eventually citizenship. In June 2013, the Senate, including 14 Republicans, passed a bill that would do all that. But the extremists in the G.O.P. House refused to follow, so the bill stalled. And now we have Trump shamelessly exploiting this issue even more. He’s calling for an end to the 14th Amendment’s birthright principle, which guarantees citizenship to anyone born here, and also for a government program to round up all 11 million illegal immigrants and send them home — an utterly lunatic idea that Trump dismisses as a mere “management” problem. Like lemmings, many of the other G.O.P. presidential hopefuls just followed Trump over that cliff. This is not funny anymore. This is not entertaining. Donald Trump is not cute. His ugly nativism shamefully plays on people’s fears and ignorance. It ignores bipartisan solutions already on the table, undermines the civic ideals that make our melting pot work in ways no European or Asian country can match (try to become a Japanese) and tampers with the very secret of our sauce — pluralism, that out of many we make one. Every era spews up a Joe McCarthy type who tries to thrive by dividing and frightening us, and today his name is Donald Trump.
-- Pundit Thomas Friedman, August 26, 2016.

Comment: "Gone nuts" is "stupid" rhetoric. Friedman also engages in "extremists" and "exploiting" rhetoric. Friedman demonizes Trump's immigration plan as being racist (i.e., "nativism"), which is a distortion, given that it doesn't end legal immigration. Friedman also engages in "fear-mongering", "bipartisan", and "divisive" rhetoric.

Imagine if Congress voted on whether or not to teach evolution and climate change in school. And imagine that 73% of Republicans voted against it. The backlash would be easy to predict: The national media, and science journalists in particular, would spend a week making somber declarations of impending educational and scientific collapse that would reverberate across the cosmos. As it so happens, Congress did just vote on something of tremendous scientific importance: Biotechnology. And, as it so happens, 73% of Democrats voted against the bill. Yet, the national media remained deafeningly and hypocritically silent. On July 23, the U.S. House of Representatives passed a bill, H.R. 1599, that, among other things, would block states from requiring foods containing genetically modified ingredients to carry special labels. From a scientific viewpoint, this is the correct policy. Yet, the Democratic Party, which has branded itself the "pro-science" party over the last two decades, overwhelmingly opposed it. Why? Well, it's hard to say, though the fact that places like the GMO-hating Whole Foods tending to be located in counties that voted for Barack Obama might have something to do with it. In the final vote tally, 94% of House Republicans supported the bill, while a stunning 73% of Democrats voted against it. Even Democrats who represent districts with a large biotechnology constituency voted against the bill: Nancy Pelosi (CA-12), Jackie Speier (CA-14), Mike Honda (CA-17), and Anna Eshoo (CA-18) -- all from the Bay Area -- as well as Boston's Michael Capuano (MA-7) and Stephen Lynch (MA-8) and Seattle's Jim McDermott (WA-7). The vote pattern made it abundantly clear: On the needlessly hot-button issue of genetic modification, Democrats sided with fearmongers and organic foodies, while Republicans sided with the medical and scientific mainstream. And yes, just like vaccines, evolution, and anthropogenic climate change, GMOs are mainstream and non-controversial in the scientific community. Indeed, the American Medical Association (AMA) and the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) (PDF) -- organizations that represent our nation's finest doctors and scientists -- reject GMO labels.
-- Pundit Alex B. Berezow, August 10, 2015.

Comment: This is "scare tactics" rhetoric. Berezow is also suggesting that opponents of GMO are anti-science, or at least that it is hypocritical not to use that epithet against GMO opponents when it is regularly used against opponents of evolution or climate change.

This is the essence of Walker’s appeal — and why he is so dangerous. He is not as outrageous as Donald Trump and Sen.Ted Cruz (R-Tex.), but his technique of scapegoating unions for the nation’s ills is no less demagogic. Sixty-five years ago, another man from Wisconsin made himself a national reputation by frightening the country about the menace of communists, though the actual danger they represented was negligible. Scott Walker is not Joe McCarthy, but his technique is similar: He suggests that the nation’s ills can be cured by fighting labor unions (foremost among the “big government special interests” hurting America), even though unions represent just 11 percent of the American workforce and have been at a low ebb.
-- Pundit Dana Milbank, July 23, 2015. Milbank's remarks concerned presidential candidate Gov. Scott Walker (R-WI).

Comment: This is "demagogue" (and perhaps also "fear-mongering") rhetoric. Plus, it seems like Milbank is knocking over a straw man: Walker has certainly criticized labor unions, but has he really said that they are the source of all the nation's problems?

"We need to focus on the things that tie us together, and whether it's Donald Trump or Barack Obama, their rhetoric of divisiveness is wrong. … I campaign embracing diversity. Come join us - come join the team that is creating hope and opportunity. … A Republican will never win by striking fear into people's hearts. … on our side, there are people that prey on people's fears and their angst as well. … I don't know about you, but I think it is wrong. I believe we need to unify our country. We need to stop tearing, separating ourselves by race and ethnicity and income. We need to focus on what ties us together".
-- Former Gov. Jeb Bush (R-FL), July 13, 2015. This is a compilation of his remarks, and may not accurately reflect the order in which he said them.

Comment: This is "unify the country" and "fear-mongering" rhetoric.

Gerrard obviously intended for this to be a provocative piece, but he doesn’t offer any particular new affirmations of science and he ignores some obvious problems with his argument. For instance, if global warming has the impact he wants it to suggests it could, won’t the United States also have climate change refugees? … Those on the left who make these kind of bizarre assertions are feeding the fears of some, but the doubts of many others.
-- Pundit Ed Rogers, June 29, 2015. Rogers' remarks concern an article by pundit Michael B. Gerrard entitled, “America is the worst polluter in the history of the world. We should let climate change refugees resettle here.”

Comment: In his strikethrough, Rogers seems to suggest that Gerrard wants global warming to have a negative impact, which is demonizing, perhaps even "rooting for failure" rhetoric. Also, Rogers uses "scare tactics" rhetoric.

"Here in Texas, former Governor Rick Perry signed a law that a federal court said was actually written with the purpose of discriminating against minority voters. He applauded when the Voting Rights Act was gutted, and said the lost protections were “outdated and unnecessary.” But Governor Perry is hardly alone in his crusade against voting rights. In Wisconsin, Governor Scott Walker cut back early voting and signed legislation that would make it harder for college students to vote. In New Jersey, Governor Christie vetoed legislation to extend early voting. And in Florida, when Jeb Bush was governor, state authorities conducted a deeply flawed purge of voters before the presidential election in 2000. Thankfully in 2004 a plan to purge even more voters was headed off. So today, Republicans are systematically and deliberately trying to stop millions of American citizens from voting. What part of democracy are they afraid of? I believe every citizen has the right to vote. And I believe we should do everything we can to make it easier for every citizen to vote. I call on Republicans at all levels of government with all manner of ambition to stop fear mongering about a phantom epidemic of election fraud and start explaining why they’re so scared of letting citizens have their say. Yes, this is about democracy. But it’s also about dignity. About the ability to stand up and say, yes, I am a citizen. I am an American. My voice counts. And no matter where you come from or what you look like or how much money you have, that means something. In fact, it means a lot."
-- Former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, June 4, 2015.

Comment: "Crusade" is a form of "war" rhetoric, though I think it's generally understood to be metaphorical. More worrying is that she is demonizing Republicans, accusing them of wanting to take people's right to vote away. She is also using "fear-mongering" rhetoric.

One supporter, Sen. Patrick J. Leahy (D-Vt.), described the legislation as “the most significant surveillance reform in decades.”

“We’ve done it by setting aside ideology, setting aside fear-mongering,” said Leahy, the top Democrat on the Senate Judiciary Committee. “We’ll protect the security of the United States, but we’ll also protect the privacy of Americans.”
-- Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-VT), June 2, 2015, from a story that day by Mike DeBonis in The Washington Post. Leahy's remarks concerned the USA Freedom Act.

Comment: Leahy is using "ideologues" and "fear-mongering" rhetoric.

Just look at ads that fill the spaces between content on The Blaze network: In one hour, I counted spots for Goldline, emergency food preparedness supplies, steel safes, solar energy emergency generators, a DVD series on conceal carry practices, a manpurse with a hidden holster (it’s called “The Stalker”—fun!), Lifelock identity protection and a self-defense how-to book that promises to teach “the SECRET to defeating bigger, stronger attackers with only your bare hands” (in case you lose The Stalker, I guess!) [Glenn] Beck isn’t an entertainer, he’s a merchant of fear, and whatever ideological pitch he makes is mostly a wrapper for that terror.
-- Pundit Ana Marie Cox, May 25, 2015.

Comment: Cox is engaging in "fear-mongering" rhetoric.

During this era, they’ve gone from gentle nudging to stern warnings, to fearmongering, to conflating the predictive abilities of scientists with science itself, to launching ugly campaigns to shame and shut down anyone who deviates from liberal orthodoxy—which includes not only the existence of anthropogenic global warming, but an entire ideological framework that supposedly “addresses” the problem.
-- Pundit David Harsanyi, March 26, 2015.

Comment: Harsanyi is accusing global warming proponents of resorting to scare tactics.

Far from the dire picture painted by the president and his fellow Democrats, 90 percent of the Department of Homeland Security would remain on the job in a partial government shutdown. President Obama and congressional Democrats are offering up doomsday scenarios if the Department of Homeland Security funding authorization expires this Friday. Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson implied on the talk shows Sunday morning that efforts to thwart terrorist attacks and assist Americans buried in snow could be imperiled if Republicans keep trying to de-fund the president’s executive action on illegal immigration. Johnson amplified his dire predictions that afternoon before a gathering of the National Governors Association, saying: “[A shutdown] means taking people off the front line and realigning their responsibility.” Not to be outdone, the president issued his own warning in a session Monday before the National Governors Association. A partial government shutdown, he said, would end up suspending pay for more than 100,000 Homeland Security agents, which “will have a direct impact on America’s national security because their hard work helps to keep us safe.” All very interesting, except what they’re saying isn’t true. According to figures from the brief government shutdown last year, the department has 231,117 employees, 31,295 of whom, or 13.5 percent, were furloughed. A closer examination reveals that all essential personnel would remain on the job, from Secret Service agents who protect the president to TSA screeners protecting us in airports and counterterrorism personnel. Looked at another way, 87 percent of Homeland Security personnel were deemed essential and remained at their posts during the last funding impasse between the White House and Congress. Eighty-seven percent. … Obama and his Democrat enablers are Chicken Littles predicting dire harm to the country when they know nothing is further than the truth.
-- Pundit Ron Christie, February 24, 2015, in an article entitled, "Obama Is the Scaremonger-in-Chief".

Comment: Christie is accusing President Barack Obama of fear-mongering, though he is explaining why he believes the fears are unjustified. He is also accusing Obama and Democrats of lying.


Examples from 2014.


Examples from 2013.


Examples from 2012.

"John McCain has basically said he would appoint judges who don't see a right to privacy, and as a consequence, would be likely to overturn Roe v Wade. ... You're just one justice away from that."
-- Presidential candidate and Sen. Barack Obama (D-IL), [Election Is The Difference Between "More Fair" and "Less Fair" Judiciary Obama Says; Obama Hits McCain, Oil Companies], June 14, 2008.

Comment: Here, Obama is appealing to the fear that abortion will be made illegal under a McCain presidency. For this to be a legitimate appeal to fear, Obama needs to show that it's likely that McCain (or a Supreme Court under McCain) would result in abortion being outlawed, and show that outlawing abortion is a bad thing. The latter, of course, is controversial: many people believe that abortion is morally wrong, and fear that it won't be outlawed.

"Tough times can breed fear, and the Democrats are using those fears to push an agenda that is tired, dangerous, and will rob us of economic freedom. Once again, they want the government to make our choices for us -- not respect our dreams, and trust our decisions on how best to seize our opportunities."
-- Presidential candidate and Sen. John McCain (R-AZ), [Remarks To Americans For Prosperity Michigan Summit], January 12, 2008.

Comment: This is a standard accusation of fear-mongering. McCain is saying that Democrats are using fear of economic hardship to win support for their economic agenda. There's nothing wrong with Democrats doing that, however. After all, we should fear economic hardship. Now, McCain thinks that the economic agenda of the Democrats won't reduce that hardship, and will in fact make things worse. Notice that that's also an appeal to fear: He's saying we should fear what Democratic policies would do to our economy. It's not as if Democrats are appealing to fear and McCain isn't. They both are. The real disagreement between McCain and Democrats is that they have different beliefs -- empirical beliefs -- regarding what spending and taxation policies will have what outcomes and effects. Which of them is right about those empirical beliefs is what determines which of them is making a legitimate appeal to fear as opposed to an illegitimate appeal to fear.

(The list above is not intended to be a comprehensive record of all relevant examples.)

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