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President Trump and the Politics of Fear and Fake News

Message Dagmar Honigmann

It has often been noted that President Trump's rhetoric goes far beyond that of previous Presidents... They worked to win elections by appealing to middle-of-the-road voters, but he has based his efforts on those who already agree with him: appealing to them constantly and shrilly, even at the expense of turning millions of swing voters and even moderate Republicans against him (and Republicans running for Congress). So does that actually seem like a good tactic to you?

If not, perhaps we need to ask ourselves, what else is going on? (After all, President Trump did win the 2016 election...)

In my previous column, I noted how the President's continual over-the-top rhetoric actually does more than just fire up those who already agree with him. It also makes all of his listeners anxious, even fearful. For example, earlier this year he bombarded us with dire warnings that we were being invaded by hundreds of thousands of "criminals"... such as a group of over a thousand migrants, mostly women and children, who turned themselves in immediately after crossing the border so they could apply for asylum. However, choosing to refer to them as criminals was an excellent way to frighten us. It couldn't help but make us fearful, by creating the sense of a threat to our own personal safety. He was disturbing the peace, apparently for political reasons... and has been doing so from the beginning.

And he has, of course, been going further than just extreme spin. Organizations whose purpose is checking the claims made by our politicians, to try to keep them from misleading us by misrepresenting the facts, have listed over 10,000 false or misleading statements by President Trump since he took office. Again, that's vastly more than previous Presidents... and when he was told he had his facts wrong, he often just continued repeating the same statement over and over again.

Some of his claims have also been especially extreme - and yet made without offering any evidence: for example, that he almost lost the 2016 election because several million criminals cast illegal votes for Hillary Clinton. (He repeated that statement just this week even though the Justice Department has obviously had years for mass arrests if he had had any actual knowledge of millions of such crimes.) And here, too, the end result is often to make his listeners - even non-supporters - see threats. For example, think about his statement that Middle Eastern terrorists had infiltrated a Central American migrant caravan, and those terrorists (who had presumably flown there) were now going to walk over 1,000 miles (hoping no one around them would notice they weren't Spanish speakers) to sneak into the U.S. alongside a crowd of thousands (whose progress had been monitored and in the news the whole time).

Unfortunately, it's been well established in psychology that making people afraid makes them vote more conservatively. Thus, President Trump's rhetoric would be doing more than firing up his base, it would be subconsciously manipulating all of us to lean more Republican.

And that raises at least three very big questions... I'll go into the third in my next column, but here are the first two:

First, is President Trump acting with the best interests of our country at heart? That could only be the case if such rhetoric did so much good that it more than made up for the damage he has been doing: You can be sure that other politicians have been watching him closely, and concluding that a President can lie constantly to the American people for political reasons and not merely get away with it but benefit from it. Another potential lesson is that if it helps you politically, it's fine to bitterly divide the country on purpose. Many Americans have become cynical about the office of the presidency itself. Often, those who believe the President's statements and those who believe the fact checkers have lost respect for each other. Many of the President's supporters have believed him that treasonous Democrats want to destroy the county they love, millions of them tried to steal an election and plan to do so again, and they may have assassinated a Supreme Court justice. And so on...

Second, is President Trump consciously choosing to cause such damage? After the President referred many times to the "fake news media" and described it as "the enemy of the American people" and "corrupt", journalists warned him that he was putting them in danger. The Boston Globe then printed an editorial arguing that the media was not the enemy of the American people... and soon afterward, a caller vowed to kill everyone in the newsroom for that exact reason and for printing "fake news". President Trump also often singled out CNN... and a live bomb sent by a particularly rabid fan was then found in their building. But in spite of all that, President Trump has continued describing the media as the enemy of his listeners and the country they love - and deliberately continued putting hundreds of thousands of Americans' lives in danger.

To many Americans, Donald Trump seems presidential. However, before the 2020 election, we need to examine such actions, and not merely the image he projects, and ask ourselves how they can be considered presidential...

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Dagmar Honigmann is in her sixties and has worked as a writer and educator. She is the daughter of German refugees who made separate middle-of-the-night escapes from East Germany after World War II, in her mother’s case with help from an (more...)
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