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Frightening Voters into Submission

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Former Homeland Security chief Tom Ridge has a new book out that reveals that he almost resigned because the Bush administration was hustling bogus terror alerts before the 2004 election. Ridge’s revelation was not surprising to people who had closely followed the tactics Bush used to snare a second term.

During the 2004 campaign, residents of swing states were under constant bombardment by throat-grabbing political ads. In late September, the Bush campaign released a television ad titled “Peace and Security.” The New York Times described the ad: “A clock ticks menacingly as a young mother pulls a quart of milk out of a refrigerator in slow motion, a young father loads toddlers into a minivan and an announcer intones ominously, ‘Weakness invites those who would do us harm.’”

The most memorable Bush ad, released a few weeks before the election, opened in a thick forest, with shadows and hazy shots complementing the foreboding music. A female announcer ominously declared, “In an increasingly dangerous world, even after the first terrorist attack on America, John Kerry and the liberals in Congress voted to slash America’s intelligence operations by $6 billion — cuts so deep they would have weakened America’s defenses.” The ad then focused on a pack of wolves reclining in a clearing. The voiceover concluded, “And weakness attracts those who are waiting to do America harm,” as the wolves began jumping up and running toward the camera. At the end of the ad, the president appeared and announced, “I’m George W. Bush and I approve this message.”

One liberal cynic suggested that the ad’s message was that voters would be eaten by wolves if Kerry won. A Bush advisor told ABC News that “the ad was produced and tested months ago. Voter reaction was so powerful that we decided to hold the ad to the end of the campaign and make it one of the closing spots.”

The theme

Since the 2004 election largely turned on who would be the best protector, the Bush campaign sought to make Americans view criticism of the president as if it were a weapon of mass destruction. Zell Miller, a Democratic senator and the keynote speaker for the Republican National Convention, delivered the angriest prime-time speech at a modern political convention. Watched by a national television audience of millions, Miller revealed that political opposition is treason: “Now, at the same time young Americans are dying in the sands of Iraq and the mountains of Afghanistan, our nation is being torn apart and made weaker because of the Democrats’ manic obsession to bring down our commander in chief.”

There was no evidence that such criticism of Bush’s foreign policy was ripping America asunder — but trumpeting the accusation made Bush critics appear a pox on the land. Miller denounced Kerry’s record on national defense and suggested that he would leave the military armed with only “spitballs.” When Miller was pressed for evidence of his charges in a post-speech interview, he angrily talked of challenging MSNBC’s Chris Matthews to a duel. Every word in Miller’s speech was preapproved by the Bush campaign. In the following weeks, Bush often appeared with Miller at campaign stops, signifying his embrace of Miller’s message.

The theme echoed

The Zell Miller “criticism-as-treason” theme permeated the campaign. New York City’s former police commissioner, Bernie Kerik, stumping around the nation for Bush, told audiences, “Political criticism is our enemy’s best friend.” The Washington Post noted on September 24, 2004, “President Bush and leading Republicans are increasingly charging that Democratic presidential nominee John F. Kerry and others in his party are giving comfort to terrorists and undermining the war in Iraq — a line of attack that tests the conventional bounds of political rhetoric.” When the United States’s handpicked leader of Iraq, Iyad Allawi, visited the White House, Bush declaimed that Kerry’s criticisms of his Iraq policy “can embolden an enemy.”

Other prominent Republicans jumped on the bandwagon. Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-Utah), chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, condemned Democrats for “consistently saying things that I think undermine our young men and women who are serving over there.” John Thune, the Republican U.S. Senate candidate in South Dakota, denounced Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle: “His words embolden the enemy.” Bush campaign manager Ken Mehlman condemned the Kerry campaign for “parroting the rhetoric of terrorists” and warned, “The enemy listens. All listen to what the president said, and all listen to what Senator Kerry said.”

In the first two debates, Bush repeatedly implied that Kerry’s criticisms of his policies in Iraq proved Kerry was unfit to be president. Bush kept coming back to Kerry’s use of the phrase “the wrong war in the wrong place at the wrong time” as if Kerry had greatly sinned against the American people by saying such a thing. Apparently, by definition, anyone who criticizes a ruler is unfit to correct that ruler’s mistakes.

Each time Kerry talked of Bush’s failures in Iraq, Bush claimed that Kerry was attacking U.S. troops, and many citizens believed him. Each Kerry criticism of a specific debacle became further proof of his lack of patriotism. Following media reports about the looting of an Iraqi ammo dump after its capture by American forces, Kerry criticized the Bush administration for neglecting to secure the explosives, some of which may have later been used to attack U.S. troops. Bush erupted: “Senator Kerry is again attacking the actions of our military in Iraq, with complete disregard for the facts. Senator Kerry will say anything to get elected.” Bush spokesmen condemned Kerry for criticizing before all the facts were out — at the same time the administration continued withholding facts. The Bush team wanted Americans to believe that anyone who criticized the Iraq war was opposed to defending America.

The theme expanded

The expanding concept of treason plugged the president’s growing credibility gap. It was as if the Democrats were not allowed to say anything critical about Iraq, and the Bush campaign was not obliged to say anything honest about it. Thus, Bush needed only to perpetuate his wars to perpetually silence his critics.

The demonization of criticism helped anger ill-informed voters, fostering intolerance that helped Bush win reelection. Apparently, criticism was inherently more dangerous than perpetuating disastrous policies. This would make sense only if blind obedience provides the equivalent to body armor for the entire nation.

The same “support Bush or betray America” paradigm had helped Republicans capture the Senate in the 2002 congressional elections. In mid 2002, when he was White House political director, Mehlman created a PowerPoint presentation for Republican candidates urging them to “highlight fears of future terrorist attacks.” (A copy of the disk with the project was dropped in a park near the White House.) In September 2002, after Democrats balked at some anti-union provisions in the administration’s legislation to create a Homeland Security Department, Bush declared his opponents are “not interested in the security of the American people.”

Treating voters like children

Bush’s tactics were aided by a coterie of talking heads who portrayed his campaign as much more lofty than it was. Republican pollster Frank Luntz asserted two days after the election, “Some will claim that Mr. Bush won on Tuesday because he waged a campaign of fear. The exact opposite was the case. Americans turned to him precisely because they saw him as the antidote to that fear.” But that was exactly the point of the Bush campaign strategy — to fan fear and portray Bush as the antidote. Luntz’s rewriting of history was perhaps inspired by his work for many Republican politicians and organizations. In a June 2004 confidential memo to Republican candidates, he urged them to remember, “‘9/11 changed everything’ is the context by which everything follows. No speech about homeland security or Iraq should begin without a reference to 9/11.”

White House Chief of Staff Andrew Card, in a talk to Republican National Convention delegates in September 2004, praised Bush’s role as the protector of the nation and assured them that “this president sees America as we think about a 10-year-old child. I know as a parent I would sacrifice all for my children.” Card’s comment generated almost no controversy. Yet viewing Americans as young children needing protection makes a mockery of democracy. Is servility now the price of survival?

Fear-mongering subverts self-government. The more fears government fans, the fewer people will recall the danger of government itself. The more frightened people become, the more prone they will be to see their rulers as saviors rather than as potential oppressors. After promising freedom from fear, a politician can simply invoke polls showing widespread fears to justify seizing new power. The more government frightens people, the more legitimate its power grabs become.

We now have the Battered Citizen Syndrome: the more debacles, the more voters cling to faith in their rulers. Like a train engineer bonding with the survivors of a train wreck that happened on his watch, Bush constantly reminded Americans of 9/11 and his wars. The greater the government’s failure to protect, the greater the subsequent mass fear — and the easier it becomes to subjugate the populace. The craving for a protector drops an iron curtain around the mind, preventing a person from accepting evidence that would shred his political security blanket.

Unfortunately, few Americans seem to have learned the lessons of recent presidents. As a result, politicians can count on seizing new power after their next debacle. Nothing will change, except for the name of the oppressor.

This article originally appeared in the Novemnber 2009 edition of Freedom Daily. Subscribe to the print or email version of Freedom Daily.

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    James Bovard serves as policy advisor to The Future of Freedom Foundation. He has written for the New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, The Washington Post, New Republic, Reader's Digest, Playboy, American Spectator, Investors Business Daily, and many other publications. He is the author of a new e-book memoir, Public Policy Hooligan. His other books include: Attention Deficit Democracy (2006); The Bush Betrayal (2004); Terrorism and Tyranny (2003); Feeling Your Pain (2000); Freedom in Chains (1999); Shakedown (1995); Lost Rights (1994); The Fair Trade Fraud (1991); and The Farm Fiasco (1989). He was the 1995 co-recipient of the Thomas Szasz Award for Civil Liberties work, awarded by the Center for Independent Thought, and the recipient of the 1996 Freedom Fund Award from the Firearms Civil Rights Defense Fund of the National Rifle Association. His book Lost Rights received the Mencken Award as Book of the Year from the Free Press Association. His Terrorism and Tyranny won Laissez Faire Book's Lysander Spooner award for the Best Book on Liberty in 2003. Read his blog. Send him email.