In late October 2011, the Republican Party of Virginia sent out a cartoon-drawn Halloween card. Reminiscent of Michael Jackson’s “Thriller,” the card portrayed in one section mindless zombies in lockstep, shouting out “O–Bama;” other sections had ghoulish depictions of Nancy Pelosi and Barack Obama with a bullet hole in his head. On June 17, 2012, the Helena, Montana Independent Record reported that the Republican Party of Idaho’s convention hosted Rush Limbaugh as guest speaker. Outside the convention hall there was an outhouse. A sign declared it to be “Obama’s Presidential Library”; it too was riddled with bullet holes, and inside the outhouse hung the president’s “birth certificate” as well as scrawled messages regarding the sexual availability of Michelle Obama, Hillary Clinton, and Nancy Pelosi. In both cases, Republican Party spokespersons downplayed these incidents as minor infringements of good taste.
What is going on here? These are uncertain times, but it is worth asking: When, in presidential politics, is it okay to create hate?
Bill Moyers and Michael Winship caution that there is a breath of McCarthyism in rumors that Obama clings to neo-Communism in the air (“The Ghost of Joe McCarthy Slithers Again,” Reader Supported News Web site, April 12, 2012).* They cite the right-wing website, Newsmax, as suggesting “a military coup” “as a last resort to resolve ‘the Obama problem’.” “Military intervention is what Obama’s exponentially accelerating agenda for ‘fundamental change’ toward a Marxist state is inviting upon America.”
In an examination of political discourse over the last 40 years, and focusing in depth on the last three presidential elections, I discovered hard evidence that Republicans focus on creating fear through carefully studied and repeated rhetoric. They assail the Democrats for weakening our country’s standing in the world (the myth of “American Supremacy”); they also employ metaphors that evoke apocalyptic notions of “end times” and God’s judgment.
In the opening statement of the first presidential debate of 2000, George W. Bush made reference to the threat of “another nation holding hostage or blackmailing an ally or a friend.” The source of this concern was unidentified; there was no contextual reason for his declaration. Additionally, both Bush and vice presidential candidate Cheney warned of the threat of Saddam Hussein to stability in the Middle East nine times in the 2000 debates. Cheney suggested “military action to stop that activity,” and continued, “I don’t think you can afford to have a man like Saddam Hussein with nuclear weapons in the Middle East.” Lamenting our leadership role in the world, Cheney said, “We have to put Iraq back in the box, so to speak…the French and the Russians are thumbing their noses at the international regime.” The perception: America’s role in the world is deteriorating.
The 2004 debates hinged directly on issues of national security in the wake of 9/11. Again in the first debate, President Bush urged the country to be resolute in the pursuit of “terrorism or the world will drift toward tragedy.” In the 2004 debates, the use of fear metaphors rose by 413%. While Kerry called for a new credibility by building stronger alliances, President Bush talked about Islam as an “ideology of hate” and spoke in religious terms about America’s “call” to intervene in the Middle East because that part of the world is “desperate for freedom” [code: perfect freedom in Jesus]. Bush denigrated Kerry’s appeal to a “global test” before military action as dangerous and lavished additional stealth religious terms that signaled Biblical literalists, while inducing subconscious fears to undecided voters. For example, Bush’s educational program “No Child Left Behind” calls to mind evangelical Tim LaHaye’s popular Left Behind series of books and movies about the bloody end of the world with the return of an avenging Jesus. Additionally, President Bush employed Homeland Security terror alerts to bolster his position. Terror Management Theory posits that recurrent exposure to fear-inducing stimuli creates a sense of impending catastrophe, hence conjuring up an unconscious fear of death in the post 9/11 debates. This was a turning point for the undecided voter; it made more sense to re-elect an incumbent in an atmosphere of fear, over choosing a candidate with no experience as president.
Finally, in the 2008 campaign, laced with reminders of “fighting the terrorists there so that we don’t have to fight them here,” Senator McCain achieved his party’s nomination in part by soliciting the endorsement of two evangelists: Rod Parsley of Ohio and James Hagee of Texas. Parsley, a “Christocrat,” announced that Christopher Columbus was seeking a route to the New World in order to eliminate Islam. Hagee had declared Hurricane Katrina the result of God’s judgment on homosexuals.”
In the presidential debates, Obama used the “Siamese-twin strategy” to link McCain to Bush. In response, McCain used negative references regarding Obama’s lack of experience; they sored to 40% of his depictions of Obama by the third debate. John Boehner, in Oxford, Ohio called into question Obama’s use of an abstention (“present”) in his voting in the Illinois Senate, “In Congress, we have a red button, a green button, and a yellow button, all right. Green means ‘yes,’ red means ‘no,’ and yellow means you’re a chicken shit. And the last thing we need in the White House…is some chicken who wants to press the yellow button.” According to FactCheck.org, Obama’s choice of the yellow button occurred for only 3% of his voting record.
Throughout the last three debate cycles, there has been an escalation in Republican presidential rhetoric pertaining to fear. Threat language encourages unexamined choices; it arouses anger. It speaks to primal instincts of “fight or flight.”
Regarding large gatherings like political conventions, Gustave Le Bon notes that crowds respond to the “hypnotic suggestion of the leader and become slaves of unconscious activities of the spinal cord” (The Crowd: A Study of the Popular Mind, 1895, 17). Freud (1922) speaks of the fusion of the ego with the ego ideal (Group Psychology and the Analysis of the Ego, James Strachey ed. and trans, 1959, 96). Otto Kernberg asserts that in unstructured groups, there is resentment toward the independent thinker, especially in times of national disorganization (“Sanctioned Social Violence, a Psychoanalytic View,” International Journal of Psychoanalysis, June 2003, 84:683-698.) He writes: “Modern communications have created a mass psychology, a tendency to sharply differentiate what is good and bad; splitting the object world into idealized and persecutory figures; [and creating] a primitive morality …with an intolerance for emotional depth…with a tendency to replace sentiment with sentimentality. Mass psychology…is a most powerful amplifier, both of paranoid ideologies and of leadership provided by narcissistic merchants of illusions” (694).
Candidate Romney’s campaign theme “Restore Our Future” is telling. As we approach the debates for 2012, it will be important to listen to what is being said; it may, however, be more important to monitor both feeling states and facts.
Frederick Stecker, DMin, PsyaD, is an Episcopal minister and a student of applied psychoanalysis and culture. His book, "The Podium, the Pulpit and the Republicans: How Presidential Candidates Use Religious Language in American Political Debate" was released in August 2011. This article appears in "Clio’s Psyche," a quarterly publication of the Psychohistory Forum, September 2012, Volume 19, Number 2.
Transcript of Bill Moyers' The Ghost of Joe McCarthy Slithers Again.
The video was featured in Moving Forward: The Ghost of McCarthyism Is Alive and Well on this blog.
Dr. Stecker was also quoted in the article Santorum's Little Film of Horrors: "Santorum is warming up the Republicans with this the first of many video clips about the future should Obama win the next election. The use of fear is not an uncommon tactic of the right..."
Gustave Le Bon's The Crowd: A Study of the Popular Mind can be read in PDF format here.