Fear Tactics in Campaign 2016

The central argument of David Westen’s The Political Brain is that humans are fundamentally motivated more by emotional appeals than logical appeals. To this end, Westen offers a slew of examples, such as Bill Clinton’s shining moment in a 1992 presidential town hall debate (and George H. W. Bush’s relatively patrician demeanor). Moreover, Westen argues that fear is the most powerful motivator, offering the 1964 Johnson Daisy Ad as proof of the effectiveness of negative advertising.

As Westen puts it, fear is a primal emotion found in the amygdala. And as an emotion associated with the “older” and more primitive brain, fear is one of the easiest emotions to trigger.

Challengers have been using fear tactics for generations of political campaigns; most often, they associate the incumbent with crime, uncertainty, and terror- from Reagan’s “Bear” ad to Bush’s “Willie Horton” ad. Donald Trump, in particular, focuses his campaign on negative and fear based advertisement. From social change to foreign influence, Trump has encouraged fear on a variety of issues, although on none more so than the issue of terrorism. According to the Atlantic:

“Data provided by the Public Religion Research Institute [showed that] 65 percent of Trump supporters feared being victims of terrorism, versus 51 percent of all Americans. Three-fourths of Trump supporters feared being victims of crime, versus 63 percent overall. “

Trump’s use of fear has clearly made its dent on a significant portion of the GOP. And for Trump, who portrays himself as the antitheses to uncertainty and terror, fear is an extremely useful tool. But in recent months, Hillary Clinton has joined the fear mongering ranks by pushing the “unstable Trump” narrative, asking audiences “Would you want him to have the nuclear codes?”

Unfortunately for Clinton, Trump has the monopoly on fear in this election. Although her point about an unstable, dangerous Trump is valid, Trump’s accusations speak to a more fundamental fear that is less distant and far more relevant: fear of terrorists, fear of dying, and fear for safety. Terrorism is Trump’s bread and butter, because he can use this issue to legitimize deeply fundamental human fears for life which resonate far more than a distant fear of having an unstable leader.

Fear is among the most affective and potent human emotions; Trump is smart to tie threats to human life, threats to safety, and threats of terrorism to Hillary Clinton.