Marjorie Taylor Greene is warning America that God is vengeful, evil will be punished, and the [international Jewish] “Globalists” are out to destroy America. Like most of today’s Republicans — particularly the Trump-humpers in the Congressional Sedition Caucus — she portrays an America under attack from within and in a state of decay and collapse.
Most Democratic political messaging and ads are upbeat and talk about what politicians and the party have done and hope to do for working class and poor Americans. Most Republican ads, on the other hand, are dark, ominous, and point to danger, death, and destruction.
Every wonder why this has been the case for at least 40 years?
Our most primal emotion is fear. For millions of years it helped us and our primate ancestors survive: fear kept us wary of predators and other dangers. Walk up to a wild squirrel or bird and you’ll see fear kick in as they run or fly away from you: every animal on Earth maintains its life on a substrate of fear.
This is why fear is so powerful: it’s at the core of our survival instincts, right alongside thirst, hunger, breathing, and the need to excrete waste. It’s wired into our brains and begins to function at the moment of our birth: the younger and more helpless we are — all the way back to our first moments outside mom — the more easily we slip into fear.
Because fear was primary at our birth, when we experience it as adults it tends to throw us back to our infancy. It’s why torture victims usually sob uncontrollably; why George Floyd and Tyree Nichols both called out for their mothers as police officers brutally murdered them: Floyd’s mother had been dead two years when he called her name as he died.
Fear, in other words, infantilizes us. It takes us back to a time before knowledge, before logic, before we felt power and agency as an adult. Fear sweeps aside a lifetime of learning and maturing and reduces us, emotionally, to infancy.
Which is precisely why Republicans and GOP-aligned media like Fox “News” and rightwing hate radio use fear as their primary tool to capture and motivate voters. Turn on rightwing media at any random time and you’ll get a fiery blast of rhetoric and imagery specifically designed to induce fear, thus producing infantilization.
Because infants don’t question things. They don’t make comparisons. They don’t put things in context or look for alternative explanations. They don’t think critically.
They just cry out for mom or dad, and when Republicans can throw them into that state of fear, part two of the classic authoritarian playbook kicks in: offer a powerful-seeming parental figure (almost always male) who can reassure frightened Republicans that he’ll take care of them, he’ll hold the threats at bay, he’ll keep them safe if they just surrender their agency and power to him.
Donald Trump has been playing this game ever since he came down the escalator in 2015 ranting about dark-skinned “rapists and murderers pouring across our border” from Mexico. His first inaugural address, his infamous “American Carnage” speech, referred to our “inner cities,” “crime and the gangs” and “radical Islamic terrorism, which we will eradicate completely from the face of the Earth.”
But fear as a GOP political weapon goes back much farther than Trump. Nixon did it when he declared his racist “war on drugs.” Reagan did it when he referred to Black people as “monkeys” and “cannibals” who are “uncomfortable wearing shoes.” George HW Bush did it with his Willie Horton ads. George W. Bush did it to justify two illegal wars while torturing and extrajudicially murdering Afghan and Iraqi civilians.
If you can scare people badly enough, you can get them to go along with almost anything sold to them as providing safety and security.
It’s why every fascist movement in history starts out by dehumanizing its victims, then characterizing them as an existential threat. Whether it was Hitler’s characterization of Jews, or DeSantis’ portrayal of trans people and drag queens as “groomers and predators,” the script is always the same.
Scare people, point to an “other” as the threat, and then promise to “deal with” that threat in the most brutal and thus instantly effective way possible. Double bonus points for convincing people that their beloved children are the ones primarily under threat.
As the brilliant Amanda Marcotte noted for Salon:
“The last thing MAGA stands for, in fact, is making America great, much less ‘great again.’ These are people caught up in a dark fantasy that they live in a zombie movie.”
She goes so far as to speculate that Republicans refuse to do anything about gun violence because mass- and school-shootings increase the fear of Americans, and Republicans live on fear the way vampires live on blood (my metaphor, not hers).
Ignoring the very real “sexualizing” effect of pornography instantly available on the internet — it’s a multibillion-dollar industry that could be cordoned off with an “.xxx” domain that requires age verification to access — the GOP has blocked all efforts to keep explicit porn away from our children. Republicans instead want you to believe that drag queens, public school teachers, and trans people are “groomers” and “molesters.”
You won’t hear a peep out of them about the steady stream of fundamentalist and Catholic pastors and priests (and Republican politicians) arrested for grooming and molesting: this is about creating fear and then redirecting that fear against people who are the least likely to be able to fight back.
While Republican politicians will blithely tell you there’s “nothing that can be done” about high-velocity bullets from assault weapons tearing our schoolchildren’s bodies into mangled and sometimes unidentifiable masses of bloody meat, they’ll go to the mat for fetuses.
Why? Because defending innocence and purity is the other face of attacking sinfulness and danger. As Pastor Dave Barnhart wrote on his Facebook page back in 2018:
‘The unborn’ are a convenient group of people to advocate for.
“They never make demands of you; they are morally uncomplicated, unlike the incarcerated, addicted, or the chronically poor; they don’t resent your condescension or complain that you are not politically correct; unlike widows, they don’t ask you to question patriarchy; unlike orphans, they don’t need money, education, or childcare; unlike aliens, they don’t bring all that racial, cultural, and religious baggage that you dislike; they allow you to feel good about yourself without any work at creating or maintaining relationships; and when they are born, you can forget about them, because they cease to be unborn.”
The GOP’s relentless focus on criminalizing abortion is part and parcel of their larger efforts to infantilize Republican voters. To protect them from scary Black men, uppity women, terrified asylum seekers, poor people, union “bosses,” and “Marxist” progressives who want to give them free healthcare and college.
Once white voters are reduced to that child-like state, with every fear assuaged by performative anti-trans, anti-gay, anti-Black history, anti-drag, and anti-abortion laws, it’s an easy step to telling them, as Trump did repeatedly:
“Only we can help you. Only we can ‘save’ America and bring her back to the uncomplicated white supremacy glory days of the 1950s.”
This strategy, employed by dictators and autocrats, is as ancient as history. Caligula did it, as did Nero. Mussolini, Hitler, Putin, and Orbán achieved and exercised power using fear.
And now the GOP has adopted fear as their first and foremost electoral strategy, knowing it’s so powerful that both optimism and fact-checking almost always fail against it.
Ironically, in their overreach, Republican policies are now inspiring so much reactive fear in Democratic voters — particularly among women, students, the queer community, and people of color — that it may end up propelling millions of new progressive voters to the polls.
Turnabout, apparently, is fair play.