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.

James Bovard [send him mail] is the author of the just-released Attention Deficit Democracy, The Bush Betrayal, and Terrorism & Tyranny: Trampling Freedom, Justice, and Peace to Rid the World of Evil. He serves as a policy advisor for The Future of Freedom Foundation. Visit his website.

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