WASHINGTON — As long as I’ve covered politics, Republicans have been trying to scare me.
Sometimes, it has been about gays and transgender people and uppity women looming, but usually, it has been about people with darker skin looming.
They’re coming, always coming, to take things and change things and hurt people.
A Democratic president coined the expression, “The only thing we have to fear is fear itself.” But it was Republicans who flipped the sentiment and turned it into a powerful and remorseless campaign ethos: Make voters fear fear itself.
President Trump was relieved when the F.B.I. arrested a bomb suspect — a racist, homophobic, roid-raging, strip-club-loving, MAGA-worshiping Florida man who was living in a van that looked like a decoupage of Fox News propaganda.
The real fear that Cesar Sayoc Jr. is accused of spreading was distracting from the fake fear Trump was spreading to spur Republicans to the polls. And the president didn’t like it. Before Sayoc was caught, Trump implied that the terrorism was a Democratic setup to deflect from his midterms roadshow. Pipe bombs getting in the way of pipe dreams.
The president has, after all, put a tremendous effort into the sulfurous stew of lies, racially charged rhetoric and scaremongering that he has been serving up as an election closer. He has been inspired to new depths of delusion, tweeting that “Republicans will totally protect people with Pre-Existing Conditions, Democrats will not! Vote Republican.”
He has been twinning the words “caravan” and “Kavanaugh” in a mellifluous poem to white male hegemony. Whites should be afraid of the migrant caravan traveling from Central America, especially since “unknown Middle Easterners” were hidden in its midst, an alternative fact that he cheerfully acknowledged was based on nothing.
The word “Kavanaugh” is meant to evoke the fear that aggrieved women will hurtle out of the past to tear down men from their rightful perches of privilege.
Democrats seem blown back by the ferocious — and often fictional — effort.
You’d think by now that Democrats would have learned to do that in a compassionate way, and that they would be ready to counteract Republican horror movies. It is always the same shameless playbook, replicated since Richard Nixon launched his racist Southern Strategy, stirring up fears on desegregation and busing. They merely reboot it to suit the times.
The only difference — and it is a shocking one — is that Donald Trump cuts out the middleman. He handles the dirty work himself — and revels in it. In the old days, presidents let their hatchet men stir up the racist skulduggery behind the scenes. So when Republican lawmakers complain about Trump’s white nationalist rhetoric, what they are really saying is that they prefer a more subtle racism.
When I covered the ’88 race, I watched Lee Atwater and Roger Ailes concoct the scheme to bring down Michael Dukakis by making “Willie Horton his running mate,” as Atwater put it. The ads made by the Bush campaign and outside groups centered on Horton, a black criminal who broke into a Maryland house, raped a white woman and stabbed her husband while on a weekend furlough from a Massachusetts prison.
“The only question is whether we depict Willie Horton with a knife in his hand or without it,” Ailes told Time magazine.
During the 2000 South Carolina primary, W.’s backers tried to appeal to racist voters with a whispered lie that John McCain fathered an illegitimate black child.
In 2004, Dick Cheney bluntly warned Americans that if they elected John Kerry, terrorists would hit us with a “devastating” attack (even though the devastating Sept. 11 attack came on Cheney’s watch).
One Fox producer under Ailes said they called it “riling up the crazies.” For Ailes and now for his Frankenstein Trump — who has Ailes’s old lieutenant Bill Shine as his media czar — it’s all about picking and inventing the right battles, finding the lowest common denominator to boost ratings.
“Divide and Conquer,” an excellent new documentary produced by Alex Gibney and directed by Alexis Bloom, shows the divisive strategy Ailes used to help elect a succession of Republican presidents, even as he turned Fox News into a sexually transgressive cult where he and Bill O’Reilly and others could get away with any predation.
For Ailes, and later Trump, politics was a war to preserve a gauzy John Wayne throwback world, patriotic and traditional, to save it from a sneering, contemptuous elite and from the “Other.” Ailes was a student of Hitler propagandist Leni Riefenstahl. Sometimes, as with Trump’s birther campaign, the Other needed to be made to seem even more Other. Michelle Obama segments were designed to scare.
In the documentary, those around Ailes marveled at his relentless talent for pouring gas on a fire, for stoking the paranoia and fear that would keep viewers on the hook.
Trump’s main training for politics was being a sparring star in the House That Roger Built. And Ailes taught Trump well.