Monday, June 04, 2007

The Fear Appeal in Republican Politics

Despite the popular narrative in media and political circles (both liberal and conservative) that the GOP is doomed in 2008 I still have a feeling that at noon on January 20, 2009 we will see the Republican Party standing on a dais in Washington exclaiming, “reports of my death were greatly exaggerated.” This is largely due to the fact that Rudy Giuliani is leading in most state and national polls and is even competitive in the South Carolina primary (Edsall, 2007). I think America could elect saint Rudy of 9/11 even if they get to know the Rudy that existed on September 10th.

The contradiction of Giuliani as the great hope of the GOP is fairly simple to find. You see it in the first few paragraphs of the recent profile in The New Republic. One voter explains himself as being “on all the social issues…to the right of him” (Edsall). Yet this voter is still supporting Giuliani. Which would leave one scratching their head every time they hear a cable news pundit pontificating on the inevitable demise of the Giuliani presidential campaign.

The most important conclusion that one would have to reach here is that the politics of the GOP coalition (and any political coalition from any location or time in human history) is a little more complicated than what the media and political commentators would have the public believe. Then again, what isn’t? Many elements are at work and everyone has an explanation for Giuliani’s success. The most popular being that the only thing that anyone knows about him comes from twenty-four hours of his life in September of 2001.

This would be what one could call the Lippmann explanation of the “world outside and the pictures in our heads.” Lippmann wrote about how the public comes to know a figure through a fictitious persona created by media. These personas can obviously be both positive and negative. Roosevelt is a hero and Trotsky is a villain. Lippmann wrote that “beside hero-worship there is the exorcism of devils. By the same mechanism through which heroes are incarnated, devils are made” (p. 7). As an example here, Giuliani has the added bonus of being on the receiving end of both treatments.

While the media portrayal of Giuliani as an individual political figure is part of the “picture in the public’s head,” it is only part of why he is successful and, more importantly, why the GOP could still rise like a phoenix from the ashes of 2006. What is more important here is the rhetorical use of fear and patriotism. This is a fairly broad subject that needs a more in depth examination that this post will not allow, but it is essential to present a cursory discussion in order to move on to another Republican figure, Peggy Noonan.

Giuliani, I would argue, doesn’t employ a very subtle use of the fear appeal. Recently he told an audience in New Hampshire that if a Democrat is elected to the presidency in 2008 there will be another attack of the same magnitude as 9/11. This is the modus operandi for the Republicans. I suppose that the liberal reaction to this would most likely be to accuse of Giuliani of fear mongering. That may be a valid point, but fear appeals can also be valid and effective rhetorical tools, when used properly.

Michael William Pfau (2007) and Douglas Walton (1996) present two characteristics that are essential here. First, the threat in the fear appeal must be credible (or “close at hand”). Second, the solution to the threat must be possible to achieve. For Giuliani the threat is terrorism, the solution is “vote Giuliani.” He creates an effective fear appeal. In fact, the voter from The New Republic article cites Giuliani’s understanding of terrorism as the reason for supporting Giuliani.

As Pfau notes, in Rhetoric Aristotle makes the argument that fear “makes people inclined to deliberation” (p. 221). This brings us to the validity of the fear appeal. While Giuliani’s argument is certainly effective, whether or not it is fallacious is another issue. Even more questionable is whether or not it will make people “inclined to deliberation.” The intention of this argument is demonizing his opposition more than anything else. Which brings us to Peggy Noonan’s recent editorial in the Wall Street journal.

Noonan is lamenting the manner in which the Bush administration is treating the rest of the conservative movement. The source of the fissure is the immigration bill that is being pushed by the president and members of congress from both parties. In a speech in Georgia President Bush stated:

Those determined to find fault with this bill will always be able to look at a narrow slice of it and find something they don't like," the president said. "If you want to kill the bill, if you don't want to do what's right for America, you can pick one little aspect out of it. (Feller, 2007).
This is not quite the same appeal that Giuliani was making but it is from the same strain of authoritarianism that currently runs through Republican politics. Where Giuliani employs fear Bush questions the patriotism of his opponents.

Again, Lippmann is useful here. He argues that within groups “there is infinitely less suppression of individual difference” (p. 8). Here is one point where I would disagree with Lippmann and the current conservative movement is a good illustration. The reason we are currently seeing the cracks in their coalition is because within subgroups of society there is infinitely more suppression of difference. Which is what Noonan is addressing.

Noonan asks why the White House would “speak so insultingly, with such hostility, of opponents who are concerned citizens? And often, though not exclusively, concerned conservatives?” Anyone who has attempted even the most cursory examination of the rhetoric of the right in general and this administration specifically would find the phrase “often, though not exclusively” to be a bit of an understatement. From the war on terror, to the war in Iraq to really any other issue (especially on foreign policy) this administration and the conservative movement have employed tactics of insult and hostility against almost exclusively groups and individuals outside of the conservative movement. There have been occasional conservative individuals who have fallen prey to these attacks. Lawrence Lindsey and Paul O”Neil come to mind, but they were attacked for individual acts of “disloyalty,” not because they were ideological opponents.

Gil Smart makes the argument for conservatism as tribalism. He seems to be looking at the situation from an internal view, examining the internal machinations of the movement and what it is doing to itself. I would add to his analysis what is happening outside of conservatism and how it is causing the internal fissure. What is happening outside is that the public is rejecting it. Unsurprisingly, the movement is going into an internal authoritarian mode of operation. Andrew Perrin, citing Marcus, argues that “the threat of unsettled times may send cultures retreating into an inward-focused authoritarian stance” (p. 169).

This is what we are currently witnessing from Noonan and Bush. We are clearly living in unsettled times for the GOP and the conservative movement. They are expressing this uncertainty through the cannibalization of their own movement. They are attacking their own. I would argue that what is happening is the natural reaction of the people who are in charge of any collective, be it a political movement or a nation.

The people in charge of the movement want to maintain order. Order means their continued power, disarray means change. There are two common elements we can see in the rhetoric. First, they have to convince their followers that there is an external threat (i.e. terrorists, immigrants, etc.). In this case the externals are immigrants. Second, there has to be an internal threat as well. In this case, as in every case with the Bush administration, the internal threat is anyone who disagrees with the administration’s position. In the war on terror those people are anyone who questions the president’s policies. In the case of the immigration bill it’s the president’s conservative opponents in congress.

It’s not possible that good people can have honest disagreements on the best course of action. The explanation for an individual’s disagreement with president Bush is that they “don’t want to do what’s right for America.” With Iraq the answer is that opponents want to let France decide when America can defend itself. The examples of this rhetoric and those who employ it against, almost exclusively, liberals and Democrats are too numerous to mention. Which is part of what makes Peggy Noonan’s editorial so intellectually dishonest.

At this point this is the one tactic that the Republicans have left for electoral victory in 2008; the fear appeal. Give the audience an external threat, tell them it can be defeated and tell them that anyone who opposes their method of victory just doesn’t want to do what’s right for America. The big question is, when the Republican candidate for president, whether it is Giuliani or anyone else, stands in front of an audience and tells them that voting for a Democrat for president is literally a threat to national security, will we be able to count on Peggy Noonan, not to mention every conservative who is currently feeling insulted by the White House, to stand and ask why that candidate would “speak so insultingly, with such hostility, of opponents who are concerned citizens?”


Edsall, Thomas. (2007). Party Boy. The New Republic, 21 May, p. 26-32.

Feller, Ben. (2007). Bush Attacks Immigration Deal Opponents. Retrieved 1 June 2007 from

Lippmann, Walter. (1922). Public Opinion. New York, NY: Free Press Paperbacks.

Noonan, Peggy. (2007). Too Bad. Retrieved 1 June 2007 from

Perrin, Andrew. (2005). National Threat and Political Culture: Authoritarianism, Antiauthoritarianism, and the September 11 Attacks. Political Psychology, 26 (2),
p. 167-194.

Pfau, Michael William. (2007). Who’s Afraid of Fear Appeals? Contingency, Courage, and Deliberation in Rhetorical Theory and Practice. Philosophy and Rhetoric, 40 (2),
p. 216-237.

Smart, Gil. (2007). The Movement Kills the Message. Smart Remarks. Retrieved on 2 June 2007 from

Walton, Douglas. (2007). Practical Reasoning and the Structure of Fear Appeal
Arguments. Philosophy and Rhetoric, 29 (4), p. 301-313.


Old Man On Campus said...

Nice to see that you're doing OK. I enjoyed your class immensely.

I agree with your post, and would add one thing: that is what the Democrats did in 1970-72 (see Theodore H. White's "Making of the President 1972").

fas said...

Good show Rob. Great to read your blog and see you and the gals in Merry Old England. God the doc is precious! Why did you not acknowledge the fact that she is not only beautiful but also a UK doctor?

fas (Uncle Rob)