The history of politicians going way beyond the facts to court fear

Political candidates’ rhetoric often gets heated, even inflammatory on the campaign trail. But when does it cross the line into the offensive or fear-mongering? Hari Sreenivasan gets a historical perspective from presidential historian Michael Beschloss and Beverly Gage of Yale University.

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    Sticking with politics, we take a look at the intersection of inflammatory rhetoric and free speech.

    Hari Sreenivasan has a historical perspective.


    Candidates' speeches on the campaign trail can at times get inflammatory with little regard for accuracy. That's not new. But this election season has been marked by divisive language that some find hateful.

    So, what is the line to be looking for? And what lessons of the past can help guide us?

    Joining me now to dissect the rhetoric on the campaign trail is presidential historian Michael Beschloss, and Beverly Gage, professor of American history at Yale.

    Thank you both for joining us.

    So, I want to ask. I guess the first question is, is, when free speech intersects with fear-mongering, Michael Beschloss, how much is too much? How do we figure out where that line is?

  • MICHAEL BESCHLOSS, Presidential Historian:

    Well, I think the one certain line is when you have a presidential candidate, especially of a major party, criticizing groups within American society.

    That has happened in history. You had, for instance, the candidate of the Know-Nothings, 1856, Millard Fillmore, a former president, who said if you allow people of Irish origin and others to run rampant in American society — he was also anti-Catholic — this will be a danger to America.

    But I think most nominees of major parties through at least our modern history realize that this is a country that depends on all sorts of people living together under one umbrella, and they also realize that if you want to win, usually, that happens by not alienating groups, but by trying to bring them together.


    Beverly Gage, is it easy to find that line?

  • BEVERLY GAGE, Yale University:

    I think it's not always so easy to find it, but it's the sort of thing where people tend to know it when they see it.

    And one basic measure is whether or not someone is telling the factual truth. We would like to think that that is sort of a baseline. People don't, of course, always adhere to that.

    But I agree with Michael that one of the other lines that we are really talking about is vilifying whole swathes of people, creating a kind of conspiratorial language, a discourse that is about guilt by association. Those can be very, very dangerous things, but they have been around a long time.


    Here is a sample clip from some of the things that at least presidential candidate Donald Trump has said that has a lot of folks concerned.

    DONALD TRUMP (R), Presidential Candidate: I have had horrible rulings. I have been treated very unfairly by this judge.

    Now, this judge is of Mexican heritage. I'm building a wall.

    A total and complete shutdown of Muslims entering the United States, until our country's representative can figure out what the hell is going on.


    Michael, you gave some good examples of how this kind of speech has happened in the past. Is there something different about this campaign? Is it just the times that we live in? Is it the technology that transfers this speech so quickly? What is changing things?


    Sure. You have got Twitter, you have got the Internet. It's a lot easier to make charges like this and have people hear them very quickly.

    But the other thing is that, earlier in history, you have had instances like this — Strom Thurmond in 1948 would talk about law and order, and what he was really referring to was what he thought was the danger, his word, to American society of integration of the races.

    George Wallace slightly more muted than that in 1968. They were never able to get nominated by a major party. That's what makes Donald Trump's situation so interesting and novel.


    Beverly Gage, one of the things that came up, at least historical, when we started doing searches for this, the daisy ad that was back in the LBJ campaign, it was one of the most striking one-minute-long ads that we have ever seen.

    It's a little girl. She's picking petals. Everything seems to be going fine. There's no music, nothing. Then, all of a sudden, we sort of zoom, I guess when the camera zoom idea was new, zoom into her eyeball and see this atomic explosion, with the narrator coming up.


    That was a Lyndon Johnson ad targeting Barry Goldwater. It was not broadcast very much, but it became one of the most dramatic and famous political ads in its moment because it basically suggested that, if you vote for Barry Goldwater, you were going to get a nuclear holocaust around the world, a pretty big leap.

    At the same time, I think the 1964 election is interesting for the politics that surrounded Goldwater. The establishment wing of the party didn't like Goldwater at all. They thought he was an extremist, that he was using violent rhetoric, that he was taking the support of groups like the John Birch Society, which had a very kind of conspiratorial, anti-communist approach, and so it really divided the party.

    And one of the things that was interesting then and that I think we are going to see playing out now is, just how much control does a party have over its own nominee?


    Michael Beschloss, does selling fear work?


    It sometimes does.

    Wendell Willkie in 1940, he certainly was — never said anything remotely like what we are talking about in terms of defaming minority groups, but he did in the full campaign say essentially, if you elect Franklin Roosevelt, even though he is promising you that he will not involve the United States in a foreign war, you can be sure that, if he's elected, we are going to be at war probably within a few months.

    He didn't believe that was true. It went way beyond the facts, but it caused Willkie to soar ahead in the polls to the point that, by November, he was almost within striking distance of winning the presidency.


    Beverly Gage, as you pointed out, this is not one party or another. This is kind of as old as politics.

    And just in the last cycle, a lot of people took Hillary Clinton to task for the 3:00 a.m. ad that she had against Barack Obama. It was just pictures of kids sleeping in their beds, and it was, it's 3:00 a.m., the red phone, so to speak, in the White House is ringing. Do you know who is going to answer that phone? Are you sure who you're going to vote for now is going to make that decision?

    I guess in politics and almost in sales, it is almost a natural thing. I have to convince you that there is a problem and, B, that I am the solution. Right?

    How do we figure out when we cross over that? And it's also pretty natural in politics to want to tear the other candidate down, but without necessarily going into this other space that we seem to be in today?



    And fear is a good motivator often. And, sometimes, it's a very accurate thing. It is something that you want to mobilize in people. Sometimes, there are really concrete things to be afraid of.

    I think the difference is when it crosses the line into conspiracy thinking and into this sort of, well, we have this one fact and therefore we are going to infer a whole set of other terrible things that might happen from that one fact.

    It is a very hard line to draw. And I think the other thing that is interesting to think about, is the way that this kind of fear-based politics, which often comes up in campaigns, even if the candidate who is using that kind of fear-based politics loses, it can have pretty dramatic long-term consequences.


    Beverly Gage, Michael Beschloss, thanks so much for your perspective, as always.


    Thank you, Hari.


    Thanks, Hari.

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