By MARSHA MERCER
Since businessman Donald Trump glided down the escalator at Trump Tower to announce his candidacy for president in June 2015, he has stoked fear.
“When Mexico sends its people, they’re not sending their best,” he said that day. “They’re sending people that have lots of problems, and they’re bringing those problems . . . they’re bringing drugs. They’re bringing crime. They’re rapists. And some, I assume, are good people.”
In the home stretch of the 2020 campaign, Trump is running as the law and order president, claiming Democrats will tolerate lawlessness.
“You won’t be safe in Joe Biden’s America,” he warns, raising the specter of anarchists running loose to loot, burn and obliterate American cities whose police have been defunded by Biden and “radical socialist Democrats.”
Former Vice President Biden does not support defunding the police and has made clear rioters, looters and arsonists should be prosecuted.
“Donald Trump keeps telling us if he was president, you’d feel safe. Well, he is president – whether he knows it or not,” Biden tweeted.
Fear is a time-tested campaign tool used by both parties to excite voters. More than half a century ago this week – on Sept. 7, 1964 -- perhaps the most effective presidential campaign ad in history aired on TV.
Known as “Daisy,” the 60-second, black-and white spot for President Lyndon B. Johnson shows a little girl counting as she picks petals off a daisy. An ominous male voice then counts down to a nuclear blast, and the camera focuses on the child’s eye, which transforms into a massive, fiery mushroom cloud.
“These are the stakes,” Johnson intones in a voiceover. “To make a world in which all God’s children can live, or to go into the dark. We must either love each other, or we must die.”
The Daisy ad was shocking at the time, but it’s more subtle than campaign ads we see today.
It didn’t even mention Barry Goldwater, LBJ’s Republican opponent, and it ran only once – although it aired repeatedly on talk shows and news programs.
Goldwater was already trailing Johnson, so it’s unclear how much the ad contributed to Johnson’s landslide victory of 486 electoral votes to Goldwater’s 52.
To win reelection, Trump doesn’t need to scare vast numbers of people into voting for him – just enough to carry the battleground states, as he did in 2016.
But will it work? In 2018, Republicans wielded the cudgel of fear in congressional races, and Democrats still flipped about 40 House seats to regain control.
Trump’s strategy is to attack Biden with everything and the kitchen sink.
Biden wants to raise your taxes, offshore your job, throw open the borders, wage endless foreign wars, surrender to China and destroy the suburbs, Trump says. That’s a hefty agenda for someone Trump derides as “Sleepy.”
As technology accelerates, campaigns can target digital ads to individual voters through social media in record time.
Hours after news broke of journalist Bob Woodward’s bombshell book, “Rage,” a new Biden ad on Twitter played audio tape of Trump saying to Woodward about COVID-19: “I wanted to always play it down . . . I still like playing it down.”
The ad faults Trump for failing to inform the public accurately and blames him for tens of thousands of lost American lives.
“It’s unconscionable,” Biden tweeted. Trump maintains he just wanted to avoid panic.
The anti-Trump Lincoln Project, founded by a group of Republican operatives, fills social media with ads attacking Trump and Republican senators.
A new Lincoln Project ad hits a new low. The ad shows hideous pictures of flesh-eating parasites and likens Sen. Lindsey Graham, Republican of South Carolina, to a parasite.
Still, the worst in negative ads and fearmongering may be yet to come.
Of the nearly 70,000 political television ads that ran in the final days of the 2016 campaign, fewer than one in 10 were primarily positive, according to a CNN analysis of data from Kantar Media/CMAG.
The reason is both parties believe, as Richard Nixon did, that fear is a great motivator. Nixon’s speechwriter William Safire wrote in his book “Before the Fall: An Inside View of the Pre-Watergate White House”:
“People react to fear, not love – they don’t teach that in Sunday School, but it’s true,” Nixon said.
©2020 Marsha Mercer. All rights reserved.