Photo by Joe Brusky, Creative Commons.
The 2016 election cycle began with a flurry of extreme talking points from the GOP candidates for President, some of which pushed the boundary of acceptable public commentary. While Donald Trump’s views at the opening of his campaign were troubling enough—remember how he launched his campaign with the assertion that most Mexican immigrants were criminals and rapists?—several other contenders ratcheted up their own rhetoric quickly.
Politicians from the large field of Republican contenders made claim to a whole host of threats facing Americans. According to GOP presidential candidates, the groups Americans truly need to fear include union members, Syrian refugees, transgender women, marriage equality advocates, and Planned Parenthood. A very brief round up of the early campaigns’ moments shows a plethora of comments about the dangers to the country:
• Bobby Jindal, June 26, 2015, in response to the Supreme Court decision legalizing marriage equality across the nation: “This decision will pave the way for an all out assault against the religious freedom rights of Christians who disagree with this decision. This ruling must not be used as pretext by Washington to erode our right to religious liberty.”
• Mike Huckabee on November 30, 2015, talking with CNN’s State of the Union show about the Colorado Springs attack on a Planned Parenthood clinic: “There's no excuse for killing other people, whether it's happening inside the Planned Parent headquarters, inside their clinics, where many millions of babies die, or whether it's people attacking Planned Parenthood.”
• Chris Christie, December 21, 2015, answering a question about making public accommodations inclusive of transgender people by talking about terrorism: “Life is confusing enough right now for our children. Think about those kids in Los Angeles who last week had their entire district closed because of a threat. Think about what they felt like the next day when they went back to school. Did they feel completely comfortable, did they feel like they were safe?”
Why all of the fear-mongering? Why do right-wing candidates return again and again to the idea of threats and violence against Americans? There are a number of explanations, including that politicians believe fear-based messages increase their voter turnout—even though the statistical evidence doesn’t exactly show this. During presidential elections, Democrats are much more likely to turn out to the polls—which means that Republicans are letting loose more fearful rhetoric than usual in an attempt to tip the balance. This rhetoric of fear is also part of a long-term cultural trend toward more extreme ideological positions among candidates for the highest office on both the right and the left.
While candidates may start out jockeying for attention with ludicrous sound bites, by the primaries, they often shift into more down-to-earth policy positions. This primary cycle, however, has been marked by a more direct passage from hateful invective to policy design. The nasty rhetoric of the presidential campaign isn’t just fading into background noise—it’s becoming the basis for proposed laws. For example, Ted Cruz announced he would introduce a bill to prevent Syrians from seeking refuge in the US, the very day after speaking with Tucker Carlson on Fox News about the refugee crisis and just days after Trump’s remarks that all Muslims should be banned from entering the US. Ted Cruz was in good company with other GOP governors and candidates repeating the idea that they too would refuse to accept any Syrian refugees (maybe families or Christian Syrians were okay, but definitely not orphans), but he used his Senate position to go a step further and put the rhetoric into legislative terms. Cruz rushed to introduction the bill soon after the Paris attacks—about three weeks—before the investigation had concluded. The bill was motivated in part by rumors about the legitimacy of a Syrian passport found at one of the scenes of attack—those were later refuted. Mr. Cruz was willing to propose a bill that would change long-standing American refugee law and impact millions of people just to score campaign points.
Fear-mongering rhetoric has also directly influenced bills that take aim at public accommodations laws that make spaces more transgender-inclusive. The campaign slogan “No Men in Women’s Bathrooms” was central to the defeat of a Houston anti-discrimination law last year. Trans people may be viewed as an easy target for scapegoating, with right-wing campaigners whipping up imagery about civil rights laws protecting hypothetical sexual abusers who could don dresses and hide out in women’s rest rooms across America (it’s worth pausing to note the absurdity of that idea—this feared transgender bathroom attack has never actually happened). Now, trans-inclusive anti-discrimination laws are coming up for public vote in at least six states, including Washington, Virginia, Texas, Oklahoma, Nevada, and Minnesota. Will the politics of fear swing those elections, too?
One motivation for connecting this fear-mongering rhetoric to actual laws may be the “Trump factor,” in which the other candidates attempt to match Donald Trump’s proclamations against accepting refugees fleeing Syria and Egypt, for example. Other candidates have noticed Trump’s polling numbers haven’t been hurt by any of his offensive statements about immigrants, menstruation, his campaigning counterparts, or the President. Trump’s approach may be shifting the entire race—other candidates for office may think that Americans are increasingly tolerant of these alienating proclamations, and perhaps that’s led to a kind of experimentation in policymaking, a keeping-up-with-the-Joneses approach to legislating.
It’s fair to say that in addition to this competitiveness pushing the extreme right edge of the political spectrum, some campaigners have taken up existing angry rhetoric and worked it into their policy statements or promises. A good example is the pledges by six candidates to pass a “religious freedom” bill within their first 100 days in office. Similarly, candidates seem to be trying to outdo each other with calls for Planned Parenthood to be defunded, and a vote passing such defunding in early December in the Senate—despite the fact that poll after poll shows a clear majority of Americans support keeping Planned Parenthood funded.
If only these GOP candidates’ ridiculous quotes could be laughed off. But troublingly, even flippant and clearly untrue rhetoric is guiding policy this election season. As the GOP lineup has shrunk from seventeen candidates to twelve, the rhetoric hasn’t become more moderate. Paying attention to the campaign comments in this cycle may show voters what policy stances candidates will actually take. We shouldn’t ignore or dismiss these comments on the campaign trail.