By: Kyriakos Michail
At first, it might be difficult to understand how a former world-renowned Hollywood director from the 1930s and 1940s has anything to do with politics, fear and Donald Trump. Frank Capra was one of the first individuals who made it conventional to use fear as an institutionalized political tool. His propaganda work in the seven-part series Why We Fight (1942-1945), attempted to persuade young Americans to join the war and fight against the evil of Axis in Japan and Germany. In the movie, the pitch-black earth in contrast to the white earth next to it distinguishes the free and democratic world against a world of fascism and slavery. The relevance of Capra’s work over the last 16 years assumes special significance, as I demonstrate how subsequent United States’ Presidents used fear in order to propagate their own goals and gain broader support from the American society.
Ironically, Capra was inspired to engage in propaganda films through an earlier film – the Triumph of the Will (1935) by Leni Riefenstahl – which he admitted hating . Riefenstahl’s movie romanticizes the rise of Nazism with unique footage from Hitler’s arrival to the 1934 Nuremberg Congress of the Nazi party. Showcasing the 700,000 Nazi supporters in the crowd and the military style of the Nazis, it promises and reminds the Germans of their glorious past that they can aspire to in 1935, 16 years after their defeat in World War I. In other words, the film aims at making Germany great again after the failed experiment of the Weimar Republic and the harsh post-war sanctions by the League of Nations. Though some may argue that Capra’s work to persuade young Americans to join the war was a good cause, i.e. to aid the fight against the tyranny of Nazism and fascism, it nonetheless clarified how governments could use fear to convince the public of national goals.
Undoubtedly, the U.S. political scene is not the only one that has used fear in order to promote its agenda, both domestically and abroad. For example, Putin’s Russia has systematically enforced fear through its political activities, both towards its civilians and its enemies in order to maintain power. Other countries such as Erdogan’s Turkey, the general Israeli position against the Palestinians, and many other states use and have used this technique to promote their agendas. However, the implications are arguably greater in the U.S. because of the disproportionate impact that the U.S. carries in global politics – perceived as the beacon of democracy for the rest of the international community.
The systematic use of propaganda that employs fear as the key element towards its target group, was used earlier by another Republican President George W. Bush. Addressing the US Congress on 20th September 2001, just a few days after the 9/11 attacks, he made use of fear to send a strong message both to his international allies and enemies, as well as to those who would have wanted to remain impartial in his subsequent War on Terror. His phrase ‘Every nation in every region now has a decision to make: Either you are with us or you are with the terrorists’, still echoes around the globe as the rallying call to fight against terrorism. This oversimplification of good versus evil, pitting one against the other made it difficult to comprehend the complexity of modern social and political problems, making our answers to them more likely to create more problems than the ones that it sought to solve. The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan reflect this observation. Adopting a binary approach, allowed the targeting and identification of groups of people as hostile and a threat to our security by default, just by being different, meaning they are a target by default while leaving no choice but to fight back with any means necessary.
The current U.S. President Donald Trump has also tapped into this rhetoric of fear and effectively used it during his presidential campaign. It is no coincidence that he stated that ‘every time there’s a tragedy my numbers go way up’. He accused Mexicans of bringing drugs, crime and illegally residing in the US, using this to legitimise his proposal at present to create a border wall to shut out immigrants. He also applied fear when he talked about terrorism and Islam, vowing to ban all Muslims from travelling to the U.S. In his words ‘Our country is going to hell [..] They want our building to crush, they are living in our country’. ‘Wow, they are all men [..]young men, strong and tough [..]. ‘We have to stop them until we find out what is going on!’
Such politics of reason and facts are very easily replaced with a rhetoric of fear and the need to protect our own against the ‘unhuman’ others. Dichotomies such as ‘us’ versus ‘them’ lead to unrest and breed revolutionary zeal. This myopic view towards different languages, culture, religion, race, sex, ethnicity or ideological aspirations, leads to a situation where states are in constant tension or even war with each other or within their own borders.
Another implication that the politics of fear generates is to target people without distinction. The U.S. ban towards immigrants from seven Muslim nations threatens the distinctions and multiple identities that exist inside the Muslim community or to indirectly push them to choose between their identity as Americans and westernized, or primarily Muslims. More importantly, it does not allow individuals from seven Muslim-majority countries to the US – including ones with authorized visas – and has introduced a cap of 50,000 refugees’ intake compared to former President Obama’s cap of 110,000 on an annual basis. President Trump argued that this ban was not a ban against Muslims but against terrorists, despite the well-observed fact that most terrorist attacks in the US were attributed to US-born or naturalised citizens. Nonetheless, this demonisation of the other has caused hysteria in the political scene in the West and has given a rise to far-right wing and conservative tendencies that fear multiculturalism and abundance of identities.
What Haleh Afshar observed in Britain seems to be underway in the U.S. as well – ‘the dream of a multi-ethnic, multi-faith and multiracial Britain seems to have receded yet further. It may take yet another generation before there is a return to the long-lost joys of a celebration of differences and universality of causes that represented an excellent example of a global solidarity’.
Kyriakos Michail is pursuing his MA in Intelligence and International Security at King’s College London. Kyriakos’ research interests include EU politics, conflict resolution, radicalization and Middle-Eastern politics. He previously worked as an intern at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Cyprus and with local NGOs the Cypriot Puzzle.
 Capra, Frank. 1971. The Name Above the Title. New York: Macmillan.
 Gel’man, Vladimir. 2015, The Politics of Fear, Russian Politics & Law, 53:5-6, 6-26.
 Dutta, Nandana. 2004. The face of the other, Interventions, 6:3, 431-450.
 Ahmed, Sarah. 2003. The politics of fear in the making of worlds, International Journal of Qualitative Studies in Education, 16:3, 377-398.
 Afshar, Haleh. 2013. The politics of fear: what does it mean to those who are otherized and feared?, Ethnic and Racial Studies, 36:1, 9-27.
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Kyriakos Michail is pursuing his MA in Intelligence and International Security at King's College London. Kyriakos’ research interests include EU politics, conflict resolution, radicalization and Middle-Eastern politics. He previously worked as an intern at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Cyprus and with local NGOs the Cypriot Puzzle.