Vail Daily column: Ignore scare tactics
February 18, 2017
Populist politicians swagger on stages surrounded by onlookers who feel such as second class citizens. They rely on emotional, unscripted rhetoric to rile up crowds. Populists appeal to citizens who yearn to retrieve a past when they were influential. Such as a Model T Ford, that past is gone forever.
President Donald Trump has perfected a populist playbook. His effective three-pronged attack is: ridicule his enemies. Then scare the populist base with reports that foreign terrorists infiltrate our borders. Finally, he alone can save the U.S. from sinister forces.
Populist politicians such as Trump chop the world in half: the forgotten people and the powerful elite. His supporters are confident he steers the engine that "makes America great again." What he's really doing, however, is reacting to demographic change towards diversity that threatens white blue-collar workers. America felt much safer and secure for them in an era when John Wayne starred in movies. Then white men called the shots.
Supporters say Trump shows macho by banning terrorists, restricting indefinitely Muslim and Christian Syrian refugees from U.S. entry. He overlooks that such refugees are thoroughly vetted; using exhaustive background checks adopted during the Obama presidency.
Trump appeals to baser instincts, not better dreams. He bullies, rarely expecting the best from opponents. He’s a strongman, not a strong leader. An effective leader gathers differing political persuasions and harnesses them to pull American into a hopeful future.
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Trump skips such facts. Males who are U.S. citizens have gone on killing sprees. They are not Syrian refugees who have slipped by stringent vetting. In the 2016 fiscal year, 38,901 Muslim refugees immigrated to the U.S. Of this total, 12,486 came from Syria. Many were children with horrible war wounds or cancer patients denied medical care in their homeland. Trump's ban closes borders to Syrian children with war wounds and lethal illnesses. His restrictions towards refugees lack mercy.
A superb salesman, Trump peddles fear of terrorists hiding among Syrian refugees. This increases his jittery followers' anger. Then he sells himself as the only savior who knows how to stamp out this fear. He alone can fix it by closing borders to Muslims.
Fear-mongering loses power to convince. Americans figure out it is a ploy to whip up emotions. They suspect demagogic traits of a president who acts unilaterally, mocks the judicial system and sidesteps Congress. Over time, citizens reject such antics.
Trump's supporters wrongly equate his power-grab to get things done with strong leadership that moves our nation ahead. Warns former Reagan speech writer Peggy Noonan: "The president and his advisors are confusing boldness with aggression. They mean to make breakthroughs and instead cause breakdowns. The overcharged circuits are leaving them singed, too. People don't respect you when you create chaos. Prudence is not weakness and carefulness is a virtue, not a vice" (The Wall Street Journal, "In Trump's Washington, Nothing Feels Stable").
How do demagogues act? These firebrands appeal to people who feel sidelined. Using over-heated rhetoric, they exploit pent-up fears. They spread paranoia about enemies sneaking into the U.S. They take immediate action against their foes. They belittle critics as weaklings who have sold America short or are fudging on what makes our nation great.
Although billionaire industrialist Charles Koch funds many conservative causes, he rejects a demagogue's scare tactics. He didn't back Trump's run for the presidency. Koch has recently warned about where Trump is leading our nation. "We have a tremendous danger," says Koch, "because we can go the authoritarian route, or else we can move towards a free and open society."
Noonan seconds this grave concern, suspecting Trump's toolkit is packed with scare tactics. "… The [Trump] administration must become careful never to allow its populism to be turned into something that looks dark, as if it's not aimed at helping the ignored but at hurting various enemy groups. Of all political tendencies populism can never allow itself to appear dark, because its roots are in part emotional and because it depends on public esteem. Americans want an America that looks after itself, but doesn't admire bigotry or respect prejudice. They're embarrassed by it."
Mix fear with a demagogue's tactics and the U.S. gets harmed. Our once-stellar national profile looks shabby. Trump appeals to baser instincts, not better dreams. He bullies, rarely expecting the best from opponents. He's a strongman, not a strong leader. An effective leader gathers differing political persuasions and harnesses them to pull Americans into a hopeful future.
My Christian faith colors the lens through which I observe Trump's politics of fear. "Fear not," is a biblical theme repeated throughout scripture. The Bible tells us the opposite of love isn't hate. Rather, it's fear verging on paranoia that Trump spreads.
Author Madeline L'Engle, a Christian who conservatives idolize, describes what's missing from Trump that makes Americans feel our nation is turning shabbier: "We do not draw people to Christ by loudly discrediting what they believe, by telling them how wrong they are and how right we are, but by showing them a light that is so lovely they want with all their hearts to know the source of it." Such as productive politicking, the best Christian witness beckons rather than bites; comforts rather than wounds.
Syrian refugee children standing before bolted immigration doors deserve this light to shine on their dark circumstances. Closed borders cast shadows on the U.S. that prides itself for welcoming newcomers who flee for their lives. Let compassionate light glow brightly and banish shadows of populist fear-mongering.
The Rev. Dr. Jack R. Van Ens is a Presbyterian minister who heads the nonprofit, tax exempt Creative Growth Ministries (www.thelivinghistory.com), which enhances Christian worship through dynamic storytelling and dramatic presentations aimed to make God's history come alive.
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