Fear in Political Advertising

Emotions run high during presidential election years. This has always been the case. In the election of 1800, a Federalist newspaper supporting incumbent President John Adams wrote that if the former Vice President Thomas Jefferson were elected, “murder, robbery, rape, adultery, and incest will all be openly taught and practiced, the air will be rent with the cries of distress, the soil will be soaked with blood, and the nation black with crimes.” That election set the stage for mudslinging and a language of fear that has since consumed electoral politics, especially during times of crises.

And so, it is no surprise that fear has played a powerful role in shaping political advertisements for both campaigns in 2020. However, the Biden and Trump campaigns have appropriated it in starkly different ways. 

In the following political advertisement, “Fringe,” the Trump campaign uses “fear as a motivator,” explains Nicole Hemmer, historian and author of Messengers of the Right: Conservative Media and the Transformation of American Politics. It introduces manipulated footage and false information about Biden’s desire to defund the police to make an argument that a Biden presidency would endanger Americans.

As anthropologist Leo Chavez observes, Donald Trump has also used fear to shape immigration debates, appealing to white voters who are uneasy about demographic changes and the nation’s growing diversity. His demonization of immigrants as criminals builds on a “Latino threat narrative” that objectifies, dehumanizes, and stigmatizes immigrants in a way that supports policies that “limit their social integration and obstruct their economic mobility.”

The Biden campaign has taken a different approach. In this political advertisement, “Heal America,” the Biden campaign recognizes that fear exists. With images of the global pandemic, climate change, the financial crisis and racial justice protests, the advertisement acknowledges that Americans are afraid. But rather than stoking fear, the advertisement promises to address the root of the problems under a Biden presidency.

On questions of immigration, the Biden campaign has pushed back against the threat narrative. The advertisement “Stand Together” celebrates the contributions of Asian-American immigrants in an effort to counter the anti-Asian sentiment that has escalated with the spread of COVID-19 and the Trump administration’s efforts to blame the virus on China. 

Stoking fear has a long history in American elections, but as Chavez notes, divisive and volatile rhetoric has broader consequences. It can create “charged political and social situations where real damage” and violence can be done.

Watch Nicole Hemmer, along with other special guests, discuss the use of fear in political advertisements in Museum of the Moving Image’s recent live panel discussion:

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