In launching his presidential campaign recently, Sen. Lindsay Graham made it clear what kind of campaign he would run. "I want to be president to defeat the enemies trying to kill us," he announced.
This comment bookends nicely with a remark he made a few weeks ago in the long warm-up to his launch: "If I'm president of the United States and you're thinking about joining al-Qeada or ISIL, I'm not gonna call a judge, I'm gonna call a drone, and we will kill you."
Second District Republican Congressman Joe "You Lie" Wilson could not be topped in this sweepstakes of fear. Last fall he told a Rotary luncheon in Richland County that America was under threat from Islamic terrorists infected with Ebola who were trying to cross the southern border to spread the disease through the general population.
Fear is the juice that has fueled South Carolina politics for generations. The late Strom Thurmond was obsessed with the idea of communist infiltration. As a state legislator in the 1930s, he tried to require school teachers to take a loyalty oath. As governor and United States senator, he never missed a chance to link communism to the Civil Rights Movement. "Agents of the Kremlin" were behind racial unrest in the South, he said in 1948. In 1961, he called civil rights leaders "red pawns and publicity seekers" who were "playing directly into the hands of the communists in agitating racial disturbances in the South." Martin Luther King, he charged, had associated with "admitted communists and pro-communist characters."
Before Thurmond there was the infamous "Pitchfork Ben" Tillman, who built a monumental political career out of race baiting and scaring the hell out of his white constituents. "We of the South have never recognized the right of the negro to govern white men and we never will," Sen. Tillman said into the Congressional Record in 1900. "And we will not submit to his gratifying his lust on our wives and daughters without lynching him."
In November 1860, former governor and U.S. Sen. James H. Hammond wrote to the legislature that the election of Abraham Lincoln as president was "no mere political or ethical conflict, but a social conflict in which there will be a war of races, to be waged at midnight with the torch, the knife, and poison."
Southern politicians have never been ashamed to use fear to bring people around to their point of view, and probably none has been more adept at scaring voters than South Carolina's long and colorful train of demagogues. The politics of fear can be played on the right or the left, but for several reasons it is largely the tool of conservatives.
First, pointing to bogeymen, real or imagined, and pointing to enemies, within or without, is a proven way to distract people from real economic and social problems — the very things which conservatives, by their nature, are least inclined to confront. By pointing to "communists" and "outside agitators," Southern leaders absolved themselves of any responsibility to deal with the injustice of segregation, lynchings, and other racial disparities. And they encouraged their white constituents to focus on distant and insignificant dangers which really had little effect on them.
With enough fear, critics can be threatened into silence, civil liberties can be abridged, the environment can be destroyed with impunity. After the 9/11 attacks, we witnessed the power of fear to make people surrender reason and decency.
And history has shown that finding enemies in distant and exotic lands is good business. During the Cold War, the specter of communism in Southeast Asia caused the United States to squander trillions of dollars and nearly 60,000 lives in the jungles of Vietnam and Cambodia. Those countries were eventually "lost," but with no effect on the safety and security of the U.S.
Today, we are doing something similar in the Middle East. After the disastrous war in Iraq and the hunt for non-existent weapons of mass destruction, we are now focused on the Islamic State, the latest apparition to keep conservatives like Lindsay Graham and Joe Wilson on the brink of hysteria. And who profits from all of this war and rumors of war? Why, the military-industrial complex, of course, and the defense industry has long been one of the largest congressional lobbyists and funders of Republican candidates.
In recent years we have heard critics of the Affordable Care Act screaming about socialism, calling President Obama a fascist, a communist, a Muslim, a Kenyan. It is fear talking — primitive, primordial, racial fear, the kind of fear we have been wrestling with in the South for generations. It was an ugly lie when Strom Thurmond and Ben Tillman did it. It is an ugly lie today.
Will Moredock is the author of Living in Fear: Race, Politics & the Republican Party in South Carolina.