The Power of Peddling Fear

A Powerful Motivator

It has been said that fear is a powerful motivator. Certainly, when it comes to feats of superhuman strength and acts of bravery, the adrenaline and endorphins pumping through our system are most readily driven by fear. In a normal situation, I probably wouldn’t say anything at all to a wild-eyed guy with a knife, but if he puts that knife to my throat or to the throat of someone I love, I’ll be compelled to say something and/or to do something to eliminate that threat.

Fear tends to motivate us to action in otherwise paralyzing situations. But what about situations that aren’t so dire? What about times when the dilemma is more cerebral or theoretical, political or cultural? How does fear work when we aren’t facing an immediate and direct threat?

Well, it still motivates, but maybe not as dramatically. If you think about it, much of our lives are driven by fear of something. We have safety standards and seat belts and nearly limitless protective gear to combat our fear of physical harm. We have rules and laws and contracts to battle against our fear of being cheated. Our fear of betrayal leads to loyalty oaths and membership rituals. Fear of subversion drives distrust and authoritarianism. On and on it goes. All around us, our lives are molded and shaped by distant, looming fear – not the same as a knife to the throat, yet ever-present.

Seeking Power, Peddling Fear

If fear is such an excellent motivator, then it would stand to reason that those who make us fearful have great motivational power over us. Moreover, those who make us the most fearful – those who convince us of the most terrifying threats – will have the most control over us.

News flash: This is the entire guiding principle behind modern politics. The reason that blowhards go on the air every night and say really scary things is because fear is a great motivator! If you can convince someone that life as they know it is going to be destroyed – if you can get them leaning in that direction – then you can get them to buy whatever you’re saying, hook, line, and sinker, simply by suggesting a remedy to that fear.

A Boy Named Roger

Roger Stone learned this fear-mongering principle at an early age. As a young boy, Roger was taking part in a mock election at his school. The year was 1960 and the presidential race between John F. Kennedy and Richard Nixon was in full swing. In Stone’s school, it was widely expected that Nixon would be victorious, and in the days leading up to the mock election, things seemed to be pointing in Nixon’s direction.

But young Roger liked JFK better – for purely non-political reasons. Stone’s family was Catholic, as was JFK, and in Roger’s estimation, Kennedy had better hair, and therefore, would be a better president. So, he devised a plan to get his schoolmates to vote for Kennedy.

The plan was simple and dastardly. It involved the perpetuation of a single piece of false information, AKA lying. One day, as the mock election drew near, Roger positioned himself at the end of the lunch line in the cafeteria, armed with a single fear-inducing (and completely false) statement. “Don’t vote for Nixon,” he said, “he wants to make us go to school on Saturdays.”

Fear is, indeed, a great motivator. And for Roger Stone’s schoolmates, the theoretical threat of Saturday school elicited enough fear to flip their vote to Kennedy. Teachers and administrators were floored by JFK’s unexpected and overwhelming victory in the mock election, and Roger Stone knew what he wanted to do when he grew up.

A Man Named Stone

Stone has been in the fear-mongering game ever since – working on behalf of politicians with names like Nixon, Reagan, Bush, and Trump to stir up fear, create chaos, and often, to win elections. This is not slander. Stone revels in the villainous role he has played in American politics. He even brags about it in interviews, while insisting, with a wink and a smile, that he surely wasn’t involved in anything illegal or unethical.

Now, depending on your political leaning, you may insist that fear-mongering tactics like this are simply a means justified by the end, or you may see Stone as a symbol (and principal actor) of everything wrong with American politics. Whatever your take, however, the undeniable truth is that fear works. The problem, of course, is that fear is a negative motivator, and in the case of people like Roger Stone, it is manipulative.

A Greater Motivator

While many insist that fear is a much greater motivator than hope, and that hate is a greater driver than love, I simply can’t allow that to be true in my world. I am a strong believer in the power of faith, hope, and love – and the greatest of these is love. Whatever end we seek, our means must not be rooted in fear and hate – in the idea that we’re going to lose something we cherish – but instead, rooted in faith, hope, and love – higher-minded ideals that inspire us to move beyond fear of other people and external forces, but instead focus us on our actions.

Fear and hate are reactionary positions. They are the postures of people convinced that they are facing imminent doom. They are the face of desperation. And they are entirely driven by external factors. We fear that thing. We hate those people.

Faith, hope, and love come from inside us. They help us overcome the things we might be afraid of or threatened by. They are the face of confidence and conviction, even in the midst of pain. To love instead of hate is to focus on my actions over the actions of another. Faith, hope, and love are up to me, are driven by me, are controlled by me. I have faith, despite the external factors. I hope in the face of threat. I love everyone, no matter how they feel about me.

If we are able, as individuals and a community, to rise to the higher calling of faith, hope, and love, then I believe we can overcome the fear and hate being peddled by those who seek to control us, regardless of how motivated they are.