Today’s Republican Party seemingly has abandoned the fearless and optimistic motto — “Morning in America” — of former President Reagan. Instead, they are now all about the fear, grievance and division implicit in former President Trump’s backward-looking slogan, “Make American Great Again.”

They sell fear of “American carnage” — Trump’s words during his 2017 inaugural speech — and then act as if they are the heroic leaders ready to save the country.

But let’s look at the record.

At this moment, Republicans are promoting fear of national economic collapse by refusing to raise the federal debt ceiling. There would not be a crisis over the debt ceiling if Republicans in Congress had not manufactured it, instilling fear that they will crash the economy if President Biden refuses to meet their budget-cutting demands.

Nevertheless, many Republicans themselves fear going public with explanations of all the programs they want to cut. And, oddly, concern over the debt ceiling did not stop them from cutting taxes for the rich or significantly fattening the national debt when they controlled Congress and the White House in 2017.

They also sell fear of being without a gun and then watching as gun violence tears at the nation. They escalate the fear quotient even higher by pointing to bloody gun violence as a reason for putting more guns in schools, government buildings, concerts (of all places) and other public venues. Then they point to fear of gun violence in order to refuse to pass gun-control legislation. Basic gun controls, such as universal background checks, are widely favored, according to numerous public opinion polls.

Similarly, many Republicans sell fear of gay people by condemning people battling sexual identity issues and even comical drag queens as threats for the exploitation of children. 

Pistol, with image of Trump engraved on the grip, on display at NRA National Convention.
(Photo by Scott Olson/Getty Images)

Many Republicans sell fear of corporations — even big, iconic American companies like Disney — when business leaders take a stand against demeaning gay people or suppressing voting by racial minorities.

Some are so afraid of books which introduce students to new perspectives about our country’s complicated history of race and sexual orientation that they are trying to ban these works. This rhetoric leads to schoolteachers and librarians fearing violence for allowing young people the freedom to explore the world through books. 

Why are Republicans so fearful or uncertain about their own parental influence over their children that they need to ban books or censor art and ideas?

By pumping up such fears into a horror show of “cancel culture” and “politically correct” behavior, they are promoting a culture war in which they back those who do deny or don’t see the inherent bigotry in Confederate statues or in offensive names like “Redskins.”

Too many of them fear debating ideas in the public square so, instead, they use the power of GOP-majority state legislatures to expel or silence Democrats with whom they disagree — or use the power of right-wing judges to ignore decades of law and overrule majority public opinion on issues like abortion.

But most of all, they fear Trump.

Too many Republicans in Congress fear becoming the next political target for Trump’s name-calling and bullying, so they refuse to challenge his bad behavior. Fear of Trump requires them to turn away from admitting that President Biden won the 2020 election.

Fear of Trump forced the party to allow him to anoint weak candidates who led them to disappointing results in the 2022 midterm elections.

Fear of Trump paralyzes Republicans in Congress from fixing the nation’s frayed immigration laws. Their fear of Trump lambasting them for compromising with Democrats is greater than their sense of responsibility to fix a major national problem.

Fear is a reliably sure button for Republicans to push. It is a human emotion that can short-circuit logic, empathy, and a sense of common destiny. 

Yet the GOP has been playing on fear for so long it has not noticed that it is holding a losing hand. Republicans have lost the popular vote in seven out of the last nine presidential elections. 

Even the most reliable Republican voters — older, white Americans in small towns and rural areas — don’t want to see social safety net programs, such as Social Security and Medicare, being radically changed or dismantled.

Fear dominates many Republicans’ thinking so much today that they have no economic proposals to improve the economy. Thus, most Republicans voted against investments to keep the economy running during the pandemic or to help with infrastructure repair to spur new economic growth.

Instead, they have played on the fear of people being left behind by high-tech economic realities and global trade; they sell fear of China without mentioning that our economic future is closely tied to the future of the Chinese economy.

Following Trump’s refusal to back Ukraine, there are Republicans in Congress who talk fearfully of the price tag of supporting Ukraine’s fight against Russia’s invasion. They use fear to distract from the price of Russia threatening our economic partners in Europe, and from the price of global economic instability if China follows Russia’s example and invades Taiwan.

President Franklin Roosevelt famously remarked, “The only thing we have to fear is fear itself.”

Now, sadly, naked appeals to fear, division and human frailty seem to be the main thing the GOP has going for it. Juan Williams is a Fox News senior political analyst and the author of numerous books, including “Eyes on the Prize: America’s Civil Rights Years, 1954-1965” (1987) and “Thurgood Marshall: American Revolutionary” (2000).

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