Continental Divides

Fomenting Fear for Political Gain

Just turn on the TV and you’d swear every candidate’s opponent is a malevolent creature of sorts who just broke out of jail

By John McCaslin

We’ve just marked the one year point until Election Day, and if you’re like me you’ve already had your fill of the campaign mudslinging and scare tactics – candidates from both sides of the political aisle instilling fear and anxiety to hoodwink voters, sway public opinion, steer people away from the polls, anything it takes to win public office.

The American Psychological Association is even paying attention to this increasingly popular political phenomenon, citing one meta-analysis showing that campaign “messages with fear are nearly twice as effective as messages without fear.”

Consider the op-ed sent recently to Montana media outlets by the American First Policy Institute, comprised of former Trump administration officials. It’s author, Chad Wolf, who’d been the acting secretary of Homeland Security until his appointment by President Donald Trump was ruled unlawful, is now claiming that “Montana is ground zero” for a so-called northern border crisis.

Mexican nationals, he warns, now outnumber Canadians in unlawful northern border crossings, leaving Montana communities “exposed to the perils of human traffickers, smugglers, and other nefarious actors.”

“Montanans have also suffered consequences of the open northern border as fentanyl seizures have reportedly increased by 11,000 percent from 2019 to 2023,” adds Wolf, leaving the impression that large quantities of the synthetic opioid consumed or confiscated in this state flowed down from the Great White North through Roosville and other remote Montana border crossings.

Without question, the ongoing fentanyl crisis is taking a tragic toll on Montana and every other state in the union, what with America’s insatiable appetite for the latest mind-altering buzz, including ones that kill. But the Drug Enforcement Administration confirms only “some fentanyl products are smuggled from [mainly eastern] Canada into the United States for sale on a smaller scale.”

Rather, potent fentanyl powder and the precursors for manufacturing fentanyl are likely “shipped via mail services” from China, the drug’s primary source country, directly into the United States, Canada and Mexico, where it can then be pressed into pills and mixed with heroin, if not sold as heroin, the DEA states.

And how’s this for a twist: Mexican drug cartels actually depend on operatives in the United States to ship them certain fentanyl precursors – “likely smuggled across the Southwest border into Mexico,” says the DEA, where the fentanyl powder is cut and diluted for further smuggling, or else pressed into counterfeit prescription pills.

But I digress. Many politicians these days, as we’ve seen, are stopping at nothing to achieve and hold on to power. Just turn on the TV and you’d swear every candidate’s opponent is a malevolent creature of sorts who just broke out of jail.

Even after they win office – in Helena, on Capitol Hill, or at the White House – there are those politicians who refuse to let up on their opponents, as recalled in an entire chapter of my previous book, “Inside the Beltway: Offbeat Stories, Scoops and Shenanigans from Around the Nation’s Capital.”

Take then-Sen. Ben Nighthorse Campbell of Colorado, who was labeled a traitor after he switched from Democrat to Republican. A towering figure who liked riding his motorcycle around Washington, he once told me in an interview that he learned to keep his distance from politicians he couldn’t please.

“It’s just that once they knife you, why the hell should you help ‘em keep knifing you?” he asked.

Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle of South Dakota described experiencing a wide range of emotions when dealing with colleagues and opponents alike: “I’m prepared to be very disappointed and shocked. Shocked and disappointed. Dismayed. Frustrated. Alienated. Minimized.”

There were those times my own congressman, a self-described “bully” and former amateur boxer named James Moran, chased, grabbed, shoved, even threatened to punch lawmakers and others he found to be disrespectful, among them then-California Republican Randy “Duke” Cunningham, a former combat fighter pilot who by no means was a weakling.

The size of his opponents, however, never stopped the outspoken Democrat from Virginia, who during a congressional debate pushed Cunningham through the House chamber door, shouting at the top of his lungs, “You pull that again and I’ll break your nose!” More than a dozen U.S. Capitol Police officers had to be called to restore order.

Capitol cops were summoned again to restrain then-California Democrat Pete Stark during a heated hearing of the House Ways and Means Committee. Tempers flared when former Congressman Scott McInnis of Colorado told Stark to “shut up!”

“Oh, you think you are big enough to make me, you little wimp? Come on. Come over here and make me. I dare you,” Stark yelled. “You little fruitcake. You little fruitcake. I said, you are a fruitcake!”

Everything considered, being packaged a fruitcake ain’t so bad.

“That goes with the territory,” said then-Sen. Alan Simpson of Wyoming, who I first got to know on a trip into Glacier National Park and who is one of the nicest guys ever to come out of Laramie. Or so I thought.

“The Al Simpson who was on federal probation at the age of 18 is not the same Al Simpson standing here,” he confessed. “The Al Simpson who was thrown in the clink at age 20 for clubbing a guy around the streets of Laramie is not the same Al Simpson standing here, although sometimes the feelings are still burning down there.”

But, the senator reasoned, “That is politics. It was always a little rough and tumble, and it still will be, and ever shall be, world without end.”


John McCaslin is a longtime print and broadcast journalist and author.

Stay Connected with the Daily Roundup.

Sign up for our newsletter and get the best of the Beacon delivered every day to your inbox.