The Cable

How American Politicians Are Fear-Mongering Their Way to Success at the Polls

Obama is letting Islamic State militants across the Mexico border. Republicans caused the Ebola outbreak. American troops died in vain because of the president’s weak foreign policy. Spend a day watching campaign ads during this unusually nasty and expensive midterm election and it’s easy for your mind go to dark and paranoid places. America goes ...

CARL DE SOUZA/AFP/Getty Images
CARL DE SOUZA/AFP/Getty Images

Obama is letting Islamic State militants across the Mexico border. Republicans caused the Ebola outbreak. American troops died in vain because of the president’s weak foreign policy.

Spend a day watching campaign ads during this unusually nasty and expensive midterm election and it’s easy for your mind go to dark and paranoid places.

America goes to the polls on Tuesday, and unlike recent midterm elections, foreign policy — or at least what passes for it in the jumbled vernacular of American domestic politics — is rearing its head in this year’s election cycle. From the Ebola outbreak in West Africa to the rise of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, American politicians and their surrogates have been looking beyond U.S. shores for material with which to attack their opponents. In case you haven’t heard, Islamic State militants are coming across the U.S.-Mexico border, and they’ve all got Ebola. (My editor requires me to point out that this is not actually true.)

Indeed, it’s been a campaign season marked by fear, especially the use of apocalyptic attack ads to signal the imminent collapse of the United States.

These are the best (or worst?) of the bunch.

Brown v. Shaheen

In one of this year’s most hotly contested races, former Massachusetts Sen. Scott Brown is seeking to return to that august body by picking up his bags, moving to New Hampshire, and taking on incumbent Democratic Senator Jeanne Shaheen.

Brown’s campaign has attacked Shaheen for being weak on issues of national security, and that’s led to some choice fear-mongering. "Radical Islamic terrorists are threatening to cause the collapse of our country," Brown soberly declares in one ad. (The viewer also gets a glimpse of Scott Brown in uniform along with this great disclaimer: "Photographs of Scott Brown in uniform do not imply endorsement by the National Guard or Department of Defense.")

Is it a trailer for Michael Bay’s new film about turmoil in the Middle East or is it a Brown attack ad? Sonar pings sound in the background. Stock footage gets a grainy TV filter. Vice President Joe Biden’s voice is distorted as he is heard talking up his administration’s achievements in Iraq. President Barack Obama’s voice is digitally altered as he repeatedly admits to having no strategy in Iraq. Men run around with RPGs. A man gestures at a bombed out wreck.

So fearful. So good.

The race between the two candidates is neck and neck, though many outside observers expect Shaheen — who also served as the state’s governor — to pull out a win.  

Tillis v. Hagan

Meanwhile in North Carolina, Democratic Senator Kay Hagan is in a fight for her political life with Thom Tillis, the Republican speaker of the state House of Representatives. More than $50 million has been spent on advertising, and the main line of attack against Hagan has tried to exploit the ongoing chaos in the Middle East. In one ad, a deep-voiced narrator slams Hagan for failing to attend meetings of the Senate Armed Services Committee. "While ISIS grew, Obama did nothing," the narrator says. "Senator Hagan did cocktails."

But it gets better! In the following ad, the mother a U.S. Marine actually says the following words: "We can’t let our kids die in vain. We have to change senator."

Surely, North Carolina voters are able to see through this kind of laughable fear-mongering, right? Right??

Polling has the race a toss up.

Perdue v. Nunn

David Perdue, the Republican candidate for Senate in Georgia, bears a striking resemblance to the vice president from Homeland. He’s also leveling charges against his opponent that seem to be drawn straight from the hit Showtime thriller, which isn’t known for its realism. The highlight: ISIS fighters could be coming across the Mexico border at any moment and his opponent, Michelle Nunn, is in some way responsible.  

Perdue holds a narrow lead, though Democrats hope that Nunn’s deep ties to the state — her father was a popular senator — will help eke out a win.

Did Republicans Cause Ebola?

I only ask because of this ad, put out by the Agenda Project Action Fund:

(The Washington Post‘s fact checker says it’s not true.)

James Foley

In one of this election’s ugliest moments, a conservative advocacy group included footage of the slain American journalist James Foley in a series of advertisements targeting Democrats. The footage showed Foley shortly before he was beheaded by a masked militant, and the advertisements went on to imply that Democrats had left American borders vulnerable to infiltration by Islamic State fighters.

The advertisements drew vehement criticism, including from Foley’s parents:

The group responsible for the video, Secure America Now, pulled the ad and released an edited version that removed the Foley footage:

Elias Groll is a staff writer at Foreign Policy covering cyberspace. @EliasGroll

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