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The Politics of Fear: how the aftermath of 9/11 allowed American leaders to capitalise on the country’s vulnerability


The events of 9/11 shook America to its core. The after-effects extended beyond geopolitics and bled into society, culture, and above all: security. American citizens quickly became acutely aware of both their vulnerability and the fragility of their international superpower status. Moreover, the Republicans’ attitude to immigration and deportation took a sharp turn, mirroring the anxiety and indignation felt by citizens all over the US. By utilising fear to mobilise collective action, President George W Bush’s administration experienced unprecedented success, solidifying their majority in Congress and breaking the traditional midterm curse, gaining seats in the House and Senate after the elections in 2002. Twenty years later and the immediate response to 9/11 has fundamentally altered the primary security aims of the Republican party. The far-right pushed towards nativism over internationalism, Islamophobia, and a paranoiac sense of civilisational decline- exemplified best when examining the success of Donald Trump. 

George W. Bush had defined immigration reform as one of his primary aims whilst campaigning for the presidency in 1999, and just a week before the attacks the U.S. seemed to be on the cusp of major change. President Bush and Mexican President Vicente Fox had just agreed on a framework that included allowing more than 3 million undocumented immigrants from Latin America legal status in the US. The framework also included a guest-worker program and increased security at the US-Mexico border. Merely days after the terrorist attacks the agreement (posed to win large bipartisan support) was abandoned in favour of an enforcement-only agenda. Bush’s focus on national security through the enactment of legislation intended to prevent potential terrorists from entering the U.S. Though this may seem like merely a concentrated effort to better national security, it is clear that his policies were deeply intertwined with an anti-immigration sentiment- almost all of the administration’s new policies directly affected illegal immigration across the Mexico border. 

9/11 left many Americans consumed by anger and anxiety – imposed with the realisation that not all immigrants were in the US searching for opportunity, peace, and prosperity. This feeling of instability and vulnerability reignited an appetite for nativism within the Republican party, animating its current members and appealing to the public who were doubting their own safety and the safety of their families. The nature of the administration’s reaction served as a starting point for what can only be described as a slow descent into isolationism, Islamophobia, and nativism, culminating in the success of former President Donald Trump – who built on the anti-immigration sentiment to secure votes and ultimately the presidency. 

Why was the administration’s response so reactionary and aggressive? Why did many Americans abandon their antiquated morals in favour of an reactionary, aggressive stance? How did Trump exploit anxiety felt by Americans to secure his presidency? 

The answer lies largely with the politics of fear.

The concept of fear within a political landscape surrounds the idea that leaders may incite or reaffirm fear amongst their citizens in order to achieve political goals. Professor Jessica Stern asserts that fear in the political life of a nation is both the cause and tool in how that fear is utilised to mobilise collective action. There is no better example to cite than the use of the term ‘War on Terror’ as a tool to generate a culture of fear. Former US National Security advisor Zbigniew Brzezinski reaffirms this idea, noting that the term ‘obscures reason, intensifies emotions and makes it easier for demographic politicians to mobilise the public on behalf of the policies they want to pursue.’ For Bush and his administration, this materialised in the inception of the forever wars, and tighter security policies that changed the makeup of the republican party forever.  

Bush used fear to sequester information about these new policies and about the people affected. As he rallied support for his ‘war on terrorism,’ the administration introduced a ‘colour-coded threat matrix’ that never dropped below yellow. The techniques used by Bush were adopted and extended by former President Trump during his campaign and time in office.  

Unlike presidents before, Trump’s success relied on the power of fear. He invoked, cultivated, and validated fears felt by Americans afraid of insecure borders, terrorism, and immigrants stealing their livelihoods. Claiming Mexicans were ‘rapists’ and ‘criminals’ invading an indolent America, Trump demonstrated just how the aftermath of 9/11 amplified nativism. He believed wholeheartedly that the attack was merely a glitch in the matrix of American exceptionalism. However, America was still in danger, and he was the only solution. Though he faced heavy criticism for ‘fear-mongering,’ unfortunately the fear percolating in America was undeniably real, and he used it as the centrepiece of his campaign. Trump knew how to capitalise on those afraid of the unfamiliar and in need of a strong, powerful man to provide reassurance through harsh policy. Ultimately this led to his inauguration and reaffirmed the notion that exploiting fear can take you all the way to the top.   

The analytic challenge is to sort out the rational from the irrational, to understand when fear is grounded in real danger from fear that is exploited by people in power for their own political agendas. As seen when examining the methodology behind Trump’s campaign and time in power- misuse and manipulation of fear can have pernicious consequences for people, society, and institutions alike. 

The aftermath of 9/11 became a perfect opportunity for the far-right to merge their grievances and capitalise on the real fears of the American public. This can be seen from the Bush administration’s reactionary policies, all the way to Trump’s distorted rhetoric that accumulated in his presidency. Even though counterterrorism is no longer a defining paradigm of American foreign policy, ultimately the country still operates in a political era defined by its response to 9/11. Both Bush and Trump understood that by encouraging a sense of real fear amongst citizens they would be able to achieve a panoply of policies that would be otherwise implausible. 

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