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Could Terrorists Sway the U.S. Election?

How terrorist acts evoke outsized fears.

By David G. Myers


Anti-Muslim graffiti defaces a mosque in Dearborn, Michigan. (Photo: Bill Pugliano/Getty Images)

“Our convention occurs at a moment of crisis for our nation,” Donald Trump said last month while announcing his acceptance of the Republican nomination. “The attacks on our police, and the terrorism in our cities, threaten our very way of life. Any politician who does not grasp this danger is not fit to lead our country.” But good news: “I am the law and order candidate.”

Such dark, apocalyptic rhetoric makes us wonder: Could terrorists, perhaps through a horrific act on American soil, feed the Trump narrative? Could they sway the election, by driving support toward authoritarian leadership?

Such is the power of evil that a relative few can terrorize the many. Although President Barack Obama has rightly noted that terrorism’s horrific acts have killed fewer Americans than die in bathtub slips, terrorism works by frightening its adversaries into rescinding their own values.

Our rational brain knows that, if terrorists were to kill 2,000 people in the United States this year, then we should—logically speaking—be one-fifteenth as afraid of riding in a motor vehicle, which kills more than 30,000. But our fears are not rational.

Terrorism works by frightening its adversaries into rescinding their own values.

Shortly after the 9/11 terrorist attacks, I predicted, based on the fear-driven drop in airline travel and death rates for air and auto travel, that if we flew 20 percent less in the next year, and for half of those would-be flights traveled by car, we could expect 800 added deaths on our roads. A German colleague later checked that prediction, reporting that in the year following 9/11, “an estimated 1,500 Americans died on the road in the attempt to avoid the fate of the [246] passengers” on the four ill-fated flights. Thanks to our evolved tendency to fear what’s vividly memorable and cognitively accessible, the deceased terrorists had continued killing us. Horrific outcomes make us gasp; probabilities we barely grasp. We over-feel and under-think.

Social psychological research also explores the politics of fear. Before the 2004 election, a University of Arizona research team primed people’s thinking about death, having them, say, recall their 9/11-related emotions or subliminally exposing them to 9/11 pictures. The result: increased support for President George W. Bush and his anti-terrorism policies.

Similarly, a Belgian research team found Dutch citizens’ feelings of threats, such as from terrorism, increased right-wing authoritarianism, and a new study found that even the threat evoked by the 2014 Ebola outbreak shifted voter preferences toward Republican candidates, especially in Republican-leaning states.

Taken together, the collective body of research shows that:

  • Terrorist acts evoke outsized fears. We fear too much disasters that kill people in bunches and fear too little the less dramatic events that more quietly kill people one by one.
  • Fear is a political weapon.In the aftermath of 9/11, the U.S. “National Strategy for Combating Terrorism,” observed that terrorists, “regardless of their specific secular or religious objectives, strive to subvert the rule of law and effect change through violence and fear.” In experiments, fear narrows our thinking. It fuels prejudice and authoritarian leanings. Historically, fear has fed fascism.

Freedom is more powerful than fear,” Obama reasoned after the San Bernardino attack. While hoping that will prove true, our disaster preparedness should contemplate the possibility that, in the aftermath of a pre-election terrorist act on American soil, fear may override freedom. Surely we would hear more clamoring to close our borders, turn Muslim neighborhoods into police zones, and “carpet bomb” ISIS-occupied towns.

Anti-Muslim rhetoric fuels a vicious cycle. Islamic terrorist acts seed reciprocal animosity and retaliation, which enhances terrorist recruitment. As social psychologists Alexander Haslam and Stephen Reicherobserve, overreaction to terrorist acts feeds the belief that the West is an enemy to all Muslims. In this sense, Donald Trump and ISIS serve each other’s purposes.

In 1981, media researcher George Gerbne, offered a word of caution: “Fearful people are more dependent, more easily manipulated and controlled, more susceptible to deceptively simple, strong, tough measures and hardline postures,” he said. “They may accept and even welcome repression if it promises to relieve their insecurities.” Terrorists know that, and might therefore act to heighten toxic fear in hopes of undermining freedom and increasing polarization.

But forewarned, we can forearm. In experiments, people apprised of an impending effort to manipulate their attitudes become more resistant to such tactics. Anticipating the possibility of politically motivated terror can weaken its capacity to stoke our fears and sway our politics.