Opinion

Opinion

Voters, You’re Being Manipulated

Posted October 31, 2018 7:10 p.m. EDT

When the bigot who shot up a Pittsburgh synagogue arrived at the local hospital emergency room to be treated for his injuries, he was shouting, “Kill all the Jews.” He was then promptly treated, very professionally, by three Jews.

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The hospital president, Jeffrey K. Cohen, a member of the congregation that had been attacked, met there with the suspect to ask respectfully how he was doing. (I try to avoid using the names of mass shooters, to avoid giving them attention they sometime crave.)

“He asked me who I was,” Cohen told ABC News. “I said, ‘I’m Dr. Cohen, the president of the hospital.'”

Side by side with the worst of humanity we find the best. And in Pittsburgh, there was more of the best. The Muslim community promptly raised $214,000 for the victims of the synagogue shooting and offered to provide security for Jews in the area.

HIAS, the Jewish agency whose assistance for refugees infuriated the synagogue attacker (he blamed Jews for bringing in brown people in the caravan from Central America), has been flooded with donations, many from non-Jews. As my own feeble way to challenge hatred, I donated to HIAS on Saturday and suggested to my newsletter readers that they might as well. If we all find our own ways to light a candle, we can drive out the enveloping darkness.

These expressions of our shared humanity are important in and of themselves, but also as a way of fighting back at the fear and loathing that are being weaponized in this election cycle. One example: the breathless fear-mongering about the caravan still almost 1,000 miles away in Mexico.

Let’s be blunt: Voters, you are being manipulated.

President Donald Trump has described the caravan as an “invasion of our country,” and Fox News referred to it as an invasion more than 60 times in October, along with 75 times on Fox Business Channel, according to CNN.

This should be a nonstory. As I’ve written, most in the shrinking caravan will never enter the United States, and they would amount to less than one-tenth of 1 percent of immigrants this year. In just the period of the caravan’s journey, another 16,800 Americans may die from drugs — a real threat!

Trump is deploying 5,200 U.S. troops to the southern border and said he may deploy 5,000 or 10,000 more. Even the smaller number is twice as many as are in Syria fighting the Islamic State, and they don’t have anything to do at the border, plus the 45-day deployment may end before the migrants actually arrive. A plausible estimate for the cost of the deployment is $35 million, which if used more sensibly could instead get 1,600 Americans off opioid addictions.

The reason for the talk about invasion is simple: Trump and Fox News are trying to manipulate white voters into supporting Republican candidates. There is considerable evidence from research experiments that scaring people makes them more conservative, at least temporarily.

For example, a Yale professor, John Bargh, describes in his book, “Before You Know It,” a study in which liberal college students were asked to imagine their own deaths in detail. Afterward, their views shifted rightward.

In another experiment, students were first cautioned about a flu going around, and then asked a series of questions. Simply reminding people about the flu led some to be more negative about immigration.

So, no surprise, Fox News is worrying aloud about the caravan bringing disease for want of vaccination. One Fox News “expert” warned that the diseases might include smallpox. (The fact that smallpox was eradicated worldwide four decades ago suggests his level of expertise.)

I checked childhood vaccination rates for Honduras, where the caravan began. They are 97 percent, compared with 92 to 95 percent in the United States, according to the World Health Organization. No wonder the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention believes that “the children arriving at U.S. borders pose little risk of spreading infectious diseases.”

So Republican candidates conjure monsters to terrify us on a predictable election cycle. In 2010, it was “death panels” and the “Ground Zero mosque.” Four years ago, it was Ebola and ISIS terrorists sneaking in from Mexico. Two years ago it was men using transgender rights to invade women’s bathrooms. Today it’s the caravan.

The brilliance of the Trump fear strategy is that scholars find that simply raising identity issues turns whites more conservative. So while Trump’s nonsense about the caravan is easily rebutted, he arouses primal, unconscious fears in white voters that make them more likely to vote Republican.

There’s a risk that in responding to the incitement, I am amplifying Trump’s message. But I believe in rationality and our capacity, if warned, to resist manipulation.

In Pittsburgh, we saw that heroism could counter evil by relying on the very best instincts of our shared humanity. We need similar heroism from all of us voters, mustering the basic goodness and common sense to defeat the torrent of demagogy, hate and fear.

Contact Kristof at Facebook.com/Kristof, Twitter.com/NickKristof or by mail at The New York Times, 620 Eighth Ave., New York, NY 10018.

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