Fearmaking, Then and Now

Eric Alterman explores the links between the McCarthyist movie industry of the 1950s and modern-day right-wing fearmongers.

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SOURCE: Pacemaker

I spend a lot of time working with Turner Classic Movies on in the background to keep me company. This week, I happened on a film of which I was previously unaware: “The Fearmakers,” staring Dana Andrews and directed by Jacques Tourneur, released in 1958 but based on a 1945 novel by Darwin L. Teilhet.

As most film fans are well aware, Andrews was an especially important figure in postwar American film for many roles, but especially because of his star turn in the 1946 release, “The Best Years of Our Lives.” Authored by Robert Sherwood, who had been a speechwriter for President Franklin D. Roosevelt, the film featured three returning veterans facing the challenges of peacetime. In it, Andrews comes home to a wife who has been unfaithful and insists that he dress up in his uniform to impress her friends. He suffers insults from wealthy women and bratty children at the drug store where he is forced to work and is unable to find anything better.

Another of the men finds himself pushed to deny G.I. loans to deserving clients and proceeds to self-medicate with massive amounts of alcohol as a result. That film struggled with its own commitment to realism as it simultaneously reflected the liberal thinking of the day. A particularly pointed scene showed a wealthy man carrying his golf clubs taking the place of a returning vet waiting for a flight home—a scene that led to talk in Congress that Sherwood be investigated for Communist sympathies once the McCarthyite Red scare hit Hollywood.

Soon thereafter, executive director Dr. John Lechner of the right-wing Motion Picture Alliance for the Preservation of American Ideals insisted that he had identified “sizeable doses of communist propaganda” in the film, and pretty much everyone associated with it saw their careers suffer. “The Fearmakers” was part and parcel of Hollywood’s campaign to portray the heroic search for undercover “Reds” in our society.

In the movie, Andrews plays Alan Eaton, once a PR executive, now a Korean War veteran just released from a North Korean prison camp where he was tortured by communist prison guards. In the film’s first scene, in which Eaton is flying home to Washington, he happens to be seated next to a nuclear physicist who preaches nuclear disarmament, and warns Eaton that PR companies have begun to manipulate public opinion just as often as they reflect it. He just so happens to be looking for a good PR man. Lots of bad things happen, as it turns out that his partner has been murdered, his PR firm is working hand in glove with commies like the nice professor fellow on the plane, who turns out to be a communist fellow-traveller. The plan is to use his old PR firm to mess with public opinion polls so that the communists can one day take over America… or something.

As Stephanie Thames explains:

The film expresses the greatest fears of its day. First, there’s the frightening notion that communists could … worm their way into positions within the U.S. government. Beyond that, The Fearmakers plays up the scary notion of a media outlet whose sole purpose is to distribute communist propaganda. In the course of the film, Andrews’ character is gradually transformed into an anticommunist white knight who not only rids his company of enemy agents but also testifies against them before Congress.

"The Fearmakers" is the product of a different America, of course. A year earlier, in October of 1957, the Russians had deployed Sputnik via the world’s first functional intercontinental ballistic missile, sending much of America into a panic. But the danger expressed in the movie is not so much communism itself—nobody in the movie has a good word to say for it—rather it’s the unscrupulous fellows like the guy who took over the PR firm just to make a buck by selling out the country’s best interests. It is a quaint reminder of a more innocent moment in American political history that the manner in which the manipulation of public opinion was thought to be something both nefarious and notorious.

Now it’s an entire industry. For the bad guys in “Fearmakers” are the people who are pretty much in charge of our political system today. The political consultants—some who regularly appear on television and cable shows to sell their wares as political analysts—display no sense of shame when purposely misleading the nation with techniques far more sophisticated than those available to the communists and their alleged dupes in Cold War America.

Writing on the New York Times “campaign stops” blog, Thomas J. Edsall notes in a column entitled “Canaries in the Coal Mine,” that “working class whites—loosely defined as those without college degrees”—have “become the lynchpin constituency of conservative Republicanism.” These whites do this despite the fact that the policies of the politicians they support are almost uniformly designed to benefit people with incomes many times that of their own. As Edsall explains, the capture of the white, non-college educated working class has enabled conservatives “to enact legislation—especially tax laws—that favor the affluent,” and confuses discussion, in the media, and elsewhere about the reality of right-wing fealty “only for the rich and for the material interests of corporate America.”

What are these modern-day right-wing PR mavens selling? The same thing Dana Andrews was: fear. Present day fearmakers have convinced millions of Americans that they are “overtaxed” when marginal tax rates are the lowest they have been since the pre-Reagan days and remain among the bottom of all developed nations. Similarly these fearmakers peddle the false notion that most government spending goes to a lazy group of underserving Americans—the poor—when in fact many different government programs and tax breaks help average middle-class families survive in these tough economic times while offering a hand up (not a hand out) to the poor.

Left unsaid by these modern-day fearmakers is the conservative aim to gut these programs so that the wealthiest Americans can become even wealthier via tax breaks for the richest 1 percent. Is it any wonder, then, that inequality continues to explode amid such grotesque PR manipulation? As the rich grow incomparably richer, the median American family in 2010 enjoyed no more wealth than it did in the early 1990s

What’s more, these trends are accelerating into hyperdrive. In 2010, for instance, the top 1 percent captured 93 percent of the income gains in the first year of recovery after the Great Recession of 2007-2009. In real dollars that means the bottom 99 percent of Americans gained a grand total, on average, of $80 each, while the top 1 percent gained $105,637.

What is that we have fear then?

Eric Alterman is a Senior Fellow at the Center for American Progress and a CUNY distinguished professor of English and journalism at Brooklyn College. He is also “The Liberal Media” columnist for The Nation. His most recent book is The Cause: The Fight for American Liberalism from Franklin Roosevelt to Barack Obama.

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Eric Alterman

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