U.S. politics seems to be consumed by fear, from terrorists and rising superpowers abroad to immigration worries and rapacious corporations at home. These are serious problems, and Americans should expect their leaders to work to calm the public and offer solutions. All too often, however, candidates and elected officials — none more so than President Trump — find it easier to pump up hysteria for political gain.
As the 2020 campaign heats up, it would be a mistake to try to out-duel Trump in this politics of fear. Instead, Americans must demand leadership that is driven by confidence, perspective, optimism, wisdom and resolve — leadership, in other words, that resembles that of a very different sort of Republican president: Dwight D. Eisenhower.
Eisenhower governed at another moment when fear pulsed through the country — when Americans worried about nuclear holocaust, falling behind the Soviets and communist enemies plotting from within. Yet Eisenhower’s instincts were to counsel patience and calm. As Jeffrey Frank observed in the New Yorker, Eisenhower believed that one of his essential tasks as president “included calming the nerves of his countrymen.” This lesson is once again relevant. Calming fear is the only way to actually address the many large problems bedeviling the country today.
Eisenhower faced tremendous pressure to speak to the public’s anxieties, especially by directly attacking the most toxic fear-peddler of the era, Sen. Joseph McCarthy (R-Wis.). The president regarded McCarthy as “morally unfit” and privately agonized over assertions that he was compromising his fundamental values by refraining from speaking out. Yet Eisenhower strongly believed that directly speaking out against McCarthy would undermine his own authority and elevate the demagogue.
But eventually events forced his hand. So the president set out to address the nation on the evening of April 5, 1954 — a speech that is often forgotten today, but shouldn’t be.
Less than a month after Edward R. Murrow’s famous takedown of McCarthy, Eisenhower had explained to his press secretary that he needed to “take [the] Red play away from McCarthy and put it back on [a] decent level.” To flip the script, the president decided to speak informally without a prepared text, live on national television. This was the mid-1950s version of a presidential tweet.
Although Eisenhower wanted to speak “off-the-cuff,” he still labored over six pages of typed notes that served as an outline. The result was a 3,700-word analysis of the challenges at home and abroad and his assessment of America’s capacity to deal with them — a speech he privately described as “an undertaking of considerable magnitude.”
That was clear from Eisenhower’s opening words, when he looked straight into the camera and asked the audience to survey nothing less than the country’s “strengths, its problems, its apprehensions, and its future.” The president openly acknowledged that Americans saw “threats coming from all angles, internal and external” and they wondered what it meant for the future. In less than four decades, Eisenhower noted, the U.S. military had gone from being equipped with “mere musket and little cannon” to a hydrogen bomb, reflecting “how much more we have developed scientifically than we are capable of handling emotionally and intellectually.”
Eisenhower guided viewers through the litany of their fears: from the Kremlin’s aggressive intentions to the dangers of nuclear war, from the threat of communist infiltration of schools and unions to the return of economic depression to the misuse of “intemperate investigative methods” to malign innocent people (which was the closest he came to confronting McCarthy).
But rather than being cowed by these threats, the president urged that Americans take them head-on, “without fear,” imploring them to avoid the “jitters or any other kind of panic” so that the country did not “fall prey to hysterical thinking.”
He also reassured his audience, explaining point-by-point that while their worries were valid, Americans shouldn’t allow these threats to consume them. He stressed the strengths of America’s alliances, the fact that Kremlin leaders understood that starting a war would be their suicide and how the internal danger of communism was real yet exaggerated. Notably, he explained that the FBI was a “great bulwark” against such communist influence.
Most of all, Eisenhower emphasized the country’s “spiritual strength,” the importance of which he said was at that moment “just as great in its requirements as it has ever been in our whole history.” This meant steadfast commitment to the values reflected in the Bill of Rights. It meant a clear-eyed recognition that none of Americans’ concerns “has an easy answer, and many … have no answers at all.” But this wasn’t cataclysmic, because Americans could tackle these challenges by making a sensible, pragmatic plan in the same way American families did to handle their problems.
Eisenhower’s speech, seen as one of the most successful of his career, received wide praise. Normally wooden and halting when reading a speech, Ike won admiration from many commentators who admired his reassuring, conversational style, noting how relaxed he seemed leaning against his desk, arms crossed, like a televised fireside chat (he had been tutored by the Oscar-nominated actor Robert Montgomery, who had joined the White House staff to help the president with such performances). As the New York Times television critic raved, Eisenhower attained “television’s most desired quality — naturalness.”
Eisenhower had hoped the speech would bolster support for the kinds of policies that would resurrect moderate government and “begin the restoration of respect for the qualities that have made this country what it is.” And to an extent he was successful: the fever of McCarthyism eventually broke, the administration implemented a coherent strategy against the Soviets and the nation enjoyed years of prosperity.
Yet the speech failed to banish the fear pulsating through U.S. society, and throughout the rest of his presidency, Eisenhower labored against a crescendo of criticisms that the country was losing ground to Moscow and that he was generally out of touch. These fears both fed Americans’ worst instincts and constricted the possibility of actually addressing the real dangers lurking in geopolitics, helping shape the policy decisions of the next decade from the nuclear arms race to the Vietnam War.
The mixed outcome of Eisenhower’s speech serves as a reminder of how important it is for leaders to clearly and consistently fight fear — and, as we’ve seen repeatedly since, how difficult that can be. Decades later, President Barack Obama was reminded of this lesson: As images of Islamic State beheadings ricocheted around the world, Obama noted to aides that the resultant panic could make it easy for him to justify almost anything. However, Obama cautioned, “we can’t make decisions based on fear.”
As Eisenhower and Obama understood, it is easy for a demagogue like McCarthy — or Trump — to channel fear to pump up the base, divert attention or provide a rationale for extreme policies.
For Trump, fear is an explosive source of renewable energy, and when actively stoked from the top, it is difficult to contain. But this tactic only yields short-term, polarized fixes to complicated issues. Today’s challenges are generational in nature — from rising seas to growing superpowers, from ebbing equality to decaying democratic norms. These problems require ambitious solutions, not cheap, short-term political ploys.
Democrats must give Americans a choice: Trump’s politics rooted in fear, or a clear alternative that calmly speaks to their worries and outlines a sober approach to address them. Only the latter can truly soothe Americans’ anxieties and set the country on a course to meet the real challenges ahead.
At the end of his speech, Eisenhower made one final call for spiritual resilience worth recalling today: “We must have the faith that comes from a study of our own history.” For those candidates vying to be one of Eisenhower’s successors, and for citizens thinking about what we should want from our next president, it would be wise to remember Eisenhower’s example of speaking truth, bringing perspective and fighting fear.