It has been argued that Donald Trump manipulated public fears and social anxieties in order to get himself elected president. Whether or not you agree with this argument, it raises an interesting question. Is it possible for influential individuals or groups to achieve their goals by either creating or exploiting widespread public fear?
The short answer is yes, indeed. In particular, a sociological concept known as moral panic offers valuable insights into how and why powerful social agents such as the news media, elected officials and the police deliberately create public concern or fear of an individual or group to serve their own selfish agendas.
Did Trump’s presidential election campaign create a moral panic in the U.S. that he exploited? Let’s see.
Moral panic has been defined as a situation in which public fears and state interventions greatly exceed the objective threat posed to society by a particular individual or group who is/are claimed to be responsible for creating the threat in the first place.
The moral panic concept was developed and popularized by the late South African criminologist Stanley Cohen (1972) when he explained the public reaction to disturbances by youths called “mods and rockers” at seaside resorts in Brighton, England, during the 1960s. Cohen’s work illustrated how those reactions influenced the formation and enforcement of social policy, law, and societal perceptions of threats posed by the youth groups.
Since its inception, the moral panic concept has been applied to a wide range of social problems including but not limited to youth gangs, school violence, child abuse, Satanism, wilding, flag burning, illegal immigration and terrorism.
I wrote a book titled Mass Deception: Moral Panic and the U.S. War on Iraq in 2010 to demonstrate how and why the presidential administration of GW Bush manipulated and fueled Islamophobia after 9/11 to gain support for his unwarranted and illegal invasion of Iraq in 2003.
Central to the moral panic concept is an argument that public concern or fear over an alleged social problem is mutually beneficial to state officials—that is, politicians and law enforcement authorities—and the news media. The relationship between state officials and the media is symbiotic in that politicians and law enforcement need communication channels to distribute their rhetoric and the media need tantalizing news content to attract a wide audience that, in turn, attracts advertisers.
It is the creators of a moral panic, including state officials and the news and entertainment media, who benefit most from its existence.
Moral panics arise when distorted mass media campaigns are used to create fear, reinforce stereotypes and exacerbate pre-existing divisions in the world, often based on race, ethnicity and social class.
Additionally, moral panics have three distinguishing characteristics. First, there is a focused attention on the behavior, whether real or imagined, of certain individuals or groups that are transformed into what Cohen referred to as “folk devils” by the mass media. This is accomplished when the media strip these folk devils of all favorable characteristics and apply exclusively negative ones.
Second, there is a gap between the concern over a condition and the objective threat it poses. Typically, the objective threat is far less than popularly perceived due to how it is presented by authorities.
Third, there is a great deal of fluctuation over time in the level of concern over a condition. The typical pattern begins with the discovery of the threat, followed by a rapid rise and then peak in public concern, which then subsequently, and often abruptly, subsides.
Finally, public hysteria over a perceived problem often results in the passing of legislation that is highly punitive, unnecessary, and serves to justify the agendas of those in positions of power and authority.
Moral panic is both a public and political response to an exaggeration or distortion of the threat posed to society by some allegedly harmful individual or group. More specifically, moral panic includes an exaggeration of certain events by enhancing the empirical criteria such as the number of individuals involved, the level and extent of violence, and the amount of damage caused.
Of course, this is not something that happens spontaneously, but rather, is a result of the complex dynamics and interplay among several social actors. As originally explained by Cohen, at least five sets of social actors are involved in a moral panic. These include: 1) folk devils, 2) rule or law enforcers, 3) the media, 4) politicians, and 5) the public.
First, in the lexicon of moral panic scholars, folk devils are those individuals who are socially defined or alleged to be responsible for creating a threat to society. Unlike some deviants, folk devils are completely negative. They are the embodiment of evil and the antagonists in a moral panic drama. Once an individual or group is given the label folk devil by authorities, there is no turning back.
Second, law enforcers such as the police, prosecutors or the military are vital to a moral panic as they are charged with upholding and enforcing the codes of conduct and official laws of the state. These agents of the state are expected to detect, apprehend and punish the folk devils. Law enforcers have a sworn duty and moral obligation to protect society from folk devils when they present themselves. Furthermore, law enforcers must work to justify and maintain their positions in society. A moral panic can offer law enforcers legitimacy and purpose by ridding society of folk devils that allegedly threaten its wellbeing.
Third, the media are a particularly powerful set of actors in the creation of a moral panic. Typically, news media coverage of certain events involving alleged folk devils is distorted or exaggerated. News coverage makes the folk devils appear to be much more threatening to society than they really are. Public concern and anxiety are heightened by journalistic hyperbole concerning the folk devils. Public concern and anxiety over the folk devils lead to moral panic.
Fourth, politicians are also vital actors in a moral panic drama. As elected officials who must operate in the court of public opinion, politicians must present themselves as the protectors of the moral high ground in society. Similar to law enforcers, politicians have a sworn duty and moral obligation to protect society from folk devils when they arise.
Politicians often fuel a moral panic by aligning themselves with the news media and law enforcers in a moral crusade against the evils introduced by the folk devils. In other instances, such as the U.S. war on drugs launched in the late 1980s, a key politician such as President Ronald Reagan may define the folk devils—that is, urban crack cocaine dealers—and precipitate a moral panic over the evils of crack cocaine and alleged threats these evils present.
The fifth and final set of actors, the public, is the most important player in the creation of a moral panic. Public agitation or concern over the folk devils is the central element of a moral panic. A moral panic only exists to the extent that there is an outcry from the public over the alleged threat posed by the folk devils.
Moreover, the success of politicians, law enforcers and the media in precipitating and sustaining a moral panic is ultimately contingent upon how successfully they fuel concern and outrage toward the folk devils among the public.
Beyond the actors in a moral panic, what are its defining and required elements? Stan Cohen has done more than just explain and popularize the moral panic concept. Cohen has also identified five necessary criteria by which a social issue or condition may be considered a moral panic. All of these elements must be present in order for a situation to qualify as a moral panic. They are:
(i) Concern (rather than fear) about the potential or imagined threat; (ii) Hostility-moral outrage toward the actors (folk devils) who embody the problem and agencies (naïve social workers, spin-doctored politicians) who are ‘ultimately’ responsible (and may become folk devils themselves); (iii) Consensus- a widespread agreement (not necessarily total) that the threat exists, is serious and that ‘something should be done.’ The majority of elite and influential groups, especially the mass media, should share this consensus; (iv) Disproportionality- an exaggeration of the number or strength of the cases, in terms of the damage caused, moral offensiveness, potential risk if ignored. Public concern is not directly proportionate to objective harm; (v) Volatility- the panic erupts and dissipates suddenly and without warning.
Moral panic theorists distinguish between public concern and fear. From a moral panic perspective, the public reaction to a possible or alleged threat needs not take the form of fear in order to qualify. Rather, genuine felt concern about the situation is sufficient to constitute the public reaction criterion of moral panic. Felt concern demonstrates that the social condition is perceived to be a problem.
The hostility criterion of moral panic involves an outraged, punitive response by society toward those allegedly responsible for the threat. According to moral panic theorists, hostility toward the folk devils that embody the threat is fueled by moral entrepreneurs (or crusaders), political elites and the news media.
The consensus criterion is established when a substantial portion of society believes that the threat exists. Unanimity of opinion, however, is not required in order for a condition to constitute a moral panic. Consensus, therefore, can exist in a matter of degrees, so long as it reflects a widespread agreement that the threat is real, serious, and caused by the folk devils and their troublesome behavior.
Disproportionality involves an exaggeration by elites and the news media regarding the actual threat or risk posed by the alleged folk devils. As a result, public concern is disproportionate to the objective threat posed by folk devils to society.
Finally, the level of attention given to the so-called problem by elites and the news media fluctuates over time, as does the degree of public concern. Thus, there is an ebb and flow in both attention and concern about the folk devils that is positively related, i.e., more attention leads to more concern.
Goode and Ben-Yehuda in their book Moral Panics: The Social Construction of Deviance (1994, p. 41) succinctly summarized the interconnectedness of the five criteria when they stated that a moral panic “locates a ‘folk devil,’ is shared, is out of synch with the measurable seriousness of the condition that generates it, and varies in intensity over time.” However, in some cases, particularly when an allegedly threatening condition has not yet manifested, the objective (i.e., quantifiable) level or degree of the threat is difficult to measure.
In such instances, Cohen argued that the disproportionality criterion is fulfilled and “the attribution of the moral panic label… [is appropriate when] the ‘thing’s’ extent and significance has been exaggerated (a) in itself (compared with other more reliable, valid and objective sources) and/or (b) compared with other, more serious problems.”
For example, I have argued that the GW Bush administration ignored warnings from the CIA and Pentagon that Iraq did not possess WMD and relied instead on its own doubtful evidence of WMD in Iraq to make the case for war in 2003. Similarly, disproportionalty can be demonstrated in a comparison of the alleged “grave and gathering threat” posed by Iraq after 9/11, according to the Bush administration, and the actual atrocities, including the support of genocide, perpetrated by the Sudanese government on the people in Darfur (East Africa).
I believe a powerful argument can be made that Donald Trump manipulated public fear and anxiety concerning “the other,” generally, and terrorism and individuals of Islamic faith, specifically, to gain support for his presidential campaign in 2016. Clearly, it worked, at least in the short-term, as it got him elected.
However, I do not think that Donald Trump’s propaganda campaign prior to the election led to a moral panic, as defined by Cohen, because the five necessary elements of a moral panic did not result from it.
I do believe that Trump knowingly fans the flames of extreme nationalism, Islamophobia, racism and a generalized fear of the other whenever necessary to manipulate public opinion in his favor. Trump recognizes that the U.S. has become an “at-risk” society since 9/11 in which large segments of the population nervously await the other shoe to drop in terms of another terrorist attack.
We do not live in an age of moral panic per se but we do live at a time when the public consciousness is particularly susceptible to the creation of one by selfish and immoral elites. As such, beware of what Trump may have in store for us if his presidency truly becomes at risk of collapse or implosion due to his possible impeachment.
In a separate work, I examine the public’s fascination with serial killers in Why We Love Serial Killers: The Curious Appeal of the World’s Most Savage Murderers.
(1) Cohen, S. 1972. Folk Devils and Moral Panics: The Creation of the Mods and Rockers. London: MacGibbon and Key Ltd.
Dr. Scott Bonn is an author, professor, public speaker and commentator. Follow him @DocBonn on Twitter and visit his website docbonn.com