Policy overreaction styles during manufactured crises

Author: Moshe Maor1
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  • 1 Hebrew University of Jerusalem, Israel
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This article focuses on governments’ attempts to intensify crises for political gain, and identifies a series of unnecessary crisis management responses that follow distinctive policy overreaction styles. It is based on the premise that political executives at times face incentives to shape voters’ perceptions regarding the timing and scope of a crisis, even though no crisis actually exists. Analysing Trump’s response towards the so-called ‘invasion’ by a caravan of asylum seekers, the article identifies three distinctive crisis overreaction policy styles: communicating in absolutes, performing in absolutes, and challenging the rule of law. Each of these overreaction styles includes a specific set of tool preferences; an active means of implementation; and an impositional manner of execution. By highlighting the potential advantages of marrying the concept of crisis to the ideas of policy overreaction and policy style, this article makes an important contribution to our understanding of the politics of crisis management.

Abstract

This article focuses on governments’ attempts to intensify crises for political gain, and identifies a series of unnecessary crisis management responses that follow distinctive policy overreaction styles. It is based on the premise that political executives at times face incentives to shape voters’ perceptions regarding the timing and scope of a crisis, even though no crisis actually exists. Analysing Trump’s response towards the so-called ‘invasion’ by a caravan of asylum seekers, the article identifies three distinctive crisis overreaction policy styles: communicating in absolutes, performing in absolutes, and challenging the rule of law. Each of these overreaction styles includes a specific set of tool preferences; an active means of implementation; and an impositional manner of execution. By highlighting the potential advantages of marrying the concept of crisis to the ideas of policy overreaction and policy style, this article makes an important contribution to our understanding of the politics of crisis management.

Introduction

This article seeks to improve our understanding of the concept of policy style by focusing on political executives’ attempts to step up existential warnings in order to reap political gains, leading to unnecessary, and often spectacular, crisis management responses that follow distinctive policy overreaction styles. It is based on the premise that determining the starting point of a crisis is at times a key challenge for the public, or part thereof. This, in turn, creates an opportunity for political executives to strategically frame collective threats in the run-up to critical elections; to justify extra-ordinary measures by announcing the existence of a crisis, when there is no evidence to suggest that this is actually the case; and, more importantly, to convince the public that a severe crisis is underway, one that will have potentially catastrophic consequences in the absence of immediate action.

Further, the ability of political executives to decide when a crisis is over, or even to decide not to end a crisis, extends the timeframe for the ‘performance of crisis’ (Moffitt, 2015), with the derived electoral benefits in terms of its success in shaping (core) voters’ perceptions favourably. Classic examples include the construction of migration crises by Victor Orbán in Hungary in the period 2015–2018 (Cantat and Rajaram, 2019) and by Donald Trump in the run-up to the US 2018 midterm elections (Béland, 2019; Edwards, 2019). Policy style refers to the development of governing modes that structure instrument choices and design decisions in predictable ways (Richardson et al, 1982; Howlett and Tosun, 2019a). A crisis entails ‘a threat that is perceived to be existential in one way or another’ (Boin et al, 2018: 24). In manufactured crises, decision makers intensify warnings regarding an imminent threat, exploiting the public belief in the presence of a threat when no such threat actually exists (hence, the idea of policy overreaction style).

This article contributes to the existing array of literature showing that multiple crisis response patterns are possible (for example, ’t Hart et al, 1993) and that modern crises develop in unseen ways; escalate rapidly; are transformed through the interdependencies of modern society; and arise with increasing frequency (Boin, 2009; ’t Hart and Sundelius, 2013; Boin et al, 2014; 2016; Drennan et al, 2014). It also draws on the insights of studies demonstrating that crises generate framing contests among political executives to interpret events, causes, responsibilities and lessons in ways that suit their political goals (Boin et al, 2009), and that political executives in crisis situations are increasingly judged according to their ability to convince the public that the policy system is viable (Borraz and Cabane, 2017) and that they can ‘bring things back to normal’ (Boin and ’t Hart, 2003: 3), although preferably not the ‘old normal’ that was responsible for the conditions in which the crisis arose (’t Hart and Boin, 2001; Boin et al, 2009). The article also draws on a recent conceptual turn in the study of disproportionate policy response, which comprises two core concepts, namely policy over- and underreaction. These concepts, typically understood to be unintentional errors of commission or omission (for example, Walker and Malici, 2011), have reentered the policy lexicon also as types of intentional policy responses (for example, Maor, 2017c; 2019a).

Analysing President Trump’s strategies during the so-called ‘caravan’ of migrants from Central America heading towards the US–Mexico border, the article reveals three distinctive governing styles of policy overreaction – namely, communicating in absolutes (for example, policy overreaction rhetoric and doctrines), performing in absolutes (that is, policy overreaction ‘on the ground’ while, at times, bending the law), and challenging the rule of law or Constitution. Each of these policy overreaction styles includes a specific set of tool preferences; an active means of implementation; and an impositional manner of execution.

The contribution of this article is three-fold. First, it highlights the potential advantages yielded by marrying the concept of crisis to the ideas of policy overreaction and policy style. If manufactured crises determine the range and type of policy alternatives and final policy outputs, then a crisis overreaction policy style – a long-term preference for governing styles that structure instrument choices and design decisions in predictable fashions during (manufactured) crises – is a relevant analytical extension of the construct of policy style. Second, it emphasises that crisis overreaction policy style has become a tool that can be used to win an election, and, in ‘states of exception’ (Agamben, 2005) or when crises ‘are the new normal’ (for example, Tierney, 2014: 238), a common mode of governing. Third, the article highlights that the decision to opt for one style or another, or for a mix thereof, can be viewed as a risky policy investment, which, if successful, may confer tangible benefits in the form of decision making autonomy, deference and prestige (Maor, 2019b). To paraphrase Thomas’ (1928: 7) conceptualisation of the ‘definition of the situation’, once voters define a manufactured crisis as real, it is real in its consequences.

While recognising that a focus on manufactured crises may exaggerate the apparent frequency with which certain policy styles are utilised, this article presumes that the concept of policy style is useful because it captures long-term patterns in populist politics, which involve political executives creating and exacerbating threats, as well as their efforts in protecting the public from them (Béland, 2019). This enables us to use President Trump’s example of populist style as a bridge between the past usage of policy style, which is pitched at the national level, and the view of policy style as the property of an individual.

The article is structured as follows. The first section introduces the definitional basis for policy style and intentional policy overreaction. The second section elaborates on the agents and the timeframe of intentional policy overreaction, as well as its audiences and its implementation as almost standard operating procedure during manufactured crises. The third section contains three sub-sections discussing Trump’s strategies during the so-called ‘caravan’ of migrants; each of these examines and illustrates a distinct governing style of policy overreaction. The final section concludes and presents avenues for future research.

The definitional ground

The concept of policy style relates to durable and systematic approaches to policy problems (Freeman, 1985: 474) that arise during the formulation and implementation of a policy (Howlett, 2019). Much of the research on policy style has focused on governments’ propensity to take anticipatory or reactive decisions by either seeking to reach consensus with organised groups or imposing decisions notwithstanding opposition from such groups (Richardson et al, 1982; Jordan and Cairney, 2013; Richardson, 2018a; 2018b). The concept has been fruitfully applied to the policy process in particular countries and groups of countries (for example, Richardson et al, 1982; Howlett and Tosun, 2019a; 2019b). One of the main findings to emerge from recent research is that a single description of policy style is too simplistic to capture the wide range of constraints imposed by different policy environments (for example, Cairney, 2019; Howlett and Tosun, 2019b).

Policy overreaction is a policy that ‘impose[s] objective and/or perceived social costs without producing offsetting objective and/or perceived benefits’ (Maor, 2012: 235). Although research examining policy overreaction remains at an early stage, it is largely developing along three paths: psychological, institutional and strategic explanations. The first path comprises psychological explanations that identify a pattern of overreaction thinking which systematically deviates from perfect rationality (Simon, 1982). These explanations attribute all overreactions to errors deriving from cognitive biases and constraints on information processing (for example, Baumgartner and Jones, 2009; Kahneman, 2011), as well as socio-psychological dynamics in small decision-making groups (for example, Janis, 1982; Mintz and Wayne, 2016). The second path comprises newly-emerging institutional accounts that explain overreactions as errors deriving from institutional values, procedures, myths and routines (for example, Peters et al, 2017). The third path focuses on strategic (read, intentional) explanations and has recently been articulated as the disproportionate policy perspective (Maor, 2017a).1 An extensive review of literature concerning the aforementioned research paths can be found elsewhere (Maor, 2017c).

The disproportionate policy perspective is designed, among other things, to guide potential explanations of a complex reality in which political executives deliberately select policy over- or underreaction alternatives that, on occasion, may be successful in achieving policy and political goals. This perspective also allows us to form expectations about the crisis behaviour demonstrated by leaders and governments. It implies that, at times, deliberate disproportionate policy response is not necessarily episodic in nature; that strategic considerations can enter into the very essence of disproportionate policy response; that emotional entrepreneurs may play a critical role throughout the disproportionate response cycle; and that although disproportionate policy response may intuitively carry a negative value-laden meaning, in certain cases it may be perfectly legitimate and justified (Maor, 2019b, 2019c). Overall, the key argument is that ‘a disproportionate response in the policy domain may at times be a politically well calibrated and highly effective strategy because of the damage it inflicts on political rivals and/or its success in shaping voters’ perceptions favourably’ (Maor, 2019a: 5). These ideas direct attention to the policy tools that characterise the distinctive styles of governing via overreaction during manufactured crises.

A classic example is the Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s announcement early in the outburst of COVID-19 that he has ‘instructed [health officials] to overreact, rather than underreact’ because ‘this epidemic is perhaps one of the most dangerous in the last 100 years.’2 This announcement should be evaluated alongside his attempt to confront criticism for ordering the largest fire-fighting aircraft in the world to fight the 2016 fire in the outskirt of Jerusalem (Nataf), by claiming that ‘it is better to have over-capacity, rather than under-capacity.’3 This alarmist sensitivity sits squarely within the overall aim of political survival.

A useful distinction can be drawn between overreaction doctrines and rhetoric. Policy overreaction doctrine refers to ‘a coherent set of policy principles which presents an ‘all or nothing’ policy commitment in pursuit of a policy goal no matter what the costs are, or by any means necessary’ (Maor, 2018; Maor, 2019a: 4; see also Maor, 2017b). An example is the ‘mad dog’ doctrine, applied when a country must project an image of limited or partial irrationality for the purpose of deterrence. In the case of Israel, for instance, Moshe Dayan argued that the country ‘must be seen as a mad dog, too dangerous to bother’ (quoted in Beres, 2016: 28). A specific example of the ‘mad dog’ doctrine is the Dahiyah Doctrine, which entails using disproportionate air power and artillery against urban neighbourhoods in an attempt to punitively destroy the entire area from which rockets are fired (Siboni, 2008). Policy overreaction rhetoric, a sub-set of policy overreaction doctrine, refers to ‘arguments that policymakers employ to reach and persuade the target populations of their “all or nothing” policy commitment to achieve their policy goal, no matter what the costs are or by any means necessary’ (Maor, 2019a: 4). An example of policy overreaction rhetoric is Boris Johnson’s ‘do or die’ (or ‘come what may’) pledge to lead Britain out of the EU on 31 October 2019, which was delivered on the eve of his victory in the race to lead the Conservative Party. Another is Victor Orbán’s declaration, made in March 2018, three weeks before he sought reelection for a third term, of his intention to shut out migrants: ‘We don’t want to win an election, we want to win our future, […] The countries that don’t stop immigration will be lost’ (quoted in Walker, 2018). This rhetoric is absolutist, emphasising non-negotiable policy positions which are intended for general, rather than differential, implementation. Note, however, that this rhetoric may also be unstable: leaders may make certain statements one day, and the next voice completely different views, even denying their previous declarations. Policy overreaction rhetoric also includes arguments outside the norms of civility, let alone those applying to an executive officeholder. An example is President Trump’s posting of a doctored video clip in which he is seen bashing the head of a figure representing CNN.

An attempt to gauge whether it is at all possible to recognise routines and routinised choices in the behaviour of political executives during manufactured crises requires capturing the political and policy dynamics involved in strategic crisis management. As such, this article adopts a definition of crisis management as ‘the set of efforts aimed at minimizing the impact of an urgent threat’ (Boin et al, 2018: 29), and a definition of strategic crisis management as ‘setting the general parameters of a crisis response, [and] making the critical decisions that shape [a] society’s future commitments’ (Bartenberger, 2017: 8). These definitions bring to the fore the importance of how both the threats (Boin et al, 2018) and the effectiveness and legitimacy of crisis management are perceived, in addition emphasising the characterisation of crises as political in nature, vulnerable to exploitation by politicians, and containing a dimension of opportunity (for example, Birkland, 2004; Boin et al, 2016; 2018).

Agents, timeframe and audiences in the evolution of policy overreaction styles during manufactured crises

How does the concept of strategic crisis management relate to the idea of policy overreaction during manufactured crises? A crisis represents a ‘phase of disorder in the seemingly normal development of a system,’ a transition ‘during which the normal ways of operating no longer work’ (Boin et al, 2005: 2). At the same time, crises are ‘symbolic and ritual events [… They] strain the metaphors that construct the cognitive framing of […] life. [They] disorient the social time, space, and identities that mediate […] action’ (Jacobs, 2012: 376; see also ’t Hart, 1993; Boin et al, 2009; Moffitt, 2015; Körösényi et al, 2016). This coupling between substantiality and symbolism provides a convenient point of departure to examine cases in which political executives are: (i) willing to see certain threats ramped up, or at the very least the perception that there is a threat, in order to advance their political goals, and (ii) able to step up existential warnings while taking advantage of the opportunities that arise as they determine the starting point and other temporal elements of the manufactured crisis. This coupling between substantiality and symbolism during a crisis, let alone a manufactured one, and the subsequent crisis management response is reminiscent of Tilly’s (1982) idea of the state’s protection racket, defining a danger or threat that strengthens its hold over territory. We therefore contribute to a growing body of works, such as Agamben’s (2005) study regarding a ‘state of exception’; Roitman’s (2014) work concerning crisis as a ‘blind spot’ in the production of knowledge; Adey et al’s (2015) study of moments of emergency as creating new modalities of governing; and Aradau and Van Munster’s (2009) work on the institutionalisation of fear of the enemy as the constitutive principle of society.

The concept of strategic crisis management relates to the idea of policy overreaction style during manufactured crises, when such a policy response becomes a (near) mode of governing, no matter the context. Specifically, political executives may take advantage of the difficulties that the public, or part thereof, encounters in identifying when a crisis begins and what actually constitutes a crisis. This, in turn, enables them to strategically frame collective threats in order to reap political gain. Because ‘modern crises are defined by observed events’ (Gorton and Tallman, 2018: 48), some episodes may constitute the first visible manifestation allowing political executives to articulate a discourse of crisis. An example is the transit of over 220,000 migrants through Hungary on their way to Western and Northern European countries in 2015. This is particularly applicable if political executives succeed in transforming it into a media event – subsequently leading to increased public awareness about the reality of migration issues – and demonstrating the urgent need for an appropriate political response. Examples that are indicative of the Hungarian government’s attempt to increase public awareness of the on-going crisis, even though the number of immigrants entering the country dramatically decreased, include the framing of Hungary as protector of ‘Hungarian and European culture’ against ‘an invasion of outsiders’ (Hungarian Free Press, quoted in Cantat and Rajaram, 2019: 183); the spectacular building of razor-wire fences on its border with Serbia and Croatia; the billboard campaign addressing migrants yet written in Hungarian; and the trials of migrant leaders for illegal entry and terrorism (Cantat and Rajaram, 2019: 185–7).

However, due to public expectations of government intervention during a crisis, many wait to see how the government reacts before internalising that a crisis has begun. A manufactured crisis thus presents an opportunity for political executives to justify extra-ordinary measures, having determined that a crisis exists, and, more importantly, to initiate an urgency discourse (van Wijk and Fischhendler, 2017) that will convince the public of the potentially catastrophic consequences, should the government fail to act. The public could view the Hungarian government’s declaration of a national state of emergency in March 2016 in the name of the ‘crisis’ as indicating the outbreak of a serious crisis.

Political executives may furthermore justify measures taken ‘on the ground’ by claiming that they need to quell public panic, in so doing depicting the public as irrational while they themselves, those in possession of knowledge, information and experience, remain rational. In other words, they will often perform unnecessary actions (read, overreact) not only in response to the threat they have manufactured, but also as a result of public hysteria and fears which they portrayed as serious, although the threat has little ground in actual reality. As such, in order to justify their overreaction, political executives may use the media to convince the public that a threat exists, and at times also that the public, which is either in the throes of panic or prone to panic, itself constitutes the problem, while there is no evidence to suggest that this is actually the case.

Furthermore, political executives’ ability to decide that a crisis has passed, that normalcy has been restored, that panic has subsided, or even not to end a crisis, extends the timeframe for the ‘performance of a crisis’ (Moffitt, 2015), with the derived political benefits in terms of its success in shaping voters’ perceptions favourably. Furthermore, deciding not to end a crisis could be seen as a way of maintaining a permanent ‘state of exception’ (Agamben, 2005), which is replete with electoral gains for the relevant political executives and allows increasing room for manoeuvre. Returning to our example, it is sufficient to mention that the discourse regarding the ‘crisis’ and the declaration of a national state of emergency in its name enabled the Hungarian government to marginalise other social groups, particularly Roma (Cantat and Rajaram, 2019: 189). Overall, there is nothing self-evident in the existence of a crisis, let alone a manufactured one, and this consequently creates huge political opportunities for skilled political executives.

Yet who are the audiences for policy overreaction? In general, global and domestic threats, coupled with publics that are relatively sceptical about politicians and political institutions as well as rising negativity and populism in democratic politics, imply that policy overshooting is increasingly necessary in order for the public to perceive policy action as sufficient and politicians as competent, at least in the short term. In addition, in ideologically polarised contexts, policy overreaction may be required to seize the attention of core supporters and evoke emotional responses; increase in-group identification, political participation and preferences for strong leadership; inspire sympathy from and solidarity with a political executive’s aggrieved base; galvanise a political base; delegitimise political opponents; boost the positive image of the leader; and increase the public’s tolerance for overreaction ‘on-the-ground’ to deal with manufactured threats (for example, Huddy et al, 2007; Brader et al, 2008; Merolla and Zechmeister, 2013; Albertson and Gadarian, 2015; Marietta et al, 2017; Davies, 2019). One should not expect that such a response will entail a significant electoral cost among a political executive’s supporters, because most of them are likely to perceive such actions as proportionate.

Needless to say, a condition for successfully implementing policy overreaction ‘on the ground’ (in contrast to robust state response at the rhetorical and doctrinal levels) is the state’s capacity to overreact. While a government may wish to develop governing styles of policy overreaction, it may not be equipped to do so, or will only partially achieve this goal if it lacks the capacity required to implement such a style. The arguments presented herein regarding policy overreaction styles during a manufactured crisis therefore may not apply to weaker states. Attention now turns to elaborating three policy overreaction styles recorded in the run-up to the US 2018 midterm elections.

Policy overreaction styles during the 2018 migrant caravan ‘crisis’ in the US

The context of the migrant caravan ‘crisis’ in the US offers a convenient starting point. As early as June 2015, Trump employed an informal, direct and provocative communication style to construct and reinforce the concept of a homogeneous people and a homeland threatened by a dangerous other (Kreis, 2017; Wolf, 2018). Trump described these immigrants as criminals who pose national security threat to native-born Americans (Chacón, 2017), arguing that a wall should be built on the US–Mexico border to protect the country against illegal immigrants. Further, throughout the 2016 election campaign, he labelled undocumented Mexican immigrants ‘rapists’ and ‘criminals’, and during the first year of his presidency he frequently deployed inflammatory rhetoric about immigration (Andersen, 2020). In the late fall of 2018, a few weeks before the midterm elections, migrants from a number of Central American countries were headed for the US. Exploiting this event in the context of the elections, Trump employed three governing styles of policy overreaction – namely, communicating in absolutes, performing in absolutes and challenging the rule of law or Constitution. These styles, the focus of this section, accord well with the ‘politics of insecurity’ (for example, Huysmans, 2006; Béland, 2007; 2019; Rojecki, 2016), which refers to ‘how perceived collective threats are framed and acted upon’ (Béland, 2019: 2; see also Béland, 2007).

Before expanding on the case at hand, it is important to justify the categorisation of the migrant caravan as a manufactured crisis (for example, Morales, 2019). Suffice it to mention three reasons. First, Trump lacked evidence to support his claims that the caravan of asylum seekers posed a threat to the nation and that the travellers included criminals and Middle Eastern terrorists (Edwards, 2019). In response to reporters’ requests for evidence, he told them, ‘Oh, please, please, don’t be a baby’ (Parker et al, 2018), thereafter admitting, in a White House press conference on 23 October 2018, that he had ‘no proof of anything’, but that his claims could be true. Second, there existed contradictory evidence attesting to his lack of perspective on the issue of immigration (Edwards, 2019). The lowest level of illegal immigration in a decade was recorded in the mid-2010s, as well as a net outflow of undocumented Mexicans back to Mexico (Passel and Cohn, 2018; Edwards, 2019). Migrant flow therefore did not constitute a historical break, and this could indicate that no crisis, let alone disaster, was evolving on the US southern border in the run-up to the 2018 midterm elections. Third, Trump did not miss the opportunity to exploit the fear of massive arrivals at a critical time in the electoral cycle, yet he stopped talking about this issue immediately after the elections (Cillizza, 2018; Haberman and Landler, 2018; Rucker and Dawsey, 2018; Béland, 2019), before raising it again a few weeks later (Griffiths, 2018). Let us now explore the aforementioned policy overreaction styles.

‘Communicating in absolutes’ style

This policy overreaction style correlates with preferences for explicit policy overreaction doctrines and rhetoric in order to ‘control the narrative’; an active (rather than a reactive) means of implementation; and an impositional manner of execution by directly using government and/or central agencies. This policy style contains the rhetorical strategies that political executives employ to manipulate (that is, increase, decrease, fabricate) perceived threats to the nation while offering potential responses to looming and on-going threats in order to advance their political goals. Communication in absolutes might be expressed, for example, by employing claims of ‘us-versus-them’ or statements of apocalyptic nature, and/or denying uncertainty regarding the policy problem by using statements that are applied generally (rather than differentially), phrased in a non-negotiable manner, and employ coarse language, outside the norms of civility.

Trump objected to immigrants from what he called ‘shithole countries’ (January 2018). When campaigning in the 2018 midterm elections, he reinforced the public state of fear generated by the perceived threat from illegal immigration. He did so by framing a caravan of asylum seekers slowly travelling through Mexico as a potential ‘invasion’ of the US – therefore posing an imminent threat to the American people. His campaign promise, to build a wall along the US border with Mexico, was hammered repeatedly before his core supporters, thus ‘transforming the wall into a powerful symbol of his anti-immigration message’ (Edwards, 2019: 21) and portraying him as the protector of his base against the imminent threat of illegal immigration. Trump also tweeted a misleading web video linking refugee claimants with a cop-killer; blamed Democrats for letting the cop-killer into the country; and threatened to close the US–Mexico border in order to block the ‘invasion’ of migrants who were travelling in the caravan to the US (Béland, 2018).

Alongside the aforementioned policy overreaction rhetoric, Trump has deployed an overreaction doctrine borrowed from the Israeli experience. Israel erected security walls along the West Bank and Gaza, as well as along its northern and southern borders, to protect itself mainly from terrorism, smuggling, crime (for example, car thefts) and illegal immigration. The wall most comparable to Trump’s proposal is built on the Israel–Egypt border, in cooperation with Egypt, to prevent illegal African migrants from entering Israel. This wall is based on the doctrine that a physical obstacle creates a security barrier, reducing terrorist attacks inside Israel and preventing the entry of illegal migrants. Trump cited Israel’s wall as a success story in stopping illegal migrants.4 Adopting the same doctrine, Trump borrowed a maximalist, zero-tolerance policy proposal, which is insensitive to the heterogeneity of the immigrant population (for example, not all illegal immigrants are criminals or terrorists). In addition, large segments of the population perceive the proposed wall as an overreaction on moral, environmental, and other grounds.

A ‘communicating by absolutes’ style allows political executives to deploy the rhetorical firepower of the state, highlighting the overwhelming scope of the costs that the state is willing to bear in order to neutralise looming or on-going crises. The idea is to overwhelm the target populations cognitively and emotionally with the potential scope of the policy cost, thus underscoring the credibility of the government’s commitment. Suffice it to mention President Trump’s tweet that ‘This is an invasion of our Country and our Military is waiting for you!’ (Trump quoted in Fabian, 2018) as an attempt to ‘control the narrative’, thereby ensuring the flow of electoral benefits.

‘Performing by absolutes’ style

This policy overreaction style correlates with a preference for zero-tolerance laws and regulation (for example, zero-tolerance border enforcement policy; zero-tolerance crime policy), horizontal-interdiction laws and regulations (for example, restricting the movement of the entire population), and unlimited policies (for example, open border policy) that may, at times, involve bending the law (for example, purposeful discrimination through selective enforcement); an active means of implementation; and an impositional manner of execution. One example is Trump’s zero-tolerance border enforcement policy which forcibly separates immigrant children from their families at the Mexican border, disregarding the heterogeneity of this target population (for example, in terms of the children’s age) as well as the traumatic effects of this policy on young children. The Trump administration defended the use of this policy, claiming that it deters other potential immigrants and also serves as a negotiating tool in the President’s efforts to force Democrats to cave on his immigration demands. Despite President Trump’s executive order terminating this policy, which was signed on 20 June 2018, the practice was never completely suspended.

Another example occurred a few days before the 2018 midterm elections, when Trump reinforced the idea of ‘invasion’ by sending several thousand troops to help secure the southern border. The manufactured ‘invasion’ of immigrants was accompanied by inflammatory rhetoric about migrants (for example, Béland, 2018; 2019; Semple, 2018; Shoichet, 2018). For instance, former Republican House Speaker Newt Gingrich (2018) stated, ‘If we are serious about preventing this caravan invasion from being imitated, we must overwhelm the invaders, stop them in their tracks, and quickly return them to their home countries.’ The deployment of troops, accompanied by this rhetoric, highlights the importance of spectacularity in policy overreaction, which aims to emotionally and cognitively overwhelm the target populations, in this case primarily Trump’s political base. Governing by zero-sum tribal warfare (Edwards, 2019: 22) demonstrated Trump’s commitment to protecting the people from the looming migrant threat. This policy, according to Béland (2019: 8), ‘was a classic example of how the politics of insecurity is largely claiming to provide protection against perceived and sometimes exaggerated or even fabricated threats.’

‘Challenging the rule of law or Constitution’ style

The generic properties of this policy overreaction style include a lack of commitment to the rule of law or Constitution (that is, challenging the law and Constitution in an all encompassing way); an active means of implementing rules and regulations in a manner grossly incompatible with the rule of law; and an impositional way of execution. President Trump has shown disdain for the rule of law, claiming the criminal justice system is a ‘joke’ and a ‘laughing stock’ (Edwards, 2019: 23). Indeed, a number of plans he devised were either struck down or delayed by judges. At least three courts ruled against the administration’s travel ban from primarily Muslim countries (Iran, Libya, Somalia, Syria and Yemen), which, after being redrafted, was upheld by a 5–4 Supreme Court decision in June 2018.

Other plans Trump devised that were either struck down or delayed by judges include cutting funds for sanctuary cities, terminating the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) programme, holding migrant families in long-term detention, and plans for blanket detention of asylum seekers, in addition to a refusal to accept asylum claims submitted by migrants who entered the United States illegally (Edwards, 2019: 24). Courts have also ruled against elements of Trump’s signature crackdown on illegal immigration, including limiting entry points for asylum seekers, revoking temporary protected status for immigrants from certain countries already living legally in the United States, and family separation. Overall, a Washington Post study has found that, as of April 2019, Federal courts ruled against Trump administration policies at least 70 times (Barbash et al, 2019). Trump’s disdain for the rule of law in the run-up to the midterm elections therefore mounts to an attempt to pursue an extreme mode of executive supremacy.

An interesting question is whether the deployment of these policy overreaction styles was a successful electoral strategy ahead of the 2018 midterms. Losing control of the House of Representatives while increasing the Republican majority in the Senate may indicate a mixed result. Yet, as Newell (2018) suggests,

Recognizing a few weeks ago that the prospects for the House were slim, the president turned his focus almost explicitly to the Senate. Senate Democrats are defending a lot of deep-red turf this year, and ensuring maximal Republican base turnout should be enough to allow Republicans to keep, and quite likely increase, their control of the chamber.

The focus on migrants during the 2018 midterms has indeed helped Trump to keep his base constantly mobilised (Béland, 2019), subsequently increasing the Republican majority in the Senate.

In sum, the concept of policy style highlights three governing modes of policy overreaction during manufactured crises. These policy overreaction styles are sturdy because they are intimately linked with exaggerated or fabricated threats that a country is facing. This, in turn, allows policy executives ample opportunity to shape voters’ perceptions favourably, undermine political rivals, and implement transformative and irrevocable changes in their polity. These policy overreaction styles are also sturdy because ‘in most western countries there is a growing number of special agencies and institutions responsible for an increasing number of imagined threats’ (Eriksson, 2001: 2). In Israel, for example, the most institutionalised threat is probably the imagined danger of another Holocaust. Over the past decade, and in particular during the fight against COVID-19, Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu has increasingly politicised vulnerabilities relating to this threat; indeed, at the ceremony held at Yad Vashem to commemorate Holocaust Remembrance Day (20 April 2020) he stated that, unlike the Holocaust, ‘we identified the danger of the coronavirus in time’. Perhaps most important in the analysis so far is the finding that – contrary to the expectation that crisis management response in general, and policy overreaction in particular, will be highly ad-hoc and driven by the exceptional circumstances of the crisis – there are rhetorical and institutionalised ways of reacting to manufactured exceptional events, and these are embedded within the concept of crisis overreaction policy style.

Conclusions

This article advances the general idea that political executives develop distinct policy overreaction styles to ‘fight’ manufactured crises. The three policy overreaction styles presented here exemplify the propensity of political executives to construct crises during which they can employ policy tools solely for the purpose of obtaining political gains (hence, the idea of crisis overreaction policy style). These decisions may at times bypass the constraints imposed by institutional arrangements, such as the rules and structures of the civil service and the political system, in the sense of, for example, violating the law or Constitution. The nature of these decisions and the kind of instruments selected in the context of manufactured crises constitute crisis overreaction policy style. This conception exists alongside the view of policy style as ‘a set of political and administrative routines and behaviour that are in turn heavily influenced by the rules and structures of the civil service and political system in which it is situated’ (Howlett and Tosun, 2019b: 379).

The article also shows that crisis overreaction policy style can be used to win an election. In addition, whereas the literature on crisis management often focuses on the singular nature of crises and the exceptional measures taken to quell or handle crises, this article suggests the existence of more routine approaches to the management of crises, and more generally a permanent state of manufactured crises designed to mobilise support on a continuous basis (for example, Agamben, 2005; Tierney, 2014). In addition, although there exists solid literature portraying states of exception and new normalcy as working outside the normal mode of governing (for example, Aradau and Van Munster 2009; Adey et al, 2015), this is not always the case, nor is it necessary. Manufactured crises can be governed via ordinary instruments and resources. However, pushing them to their limits, what we refer to here as ‘absolute’ uses, raises exciting research questions regarding how long this strategy can work and with what implications.

The article has focused on patterns in the substance of policy overreaction decisions during manufactured crises. The way these decisions are made also requires further investigation across policy domains. In addition, this article has focused on three crisis overreaction policy styles. These three policy styles were treated as paradigmatic or ‘core’, involving unusual government actions – in the sense of policy scale, scope, speed, magnitude, reach and so forth – to address imagined crises. However, reality may be more complex and multilayered, and therefore there may be further styles that remain, as yet, uncovered.

A potential avenue for future research relates to the observation that some policy overreaction styles may be politically far more successful in containing manufactured crises. Suffice it to mention the success of Prime Minister Victor Orbán in using the imagined crisis referred to in this article to advance his vision of Hungary as an illiberal democracy. Another avenue for future research derives from the observation that, from the perspective of the general public, or part thereof, some manufactured crises are perceived as real crises. This, in turn, suggests an interesting hypothesis: perhaps each policy overreaction in response to a crisis in a particular policy domain, whether the crisis is manufactured or not, amplifies the effect of the ensuing crisis in the same domain, due to the public’s decreasing confidence in the government’s willingness and ability to mount a similar overwhelming intervention in a timely manner or in a similar intervention delivering the desired results. This hypothesis directs attention to crisis overreaction policy styles centring on ‘more of the same’ versus those introducing policy overreaction innovations that seek to cognitively and emotionally overwhelm the target populations and, at the same time, are limited in terms of financial and other resources in comparison to the first type of intervention. This suggestion leaves a broad agenda for research on policy overreaction as a policy style in times of manufactured and real crises.

Funding

The research was sponsored by the Israel Science Foundation, 616/17.

Acknowledgements

I am very grateful to the three anonymous reviewers for their comments and suggestions.

Conflict of interest

The author declares that there is no conflict of interest.

Notes

1

Related literature anticipating the idea of deliberate policy overreaction includes works concerning social amplification of risk (Kasperson et al, 1988), symbolic policy (Edelman, 1985), populism (Mudde and Klatwasser, 2014; Moffitt, 2015), and moral panic (Goode and Ben Yehuda, 1994).

2

Benjamin Netanyahu, Press Conference, 4 March 2020. Reported in Israel Hayom, 5 March, in Hebrew.

4

Quoted in: Jewish Telegraphic Agency (2017). Israeli firm chosen to build prototype of US border wall with Mexico. Times of Israel, September 13.

www.timesofisrael.com/israeli-firm-chosen-to-build-protoype-of-us-border-wall-with-mexico/

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    • Export Citation
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    • Export Citation
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    • Export Citation
  • Boin, A., Rhinard, M. and Ekengren, M. (2014) Managing transboundary crises: the emergence of European Union capacity, Journal of Contingencies and Crisis Management, 22(3): 13142

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    • Export Citation
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    • Export Citation
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    • Export Citation
  • Boin, A., ’t Hart, P. and Kuipers, S. (2018). The crisis approach, in H. Rodríguez, W. Donner and J.E. Trainor (eds) Handbook of Disaster Research, New York: Springer, pp 2338.

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    • Export Citation
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    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
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    • Export Citation
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    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
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