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“The GOP Is The Party Of Fear”: Scaring The Voters Works; There’s No Reason For The Republicans To Stop

The Republicans might consider themselves as the party of freedom, but their true identity, as Tuesday night’s debate made clear, is the party of fear. All the candidates on stage, with the partial exception of Senator Rand Paul, painted a frightening picture of America as a country that, as frontrunner Donald Trump warned, is on the verge of disintegrating.

“We need strength,” Trump said. “We’re not respected, you know, as a nation anymore. We don’t have that level of respect that we need. And if we don’t get it back fast, we’re just going to go weaker, weaker and just disintegrate.”

Trump is often portrayed as an anomaly among the GOP candidates, but consider the words of New Jersey Governor Chris Christie, widely regarded as one of the moderates in the party.

“America has been betrayed,” Christie said in his opening statement, where his words were clearly carefully planned.

We’ve been betrayed by the leadership that Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton have provided to this country over the last number of years. Think about just what’s happened today. The second largest school district in America in Los Angeles closed based on a threat. Think about the effect that, that’s going to have on those children when they go back to school tomorrow wondering filled with anxiety to whether they’re really going to be safe.

Think about the mothers who will take those children tomorrow morning to the bus stop wondering whether their children will arrive back on that bus safe and sound. Think about the fathers of Los Angeles, who tomorrow will head off to work and wonder about the safety of their wives and their children.

One might wonder how Obama and Clinton are responsible for the Los Angeles School District overreacting to a bomb hoax. One might also wonder that about a presidential candidate who uses the Los Angeles incident not to criticize the tendency to overreact to perceived threats but to stoke fear.

But Christie was hardly alone. All the other candidates spoke of an America under siege, no longer respected in the world, with a weakened military, threatened by both homegrown terrorists as well as immigrants and refugees who might be terrorists. To be sure, Senator Rand Paul did enter a few libertarian caveats about the dangers of ranking security above liberty, but even he used xenophobic fear of immigrants to attack rival Senator Marco Rubio. Ultimately, all the candidates played to a politics of fear—and history suggests it will help them in 2016.

How did fear come to loom so large as a part of Republican rhetoric? The crucial turning point surely was 9/11, which gave birth to a culture of fear in America—about which a small but vital literature has emerged, such as Susan Faludi’s The Terror Dream (2007), Corey Robin’s Fear: The History of a Political Idea (2006), Peter N. Stearns’s American Fears (2006). Using historical evidence, Stearns argued “that there either more fearful Americans than there once were, or that their voices are louder or more sought after and publicly authorized—or both.”

The best articulation of this culture of fear—and the concomitant willingness to do almost anything to secure an impregnable level of safety or security—can be seen in the 1 percent doctrine as articulated by Vice President Dick Cheney: “If there’s a 1 percent chance that Pakistani scientists are helping Al Qaeda build or develop a nuclear weapon, we have to treat it as a certainty in terms of our response.” In effect, Cheney was calling for the United States to become one giant safe space, even if it meant massively overreacting to threats abroad.

Sanctioned by Washington, a language giving priority to safety has increasingly shaped other parts of society, including academia. Last September, Nicholas Dirks, chancellor of the University of California, Berkeley, argued that freedom of speech has to be tempered by an acknowledgement of the demands of safety and civility: “[W]e can only exercise our right to free speech insofar as we feel safe and respected in doing so, and this in turn requires that people treat each other with civility.”

The culture of fear that grew up after 9/11 inevitably stifled free speech. “As a writer and editor,” Michael Kinsley wrote in The Washington Post in 2002, “I have been censoring myself and others quite a bit since Sept. 11. By ‘censoring’ I mean deciding not to write or publish things for reasons other than my own judgment of their merits. What reasons? Sometimes it has been a sincere feeling that an ordinarily appropriate remark is inappropriate at this extraordinary moment. Sometimes it is a genuine respect for readers who might feel that way even if I don’t. But sometimes it is simple cowardice.”

With both academia and journalism cowed, the years after 9/11 were a golden age for Republicans, when they were able to push a large part of their agenda, not just in foreign policy but often domestically as well. So it’s no surprise that Republicans keep returning to the well: Stirring up anxiety in the electorate has been so profitable for them. In his closing statement in the debate, Christie cagily evoked the memories of 9/ll:

On September 10th, 2001, I was named chief federal prosecutor in New Jersey and on September 11th, 2001, my wife and my brother who are in the audience tonight went through the World Trade Center and to their offices just blocks away from the Trade Center.

I lost touch with them for six hours that day and prayed that they were alive

Reviving 9/11 level fears is now a campaign strategy. Consider the midterm elections of 2014, when alarmist accounts of Ebola patients, “anchor babies,” and ISIS assassins all flooding the United States became a staple of Republican discourse. This fear-mongering paid handsome dividends at the ballot, with the Republicans winning the Senate and strengthening their hold on the House and in state legislatures. Scaring the voters works. There’s no reason for the Republicans to stop.

 

By: Jeet Heer, Senior Editor at the New Republic, December 15, 2015

December 19, 2015 - Posted by | 9-11, Fearmongering, GOP Presidential Candidates | , , , , , , , ,

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