For the Republican Party, fear is the coin of the realm. Its major electoral victories of the last several decades have all been built on it, and stoked by it: fear of government, fear of foreigners, fear of a black president. In the aftermath of the terrorist attacks in San Bernardino and Paris, the candidates who took the stage Tuesday night at CNN’s presidential debate sought to make the most of a terrifying world.
Ted Cruz pledged to carpet-bomb a good chunk of the Middle East. Marco Rubio called for increased military spending. Carly Fiorina professed her love for surveillance. Chris Christie uttered the numbers 9/11 more times than I could count. Ben Carson seemed to suggest that any children killed by bombs he would drop would love him in the afterlife for having done so. Rand Paul called for closing U.S. borders. Frontrunner Donald Trump promised to kill the relatives of terrorists.
At times the prescriptions offered by the candidates seemed the stuff of dark comedy, a kind of mash-up of Dr. Strangelove and Get Smart. World War III and the nuclear triad were invoked, and Trump pledged to fight terrorists by “shutting down parts of the Internet.”
Jeb Bush may not have much of a shot at winning the Republican presidential nomination, but he delivered one of the better lines during Tuesday’s debate: Frontrunner Donald Trump, Bush said, “is a chaos candidate. And he’d be a chaos president.”
True enough. There’s little doubt that sowing chaos in the Republican Party, and in politics writ large, is a significant part of the Trump strategy.
But the chaos that gave birth to ISIS, that amorphous entity of horrors, was a Republican project that began with the Iraq War. The party itself has been the playground of chaos ever since the religious right effectively took over its delegate base in the 1980s, wreaking havoc with the best-laid plans of party leaders. In short, the GOP is the chaos party, so a front-running chaos candidate seems depressingly fitting.
If you find comfort in the notion of a Republican Party in disarray, you may wish to consider this: In chaotic times, chaos often wins. Chaos creates the power vacuum that sucks the unthinkable to the fore. It worked for ISIS, and right now it’s working for Donald Trump.
To stem the tide of terrorism unleashed amid the chaos of the smashed-up Middle East will require uncomfortable alliances and decades of nation-building—not a position likely to generate enthusiasm amid a fearful American electorate. Better to promise to bomb the hell out of 'em and shut down the borders. And despite some differences among the candidates on guarantees of civil liberties and military intervention, nearly all of them offered at least one side of the borders-and-bombs prescription for what ails America.
In times of chaos, people crave order. When traditional means of creating order appear to have failed, the simplistic solutions offered by demagogues sound good to too many ears. This is the way in which dictatorships can emerge from democracies. With a campaign-finance system now trending toward the creation of oligarchy—thanks to the guarantee of donor anonymity that invites an infusion of private capital—the U.S. is flirting with the kind of ugly precedents seen elsewhere in the world.
Trump has a knack for making ideas that challenge the limits of the U.S. Constitution sound appealing to Americans. Bad guys use the Internet? Shut it down! Your cousin loses his mind and kills Americans for ISIS? You die! Belong to the wrong religion? You’d better register with the government.
The Constitution is an Enlightenment document, structured on the Newtonian physics of that age. Checks and balances, like weights and pulleys, are worked through the clean mechanics of gravity.
In the 20th century, the Enlightenment model of the Universe—the cosmos as an elegant clock—gave way to chaos theory. To those of us unschooled in the particulars, it seems as if the predictable machine of our past understanding has given way to an inchoate mess, rendering the Universe into a realm of random events.
I worry if the Constitution will survive in a chaos-theory world. Or a chaos-candidate nation.