Will the GOP Candidates Try to Reignite Voters' Fears?

(Photo: AP/Morry Gash)

Republican presidential candidates take the state during the November 11 GOP Debate in Milwaukee.

It's easy to believe that the way things are today is the way they're going to stay, to be be swayed by the momentary intensity of a situation into thinking its effects will be longer-lasting than they are. So it might be that a few months from now, the attacks that took place in Paris on Friday will have exerted no meaningful pull on American policy and American politics. But a few days out, it sure feels familiar. Fear—its presence among the people, but even more so its exploitation by politicians—is back.

No one was more energized by the news from France than the Republicans running for president, who fell all over each other trying to see who could sound the toughest. Marco Rubio declared, "This is a clash of civilizations," as though ISIS were in fact its own civilization. Ben Carson, displaying his usual commitment to factual accuracy, attacked the Obama administration for "bringing 200,000 people over here from that region," even though the actual number of refugees we plan to take in is only 10,000. Speaking of which, Ted Cruz said that we should accept only Christian refugees, a position made all the more heartwarming by the fact that he said it at a "rally for religious liberty." Mike Huckabee released a statement saying that because of the attack we should revoke the nuclear agreement with Iran, I guess because all Muslims are scary.

And Jeb Bush, super-macho-man that he is, said "We should declare war" on ISIS, apparently because he doesn't know what it actually means to declare war. And that's not to mention the inane attacks on Hillary Clinton for her unwillingness to repeat the words "radical Islam," as though doing so would actually accomplish anything.

Watching these candidates talk about an unexpected terrorist attack overseas, it's hard not to think they feel just a bit of relief that the discussion can move back to more advantageous ground for them. I found myself thinking about September 2004, when Chechen terrorists took control of a school in Beslan, and in the end more than 300 people died, most of them children. The two situations are not the same—we don't have much to fear from Chechen separatists, while it's possible ISIS could try to mount an attack in the United States. But at the time, I heard from pollsters that voters, particularly women, kept bringing up the Beslan school massacre in focus groups and citing their general feeling of fear and unease.

That fear almost certainly helped George W. Bush get re-elected that year, despite the fact that Osama bin Laden was still at large and neither the Afghanistan nor Iraq War was going well at all. The Republicans worked hard to convince voters that their lives were still in danger from terrorists, and only Bush, their strong and vengeful father figure, could keep them safe from harm. No television ad was aired more often in that campaign than one called "Ashley's Story," which told of a young girl whose mother was killed on 9/11 and whose life was changed when Bush came to her town and hugged her. "He's the most powerful man in the world," she says in the ad, "and all he wants to do is make sure I'm safe." In fact, psychologists exploring "terror management theory," which looks at how our fear of death affects our thinking, found in experiments that simply reminding subjects of their own mortality could increase the degree to which they supported Bush over John Kerry.

Republicans understand full well that having sober, detailed discussions about foreign policy and terrorism don't play quite as well for them. Fear, though? Fear is electoral gold for the GOP.

Just to be clear, I'm not arguing that we have nothing to fear from ISIS. There's no question they've changed their strategy, and now they're striking out beyond the areas they control to conduct terrorist attacks against those countries opposing them. We're on that list. Geographic distance makes it somewhat harder to mount an attack in the United States than in Europe, but on the other hand, anyone wanting to commit a terrorist attack here has only to walk into a gun show and they can leave with all the tools they'll need, no matter how grandiose their ambitions. On this web site I counted 41 gun shows around the country just this past weekend; there's a show very soon not too far from you, wherever you are and whatever you're looking to buy.

As Kevin Drum helpfully documented, prior to the Paris attacks the Republican candidates were actually quite tentative when it came to how we ought to fight ISIS; most insisted that we wouldn't need ground troops, or if we did it would be a small number. But as Michael Hirsh wrote, "It's safe to assume we're about to grow more even more interventionist in mood, and Obama, as is his wont, may well follow the public temper, stepping up the minimalist approach he's taken to countering Islamic State in Iraq and Syria so far."

That may be, and it's fair for anyone, Republican presidential candidates included, to say that the attacks in Paris should fundamentally change the approach we take to ISIS, and we have to be willing to commit ground troops—some of whom will die—to that effort. They can make that case, and we can judge how persuasive it is. But what's more likely is that they'll once again appeal to voters' basest emotions—their anger, their suspicion, and most of all their fear. After all, it's worked before.

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