Republicans Should Stop Frightening Voters

Stop pretending a ragtag band of Islamists poses some kind of civilization threat to the United States.

Republican senator Ted Cruz of Texas campaigns in Manchester, New Hampshire, January 21
Republican senator Ted Cruz of Texas campaigns in Manchester, New Hampshire, January 21 (Gage Skidmore)

Fearmongering has become such a staple of this year’s Republican presidential nominating contest in the United States that we may be starting to take the hyperbole for granted.

We shouldn’t, though, because it’s scaring the living daylights out of ordinary voters.

Michael A. Cohen reports for World Politics Review from the first presidential primary state of New Hampshire that voters there have been led to see the self-declared Islamic State — “an organization that has never launched a direct attack on America and whose acolytes have killed fewer Americans than gun violence does in a single day” — as a direct threat.

It’s not hard to understand where this distorted view comes from, he argues.

Alarmists

Consider Chris Christie, the New Jersey governor, who accuses of President Barack Obama of playing “by nice rules” in the fight against the Islamists, even though the Democrat has ordered thousands of airstrikes against militants and terrorist suspects worldwide, killing as many in the process. The Defense Department recently estimated that 2,500 Islamic State fighters were killed in December alone.

Or consider Jeb Bush, the brother of the last Republican president, who maintains that “the world has been torn asunder” under Obama’s watch and said the Islamic State “declared war on Western civilization” when it claimed responsibility for terrorist attacks in Paris last year.

Or consider Marco Rubio, a first-term senator, who claims Obama “does not believe that America is a great global power” and that the Islamic State is “trying to attack us here in America,” despite the group having radicalized no more than a handful of American Muslims.

Or consider Ted Cruz, another first-term senator, who believes that “Americans are feeling frustrated and scared” because the president “refuses to acknowledge the threat we face.” The Democrat, according to Cruz, “acts as an apologist for radical Islamic terrorism.”

Or, if you really want to go overboard, consider Ben Carson, a retired neurosurgeon, who will calmly lay out an apocalyptic scenario in which terrorists simultaneously deploy cyberattacks and dirty nuclear weapons against America and then laments that Obama won’t “recognize” such an “existential threat.”

Distorted views

When voters are told on a daily basis that the enemy is lurking just around the corner, some will start to believe it, argues Cohen, even if they live in a small town in New Hampshire.

It’s not the first time Americans are being terrified.

When he ran for reelection in 2004, George W. Bush ran commercials suggesting he was the only man who could keep the country safe from Al Qaeda, even though the group, which carried out the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks, had been largely obliterated by then.

“The distorting effects of the focus on terrorism in general, and the Islamic State in particular, are once again visible this presidential campaign cycle,” according to Cohen.

Rather than talk about their plans for dealing with China’s rising power or strengthening the global governance system or keeping the NATO alliance united in the face of Russian militarism or sketching out a vision for American foreign policy going forward, the candidates for president are spending a disproportionate amount of time talking about the threat from the Islamic State and their plans for defeating the group, all of which look remarkably similar.

Not just bad politics

This website has argued that warmongering is unlikely to do the candidates much good in a general election.

Even though more Americans now believe Islamic extremism is a threat than at any point since 2001, only 38 percent of Americans trust Republicans to conduct foreign policy better against 41 percent who rather have a Democrat in charge, the Pew Research Center has found.

Those numbers should give Republicans pause. They overreacted to the 2001 attacks and it did long-term damage to their credibility.

We did argue that exaggerating the Islamic State threat can be good politics in a Republican primary where the electorate is more hawkish.

What we did not write — and should have — is that it’s just wrong for politicians to frighten voters when they know better.

It could be worse

Unless they don’t

Maybe the Republican candidates believe what they’re saying: that a ragtag band of jihadists in the deserts of Iraq and Syria really does pose a civilizational threat to America.

If that’s the case, they should definitively be kept away from the White House.

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