The theme of Donald Trump’s first Republican convention night was “making America safe again.” The implication being that it’s not and won’t be under a President Hillary Clinton.
To drive that message home, speaker after speaker accused Barack Obama and the Democrats of projecting weakness, of tying the army’s hands behind its backs in the fight against Islamic militants and of refusing to even name the threat.
This is all part and parcel on the right. Republicans have portrayed Democrats as feeble for decades. They have been saying for years that Obama is not letting the military do its job. And they continue to berate him for supposedly refusing to speak the words “radical Islam” as though doing so would change anything.
Still, it’s rare to hear to so much bile on a single night as was served up in Cleveland on Monday.
Arkansas’ Tom Cotton, who fancies himself an expert on foreign affairs despite having been in the Senate for only a year, implored Republicans to elect “a commander-in-chief who speaks of winning wars and not merely ending wars, calls the enemy by its name and draws red lines carefully, but enforces them ruthlessly.”
Iowa senator Joni Ernst warned that neither America nor the world could afford “four more years of this lack of leadership.”
Texas congressman Mike McCaul said, “Instead of protecting Americans, the Obama Administration turned a blind eye to the danger.” He urged Americans to “cut through the suffocating political correctness and call the threat what it really is: The enemy is radical Islam.”
Montana’s Ryan Zinke spoke gleefully about the Guantánamo Bay detention facility, saying some of the terror suspects locked up there “need to stay there forever.”
Former New York mayor Rudy Giuliani suggested there won’t even be a “next election” unless Donald Trump becomes president and insisted that America needs to commit itself to “unconditional victory” over the terrorists.
Finally, Karen Vaughn, the mother of a Navy SEAL who was killed in Afghanistan, called for soldiers to be unshackled “from the restrictive, ludicrous rules of engagement they’ve been forced to fight under for the past seven years.”
Matt Welch sums up the content of the speeches at Reason: “These aren’t policies,” he writes, “they’re authoritarian slogans.”
They don’t make any sense. They’re not supposed to. This is pure emotion: fear and frustration wrapped in self-congratulting patriotism and an othering of the political opponents.
Donald Trump is hardly the first to do this. He has stepped in a long Republican tradition of exaggerating foreign threats and pretending there are simple solutions to complicated security problems.
Derek Chollet, a former assistant secretary of defense, has argued at Defense One that “conservatives have relentlessly peddled the caricature that Obama is feckless, weak and illegitimate” from the start of his presidency. The “apology tour”, the “cuddling up to dictators”, the “throwing Israel under the bus” — the Republican Party, wrote Chollet, “has become a myth-making machine.”
Such views used to be fringe. Now they are peddled by party leaders: Texas senator Ted Cruz proposing to “carpet bomb” the self-declared Islamic State out of existence (no matter the civilian casualties this would incur); Florida’s Marco Rubio claiming Obama “does not believe that America is a great global power”; Jeb Bush, the brother of the last Republican president, saying “the world has been torn asunder”; and Donald Trump himself insisting that the military will break the law if he says so in order to kill the families of terrorists.
None of this has any relation with reality. Nor do such views reveal a great confidence in America’s ability to prevail over a gang of pretentious jihadists currently suffering under American bombardment in Iraq and Syria. They are rather the voices of insecurity cloaked in bluster.
The trouble is, some people take them seriously and the consequences can be real.
As Welch puts it, “The Jacksonian impulse to remove real and imaginary shackles from Our Brave Men and Women as they fight radical Islamists is the kind of mindset that brought us Abu Ghraib, which frankly wasn’t very helpful in the War on Terror.”