Beyond the appeals to anti-Muslim xenophobia that have defined the Republican Party’s post-Paris consensus, the most recent GOP primary debate was an elaborate group sermon on the importance of being afraid.
As Jeet Heer wrote in his after-analysis of the debate, the 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,” and the transcript bears this out.
Before opening statements gave way to the meat of the debate, Chris Christie had cited a bomb hoax in Los Angeles as a symptom of the way President Obama had betrayed the country. Jeb Bush asserted that ISIS had the potential to “destroy us.” Marco Rubio claimed Obama had “destroyed our military,” Ted Cruz claimed the current president doesn’t understand that “the first obligation of the commander-in-chief is to keep America safe,” Ben Carson explained that “our very existence” is at stake in the election, and Donald Trump added “radical Islamic terrorism” to his overriding focus on “building up our military, building up our strength, building up our borders, making sure that China, Japan, Mexico…no longer take advantage of our country.” Before the main-stage debaters even got started, Lindsey Graham had warned on the also-ran stage that terrorists “are trying to come here to kill us all.”
The putative remedies to the mortal dangers we face are a hodgepodge of reactionary policies that go beyond xenophobia: greater police power, “carpet bombing” campaigns, much less immigration, and even the willingness to start a war with Russia. But the real remedy—the one that matters most to the candidates playing this game, is of course the accretion of political power to them.
That poses a critical challenge to Democrats. When Hillary Clinton, Bernie Sanders, and Martin O’Malley debate on Saturday night, there will be few differences left to air between them—and the DNC’s willful decision to schedule the debates when few people are watching limits the size of the Democratic bully pulpit. But notwithstanding these challenges, the three Democrats would be doing the country a service by placing the right wing appeal to paranoia in its proper context—and then rejecting it forcefully.
They could begin by pointing out that every society in the world faces and tolerates certain levels of risk—and that in every open society, terrorism is one of those risks. This is no less true in the United States than in France, which continued to welcome Muslims seeking refuge from ISIS after the attacks in Paris.
That’s a reflection of big cultural and political differences between the two countries, but it’s also a reflection of the fact that of all the risks we face, terrorism is a relatively small one—lower by far than the risk of death by auto accident, disease, or even of mass-shootings carried out by non-Jihadists. If ISIS was genuinely a mortal threat to the Western way of life, Western countries would be treating the threat much differently.
The way that Republicans grapple with these other risks gives us a window into the sincerity of their flashing-red panic over terrorism. Republicans aren’t terribly interested in creating incentives for using safer modes of transportation, and their position on Jihadi terrorism (that no risk is too small to ignore) is practically the opposite of their position on mass shootings in general (that no risk is worth mitigating at all).
Of course, terrorists organizations are capable of planning, and potentially executing, a small number of mass casualty attacks, and governments are rightly expected to use legal, aggressive, and intelligent means to prevent those kinds of attacks—and to be held accountable if those policies fail.
But the Republican candidates aren’t generally claiming to have devised superior intelligence and law-enforcement strategies than the ones in place right now, and they have made almost no attempt to argue that the policies they have proposed will reduce the terrorism risk, which is so small to begin with. The plausible exception here is Donald Trump, who has proposed to largely close American society in response to a number of perceived threats.
By contrast, there are many strong arguments to the effect that killing more innocent Muslims abroad, and portraying Islam as inherently, uniquely malignant will exacerbate the terrorism risk.
Democrats have made those arguments forcefully. At the previous Democratic debate, Hillary Clinton explained, “We’ve gotta have them be part of our coalition,” which is unlikely to happen, “if they hear people running for president who basically shortcut it to say we are somehow against Islam.” But they’ve frequently portrayed their more tolerant, less bellicose approaches as superior tactics for mitigating risk—and by so doing, they have adopted the Republican frame that the risk is salient enough to shape our lives.
A better approach, and a more honest one, would be to transcend the frame entirely by placing the risks we do face as citizens in proper context. And to demonstrate, through the disproportionality of their rhetoric, that the Republican message of the moment is motivated by something much different than a sober analysis of our public safety.