What Are You Afraid Of?

I don’t entirely agree with Jeet Heer’s suggestion at TNR this week that the Republican midterm landslide last year was mostly about “stoking a nightmare vision of an America about to be overrun by Ebola patients, anchor babies, and ISIS assassins.” Yeah, a few candidates–notably the successful Tom Cotton and the unsuccessful Scott Brown–played it that way. But for the most part the GOP meta-message was simply that Barack Obama was a big fat failure, and to the GOP base voters who dominated the key races, that was enough, along with the usual second-term midterm dynamics and a sluggish economy.

But Heer is right in suggesting a big Fear Factor in the nascent 2016 GOP presidential candidacies, especially the smart money dark horse Marco Rubio. It’s not that far from what we are hearing from the entire GOP field with the exception of Rand Paul. As Jonathan Chait argues, it may be the inevitable Republican recourse for a good economy.

Rubio’s trial theme is pretty blunt: “Nothing Matters If We Aren’t Safe.” You might think that’s a bit odd for the bid bold entrepreneurial risk-taking party, but then again, there’s recent precedent. In 2002, Republicans won a rare midterm victory for the party controlling the White House with almost everyone crediting security fears. And in 2004, George W. Bush won a rare re-election campaign for a president who had all but spurned the political “center,” again, almost certainly because of the implicit theme “he kept another 9/11 from happening.”

But something does puzzle me about the fear that is supposed to stampede us once again into Republican voting: what, specifically, is it? As Heer notes, in the years immediately after 9/11, there was a very particular nightmare vision:

The best articulation of the post-9/11 culture of fear—and the concomitant willingness to do almost anything to secure an impregnable level of safety or security—can be seen in the 1 percent doctrine as articulate by Vice President Dick Cheney: “If there’s a 1 percent chance that Pakistani scientists are helping Al Qaeda build or develop a nuclear weapon, we have to treat it as a certainty in terms of our response.” In effect, Cheney was calling for the United States to become one giant safe space, even if it meant massively overreacting to threats abroad.

This worked because the fear involved–a nuclear terrorist attack–was both imaginable and catastrophic. As it happens, the Bush/Cheney administration did little or nothing to prevent such an attack, unless you really put a lot of faith in the Flypaper Theory that terrorists distracted by U.S. military operations overseas cannot make or deliver The Big One. As the years went by and no mushroom cloud appeared over a U.S. city, that particular nightmare faded.

IS has clearly raised the fear level again. But it’s not clear what fears the new Caliphate raises for Americans, and what, exactly, Republicans like Rubio are proposing today other than naming Islam as the cuplrit and pledging greater bellicosity towards both IS and its blood enemy the Iranians. Without question, the viral videos of beheadings by IS have freaked a lot of Americans out. But are they afraid the beheadings will happen here or simply that people this savage and crazy could do anything? It’s not entirely clear, and neither is the logic by which Republicans believe a return to what the comedian Borat called “your war of terror” is going to work.

Ed Kilgore

Ed Kilgore, a Monthly contributing editor, is a columnist for the Daily Intelligencer, New York magazine’s politics blog, and the managing editor for the Democratic Strategist.