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By Jeff Greenfield
Trump exploits our fears, while Obama underestimates them. Why can’t someone just deal with them?
This is the season of fear—for experiencing it, exploiting it and pooh-poohing it. Exhibit A, of course, is Donald Trump, who had already risen to the top of the GOP polls by exploiting Americans’ fears of immigrants and foreigners and who, following the Paris attacks, went on a fear-mongering bender. He endorsed waterboarding, appeared to embrace a registry for Muslims and vividly remembered thousands of Jersey City Muslims cheering the carnage of September 11—an incident for which there is no evidence. The result is that Trump’s poll numbers have gone up, and voters rate him as best able to deal with terrorism.
Meanwhile President Obama has tacked sharply in the other direction, playing down the public’s anxiety, defiantly continuing to downgrade the possibility of an attack on the U.S. and the capabilities of Islamic State. “They’re a bunch of killers with good social media,” Obama told reporters on Sunday as he finished out his 10-day overseas trip. Secretary of State John Kerry continued the theme, telling NBC from Abu Dhabi, “ISIS is not 10 feet tall.” Obama’s dismissiveness is no doubt one reason for Trump’s popularity; clearly many voters believe our current crop of leaders—starting with the president—have been too inattentive to their fears.
Can anyone get the message right? The political reaction to the Paris attacks was as swift as it was powerful, all of it built on a foundation of fear. Within days, a veto-proof majority of the House—including 50 Democrats—voted to bar Syrian refugees from entering the country. Polls showed a dramatic, fully predictable, leap in concern over terror. Republican candidates competed to see who could be more militant in barring America’s doors to the refugees. Gov. Chris Christie won this prize by pronouncing his opposition to orphans under the age of 5; at least until Trump endorsed a national database registry for Muslims (or at least Muslim refugees; he wasn’t clear which).
The spasm has in turn triggered a fair amount of commentary warning us not to give in to fear; commentary that suggests the emotion itself is in the same league as envy or bigotry. It is true that too much playing-up of fear is a bad thing, even for demagogic politicians (who rarely get elected in the end, though they may soar for a while). But neither can our political leaders afford to ignore fear altogether, as Obama is sometimes accused of doing. It’s both important and healthy for responsible politicians to address realistic fears, or the demogogues will move in.
Did the murderous attacks in Paris make you afraid? If you’re a rational human being, the answer should have been a resounding “yes.” I was in Washington when they happened; a city explicitly targeted by ISIL and one which, were it not for a planeload of courageous passengers, might well have had its Capitol smashed into smithereens on September 11. Two days later I was in New York, where, on that September day in 2001, I had stood on the roof of CNN’s headquarters and looked South at a lower Manhattan engulfed in smoke. As I write these words, I’m on an American Airlines cross-country flight. Enough said.
Was I wrong to feel fear? I think it is an appropriate, hard-wired response to danger. Without fear—the “fight or flight” instinct—we humans would have long since disappeared from the earth. And if our political leaders don’t acknowledge that the citizenry is afraid, if they dismiss such an emotion as unworthy, they are much less likely to be trusted when they propose what to do. Winston Churchill’s wartime radio speeches are cited as models of inspiration in times of crisis, but if you actually read them, you’ll see frequent, frank acknowledgements of major setbacks, even military disasters. “The news from France is very bad,” one began.
This puts a twin burden on those who lead and those who wish to lead. If that acknowledgment is absent—as it was in Obama’s first, largely dismissive remarks—it is likely to leave the country unsatisfied. More important, it’s likely to open the way to the fear-mongers, who require only a political vacuum to do their worst, turning concern into panic and panic into political exploitation.
That is what appears to be happening now. Just ask experienced operatives on the Democratic side of the fence, who deliver some blunt assessments of their president. “Obama clearly believes that it’s better to ignore and be dismissive of ISIS. That they need our hyper-response to recruit,” says longtime operative Joe Trippi. “But in the political and polarized environment we are in there are too many who are going to fan the flames no matter what he does.
“And they [American leaders] need to explain this stuff—something Obama is terrible at. Why should we not call them Islamic radicals? Why do we not want to put troops on the ground in Syria? Why do we want Sunnis in the front lines against them—and putting Americans on the front lines and promoting a fight between two civilizations is insane. But just getting pissy doesn’t quite cut it.”
Democratic consultant Bob Shrum, who has counseled Democrats from Ted Kennedy to Al Gore, suggests that Obama may be displaying the jadedness of a president whose time is almost up. “Now that he’s not running for reelection his distaste for politics has become more and more apparent, and that’s what we saw,” he says. “But he needed to reassure people. … Where I thought he fell down was in talking about ISIS, and he’s done that several times. … I know what he meant when he said that ISIS was ‘contained’ but he needed to explain it more clearly.”
Such an explanation would acknowledge candidly that there are strains of Islam that threaten not just Western values, but basic human values; that there are clerics who find theological justification for the rape of children, for the torture and murder of anyone rejecting their narrow view of Islam. (That explanation might even recognize the insidious role of our “regional ally” Saudi Arabia in spending decades and countless billions of dollars exporting the rigid, intolerant doctrine of Wahabism to all corners of the Muslim world. And it would not reach for “moral equivalence” with the depredations by other faiths. Right now, it is the hijackers of Islam who make most of the clear and present dangers that feed fear.
History teaches us lessons of what can happen when genuine public fears are co-opted by the demogogues, fear-mongers and over-reactors. There was a reason to fear crime in the 1960s and 1970s, because violent crime in America was increasing by leaps and bounds, but that didn’t mean the only response was four decades of over-incarceration, driven by politicians’ fears of looking soft on crime. There was a reason to fear a Soviet espionage network looking for military secrets during a Cold War waged in the shadow of countless nuclear weapons, but that didn’t require McCarthyism as a response. There was a reason to fear where Al Qaeda might strike next after 19 men with box cutters killed 3,000 people in the heart of two great cities, but that didn’t mean we had to invade Iraq.
The dilemma, of course, is that in every one of these examples, the lunge toward useless, or foolish, or dangerous, or deplorable responses seems almost built into the political system. Indeed, a leader who does not anticipate powerful currents of irrational responses to legitimate concerns needs a history lesson. For instance:
During World War I, hostility to all things German led to sauerkraut being relabeled “liberty cabbage”—a forerunner of the french-fries-to-freedom-fries menu change to protest France’s criticism of the Iraq War. A trivial matter, to be sure. But in 1919, in response to fears of the Bolshevik revolution in Russia and anarchists’ attempt to attack government officials via letter bomb, Attorney General Mitchell Palmer launched a series of raids in which 10,000 suspects were arrested, 3,500 held in detention and more than 500 deported. A year later, five Socialist Party members of the New York State Assembly were expelled by an overwhelming vote, for the offense of being members of a party dominated by “aliens, enemy aliens, and minors.”
Two weeks after Pearl Harbor, Time magazine published a handy guide called: “How To Tell Your Friends From The Japs.” The guide—“the Chinese expression is more placid kindly open … the Japanese more positive, arrogant, dogmatic”—reflected a “a mainstream” racialist impulse also captured by such songs as: “We’re going to find a fellow who is yellow and beat him red, white and blue.” If these seem ugly but trivial responses, the internment of some 120,000 loyal Japanese-Americans is of a different order of magnitude.
In 1953, at the peak of Joseph McCarthy’s clout as a U.S. senator ferreting out subversion anywhere and everywhere, the Cincinnati Reds changed their name to the Cincinnati Redlegs, thus shielding themselves from the taint of communism. (In 1958, with McCarthy dead and the Red Scare receding, the name was changed back). This hysterical response to Cold War emotions was laughable. But the numberless men and women who lost their jobs because of unjustified suspicions about their loyalties—as teachers, writers, performers, government officials—was not. Nor was the wave of legislation and regulation—exemplified by the 1950 McCarren Act, which effectively declared a political party and its followers outlaws.
It’s a testament to the strength of the civil liberties cause that overt repression was not a feature of the Vietnam War. But the reaction of the Nixon Administration to mass anti-war protests led directly to a series of illegal, self-destructive tactics that ranged from burglaries to mail-openings to illegal surveillance and ultimately to the Watergate break-in.
In the wake of the September 11 attacks, President George W. Bush went out of his way to absolve the greater Muslim community of responsibility, visiting a Washington mosque and proclaiming Islam a “religion of peace.” But the impulse to respond powerfully to the attacks—the impulse “to hit somebody”—allied with the conviction of policymakers that a blow against a genocidal dictator could alter the whole Middle East for the better, led to the 2003 invasion of Iraq, with geopolitical and financial consequences we are still dealing with. Critically, this excision was ratified by the vast majority of prominent Democrats in Washington, as well as by a significant body of liberal media figures.
So what, then, should be the right mix—of addressing fears and dealing rationally with them—for political leaders? Today clearly we need a better tone—some balanced middle ground that lies in between the approaches of Donald Trump and Barack Obama on the treatment of Syrian refugees, on the use of U.S. power in fighting ISIL, in the balance between national security and civil liberties. In some ways Trump has more accurately read the public temper, even if his responses—Build a wall! Close the mosques!—are often over the top. As one White House correspondent noted of the gap between the president and the public: “Obama has a high opinion of people and thinks they can see things in a measured way. But Americans like to do shit. They don’t want to think about refugees, they want to clobber Islamic State, and journalists are the worst.”
Finally, if you’re a pessimist about the ability of the political process to resist the darker implications of fear, here are two considerations that will strengthen your dyspepsia. First, as Joe Trippi argues, there is no penalty for feeding a spasm of panic. “Remember when we were all going to die from Ebola and they called out the president’s fecklessness for allowing those ‘deadly’ Ebola patients in the U.S. They fueled the hysteria then, too, nothing happened—no Ebola outbreak, nothing. They poured gasoline on the fire, and no one remembers or cares. No elected official suffered at all for the misinformation.”
Second, the idea that the public will turn to prudent, experienced voices in moments of legitimate fear seems to rest on very shaky ground. Especially in the present era.
Why? This latest threat comes after a series of setbacks (something close to a euphemism) that go back more than a decade—from Iraq, to Libya, to our Russian “reset,” to the rise of ISIL. It is understandable at least, for a significant share of the public to say: “If that’s what the ‘experts’ have brought us, bring on the amateurs.”
And that perhaps is what we should fear most of all.
(Jeff Greenfield is a five-time Emmy-winning network television analyst and author.)