Erick Erickson, the editor-in-chief of the website RedState.com, is a serious power in right-wing circles. Speechifying at RedState’s annual gathering is a rite of passage for aspiring Republican politicians, and Erickson made headlines this year when he disinvited Donald Trump from the festivities.
So it’s worth paying attention to what Erickson says. And as you might guess, he doesn’t think highly of President Barack Obama’s anti-terrorism policies.
Still, his response to the attack in Paris was a bit startling. The French themselves are making a point of staying calm, indeed of going out to cafes to show that they refuse to be intimidated. But Erickson declared on his website that he won’t be going to see the new “Star Wars” movie on opening day, because “there are no metal detectors at American theaters.”
It’s a bizarre reaction – but when you think about it, it’s part of a larger pattern. These days, panic attacks after something bad happens are the rule rather than the exception, at least on one side of the political divide.
Consider first the reaction to the Paris attacks. Lightsabers aside, are Erickson’s fears any sillier than those of the dozens of governors – almost all Republicans – who want to ban Syrian refugees from their states?
Obama certainly thinks they’re being ridiculous; he mocked politicians who claim that they’re so tough that they could stare down America’s enemies, but are “scared of widows and orphans.” (He was probably talking in particular about Chris Christie, who has said that he even wants to ban young children.) Again, the contrast with France, where President François Hollande has reaffirmed the nation’s willingness to take in refugees, is striking.
And it’s pretty hard to find anyone on that side of the aisle, even among seemingly respectable voices, showing the slightest hint of perspective. Jeb Bush, the erstwhile establishment candidate, wants to clamp down on accepting refugees unless “you can prove you’re a Christian.” The historian Niall Ferguson, a right-wing favorite, says the Paris attacks were exactly like the sack of Rome by the Goths. Hmm: Were ancient Romans back in the cafes a few days later?
But we shouldn’t really be surprised, because we’ve seen this movie before (unless we were too scared to go to the theater). Remember the great Ebola scare of 2014? The threat of a pandemic, like the threat of a terrorist attack, was real. But it was greatly exaggerated, thanks in large part to hype from the same people now hyping the terrorist danger.
What’s more, the supposed “solutions” were similar, too, in their combination of cruelty and stupidity. Does anyone remember Trump declaring that “the plague will start and spread” in America unless we immediately stopped all plane flights from infected countries? Or the fact that Mitt Romney took a similar position? As it turned out, public health officials knew what they were doing, and Ebola quickly came under control – but it’s unlikely that anyone on the right learned from the experience.
What explains the modern right’s propensity for panic? Part of it, no doubt, is the familiar point that many bullies are also cowards. But I think it’s also linked to the apocalyptic mindset that has developed among Republicans during the Obama years.
Think about it. From the day Obama took office, his political foes have warned about imminent catastrophe. Fiscal crisis! Hyperinflation! Economic collapse, brought on by the scourge of health insurance! And nobody on the right dares point out the failure of the promised disasters to materialize, or suggest a more nuanced approach.
Given this context, it’s only natural that the right would seize on a terrorist attack in France as proof that Obama has left the United States undefended and vulnerable. Ted Cruz, who has a real chance of becoming the Republican nominee, goes so far as to declare that the president “does not wish to defend this country.”
The context also explains why Beltway insiders were so foolish when they imagined that the Paris attacks would deflate Donald Trump’s candidacy, that Republican voters would turn to establishment candidates who are serious about national security.
Who, exactly, are these serious candidates? And why would the establishment, which has spent years encouraging the base to indulge its fears and reject nuance, now expect that base to understand the difference between tough talk and actual effectiveness?
Sure enough, polling since the Paris attack suggests that Trump has actually gained ground.
The point is that at this point panic is what the right is all about, and the Republican nomination will go to whoever can most effectively channel that panic. Will the same hold true in the general election? Stay tuned.