Media Explain How GOP Debate Was A National Security “Fear Cauldron”

Media outlets called out both Republican presidential candidates and CNN for “resort[ing] to scare tactics” during the December 15 presidential debate, lamenting the fact that “fear and terror stole the Republican debate stage.”

CNN Holds Final Debate Of 2015

CNN: Final GOP Debate Of 2016 Focuses On Foreign Policy, National Security. In the final GOP debate in 2015, the Republican presidential hopefuls debated national security policy and terrorism. As CNN reported: 

Tuesday's CNN Republican debate was a last chance to shine for candidates in 2015. It was a crucial clash before the race goes into the deep freeze over the Christmas and New Year holidays, with just seven weeks to go before the Iowa caucuses.

And as the first GOP showdown since the terror attacks in Paris and San Bernardino, California, revealed the alarming, expanded reach of ISIS, the showdown in Las Vegas offered a preview of how a Republican president would reshape U.S. national security policy. [CNN, 12/16/15]

Media Label The GOP “The Party Of Fear,”Lamenting CNN's Focus On “ISIS, Fear, And Threat”

The New Republic: “Republicans Resorted To Scare Tactics In The Fifth Debate.” In a December 15 article, The New Republic highlighted how Tuesday's debate “made clear” that the GOP “is the party of fear,” and that "[r]eviving 9/11 fears is now a campaign strategy" for Republican presidential hopefuls who “painted a frightening picture of America as a country that ... is on the verge of disintegrating”:

The Republicans might consider themselves as the party of freedom, but their true identity, as Tuesday night's debate made clear, is the party of fear. All the candidates on stage, with the partial exception of Senator Rand Paul, painted a frightening picture of America as a country that, as frontrunner Donald Trump warned, is on the verge of disintegrating.

“We need strength,” Trump said. “We're not respected, you know, as a nation anymore. We don't have that level of respect that we need. And if we don't get it back fast, we're just going to go weaker, weaker and just disintegrate.”


All the other 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. To be sure, Senator Rand Paul did enter a few libertarian caveats about the dangers of ranking security above liberty, but even he used xenophobic fear of immigrants to attack rival Senator Marco Rubio. Ultimately, all the candidates played to a politics of fear--and history suggests it will help them in 2016.


Reviving 9/11 level fears is now a campaign strategy. Consider the midterm elections of 2014, when alarmist accounts of Ebola patients, “anchor babies,” and ISIS assassins all flooding the United States became a staple of Republican discourse. This fear-mongering paid handsome dividends at the ballot, with the Republicans winning the Senate and strengthening their hold on the House and in state legislatures. Scaring the voters works. There's no reason for the Republicans to stop. [The New Republic, 12/15/15]

The Atlantic Bemoaned The “Fear-Mania Of The GOP Debate.” In a December 16 article, The Atlantic chastised both the GOP candidates and CNN for the “over-emphasis” on “ISIS, fear, and threat” during the Republican primary debate. The Atlantic explained that “the GOP's overall goal was to replicate the tone on Fox News,” which “is essentially: risk, risk, risk; fear, fear, fear; ISIS, ISIS, ISIS,” and is ultimately at “direct odds with U.S. strategic interests”:

Let's start with the First Rule of Terrorism, which today's attackers either know instinctively or have learned. The rule is: The purpose of terrorism is not to kill or maim or destroy.

For the attackers, those crimes are merely tactics, on the way to a different goal, which is to terrorize. It is to use selective attacks and atrocities to change people's emotions and arouse their fears. The aim is that strong societies will feel desperate and helpless, that an objectively very small threat will seem subjectively very large, and eventually that a strong society will lose its sense of proportion and view of its long term strategy and instead take some panicky self-destructive step. (See: War in Iraq, origins of.)

With that in mind, think of the first two thirds of last night's debate, which were exclusively about ISIS, fear, and threat, exactly the over-emphasis an anti-US entity would hope.


But the GOP's overall goal was to replicate the tone on Fox News, and vice versa, which in both cases is essentially: risk, risk, risk; fear, fear, fear; ISIS, ISIS, ISIS; alien, alien, alien. All of this is toward the end of demonstrating Obama's weakness and failure. Unfortunately, it is also at direct odds with U.S. strategic interests. A resilient nation seeks to minimize the effects of such terrorist attacks that, in a society that retains any liberties, still lamentably occur. A nation that wants to magnify the effects of terrorism yells “The attackers are everywhere!” “We're all going to die!!!” Because they consider it useful against the “feckless” Obama, the latter has been the 2016 GOP approach (as Jeet Heer wrote on Tuesday night). It could box them into strategically foolish policies if they took office.

Ramp-up-the-fear was also the result of CNN's approach tonight. Much more than half of the show was about ISIS / ISIL, Syria, and refugees. Here's a promise: whoever becomes the next president will and should spend much less than half of his or her time on ISIS and Syria. The presidential topics that are not directly about ISIS -- China, Russia, Mexico, the economic and political tensions in Europe, the entirety of Latin America and Africa, Iran, India, Pakistan, Japan, the South China Sea -- any one of these, one its own, has a chance to occupy more of the next president's time and attention than ISIS. Not to mention: trade deals, the economy, job creation, budgets and deficits, medical care, and a thousand other issues. [The Atlantic, 12/16/15]

Politico: “Fear Won The GOP Debate.” Politico took issue with the focus on fear during the Republican primary debate, writing “the main theme of the debate -- from the candidates, but arguably from the network as well -- was that [Americans] ought to be even more afraid”:

[I]t's accurate to say that the debate was all about terrorism--how to fight it, how to keep Americans safe from it, and how much Americans should be freaking out about it. CNN's panelists asked no questions about jobs, wages, the impending Fed rate hike, health care, energy, infrastructure, the federal budget, the federal deficit, the Supreme Court, financial reform, abortion, race, or any other domestic issue unrelated to homeland security. “Americans are more afraid today than they've been at any time since 9/11,” Wolf Blitzer declared, and the main theme of the debate--from the candidates, but arguably from the network as well--was that they ought to be even more afraid.


The explicit assumption of the candidates was that Americans ought to be terrified about our safety. Lindsey Graham warned during the undercard that “they're trying to kill us all,” that “another 9/11 is coming as sure as I'm standing here tonight.” Ben Carson seemed truly scared when he declared that “our nation is in grave danger.” Christie warned that “if San Bernadino is a target for terrorists, that means everywhere is a target for terrorists.”

There was little acknowledgment during the conversation that Americans have anything to fear from anything other than terrorists, or that the terrorist threat could be anything but dire. In fact, since 9/11, more Americans have been killed by lightning strikes than by terror attacks--and way more Americans have been killed by car accidents or preventable diseases. But that doesn't mean Americans feel safe, especially when cable news is wall-to-wall terror coverage. There's a fine line between covering anxiety and creating it. [Politico12/16/15]

The Huffington Post: “Fear And Terror Stole The Republican Debate Stage.” The Huffington Post explained how “fear and terror stole the Republican debate stage,” noting “if the point of Islamic extremist terrorism is to make people terrified, Tuesday's debate was proof that it's working”:

Fear and terror stole the Republican debate stage on Tuesday night.

In the wake of attacks in Paris and San Bernardino, Americans see terrorism as the top issue facing the U.S. And if people were already scared, watching 13 presidential candidates spar over who is best equipped to defend the nation against terrorism probably didn't help.


The candidates spent much of Tuesday's debates talking about ISIS and Islamic terrorism. Other threats, including gun violence, climate change and domestic terror carried out by white extremists -- all of which kill more Americans at home than jihadists -- were ignored. If the point of Islamic extremist terrorism is to make people terrified, Tuesday's debate was proof that it's working.

The debate hosts didn't help. CNN opened the prime-time contest with a Michael Bay-esque graphics package that featured a movie-trailer-style announcer proclaiming that the presidential race was taking a “critical turn, with terror fears front and center” and clips of Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) and angry clown Donald Trump talking about terrorism -- all over action-movie music.


So who -- besides ISIS -- was on the receiving end of the bellicose rhetoric? Refugees fleeing ISIS. Santorum called for “making sure that we stop the flow of refugees into Europe.” Former New York Gov. George Pataki elaborated:  “No Syrian refugees,” he said. “Whether it's the 10,000 Obama wants or the 60,000 that Hillary Clinton wants. Think about it, I was governor on Sept. 11th. Those attacks were carried out by only 18 people. We take 60,000 Syrian refugees that we can't vet. If one in 1,000, 1 in 1,000 is a terrorist, we would have 60 terrorists living amongst us looking to carry out attacks. We cannot let that happen.” Even Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), generally regarded as a dove on immigration, called for a “time-out on Syrian refugees.”

American Muslims also continued to serve as punching bags for the GOP field, with some candidates repeating calls for increased surveillance of mosques and more aggressive monitoring of other activities that could be seen as “radicalizing.” [The Huffington Post, 12/16/15]

Salon: “According To The Republican Candidates, You're Going To Die.” In a December 16 article in Salon, Simon Maloy explained that the GOP debate was about “whipping up public anxiety” so that Americans are “scared witless by the looming terrorist menace and worried that they will be the next do die.” Malloy concluded by labeling the debate “a grim, bleak, and frightful” affair in which “leading candidates tr[ied] to stoke heightened public anxiety over terrorism”:

Tuesday night's Republican presidential debate was the first since the Islamic State-inspired terrorist shooting in San Bernardino, California, and not surprisingly, most of the questions tossed out by CNN moderators dealt with national security and terrorism. In the days since San Bernardino, public fears over terrorism have grown, and President Obama has been doing what he can to tamp down anxiety and encourage people not to give in to the fear that terrorists work to inspire. But as the CNN debate made painfully clear, the Republican presidential candidates have quite the opposite goal in mind: They want everyone to be scared witless by the looming terrorist menace and worried that they will be the next to die.

New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, back on the main stage thanks to CNN's expansive inclusion rules and his own improved poll numbers in New Hampshire, did the most to actively scare the shit out of every person unfortunate enough to be watching. In his opening statement he announced that “America has been betrayed” by “the leadership that Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton have provided to this country.” As proof of that betrayal and treason, Christie pointed to yesterday's closing of the Los Angeles Unified School District “based on a threat.” He never got around to mentioning that the “threat” had long since been revealed as a hoax. But still Christie was worried about the “children filled with anxiety,” and the “mothers who will take those children tomorrowmorning to the bus stop,” and the “the fathers of Los Angeles, who tomorrow will head off to work and wonder about the safety of their wives and their children.” They live in terror, these nameless gendered stereotypes, because Obama couldn't protect them from the threat posed by “”


All in all it was a grim, bleak, and frightful debate that saw several leading candidates try to stoke heightened public anxiety over terrorism. There were no acknowledgements that acts of terrorism are exceptionally rare, with just “45 Americans killed in jihadist terrorist attacks” since 9/11. (More Americans have died as a result of homegrown right-wing terrorism, but that threat didn't earn a single mention at the debate, even though one such attack took place just days before San Bernardino.) This was more about resurrecting the national security politics of the Bush years, when Republicans would conjure the threat of imminent terrorist slaughter on American soil to cast Democrats as weak and to justify the rollback of civil liberties in the interest of safety. A scared voter is a motivated voter, and Republicans have every interest in keeping people as terrified as possible.  [Salon, 12/16/15]

National Journal: “GOP Debate Stokes Fears And Prejudices.” Even conservative commentator Ron Fournier admitted that “Republican presidential candidates took the easy way out - the well-trod path of cynics and cowards” at the final debate of 2015. Fournier further condemned the GOP candidates by pointing out,  "[t]hey didn't address the people's fears, they stoked them. They didn't curb the quiet prejudices of an anxious nation, they exploited them":

It's easier to frighten than to in­spire. It's easier to divide than to unite. It's easier to ban Muslims and war refugees from the United States than to admit that the world is a complicated place--and that ISIS feeds upon our fear and demagoguery.

In their final debate of the year, most Re­pub­lic­an presidential candidates took the easy way out--the well-trod path of cynics and cowards. “When people are feeling insecure,” Bill Clinton warned Democrats in the run-up to the Iraq war, “they'd rather have someone who is strong and wrong rather than somebody who is weak and right.”


Given a chance to fill the leadership vacuum, the GOP field chose instead to worsen it. They didn't address the people's fears, they stoked them. They didn't curb the quiet prejudices of an anxious nation, they exploited them. For most of the field, most of the time, they were weak and wrong. [National Journal, 12/16/15]