Wall Street Journal (Opinion)
By James Taranto
January 14, 2016
Franklin D. Roosevelt’s most famous utterance came at the start of his First Inaugural Address: “The only thing we have to fear is fear itself.” Lately FDR’s ideological heirs seem to have taken this admonition to heart, but not in the way he intended. They have become phobophobic, fearfully preoccupied with fear itself.
That observation is spurred by a brief blog post from James Downie of the Washington Post, titled “Nikki Haley Shows How the GOP Establishment Has Fueled Trump’s Rise.” Haley, the South Carolina governor, delivered the Republican response to President Obama’s State of the Union address, which was widely taken (and, she later said, intended) as a criticism of Trump: “During anxious times, it can be tempting to follow the siren call of the angriest voices,” she said. “We must resist that temptation.” To which Downie replies:
Frankly, though, Haley and company shouldn’t be surprised. Though her speech may not have been as hyperbolic, it still subtly fed the fears that sustain that “Make America Great Again” anger. There is “chaotic unrest in many of our cities,” she said. America faces “the most dangerous terrorist threat our nation has seen since September 11th, and this president appears either unwilling or unable to deal with it.” Democrats are “demonizing” American success. In short, Haley said, “we live in a time of threats like few others in recent memory.” . . .
“We live in a time of threats like few others in recent memory” doesn’t become magically less fear-inducing when spoken rather than shouted, or when mixed in with promises of lower taxes. The message is still the same: Be afraid. That fear and the anger from the GOP establishment’s apparent complacency are the reasons behind the strength of Trump, [Ted] Cruz and others. Platitudes from Nikki Haley and others won’t stop that fear as long as they keep feeding it.
At Salon, no surprise, one finds a purer distillation of this attitude, from Sean Illing: “Years of demagoguery and Obama-bashing and anti-immigration hysteria have produced a climate in which Donald Trump is the most appealing candidate on the right.”
It’s a variant on the story of global warming: Republicans have created an unfavorable “climate”—and, according to Illing, will end up destroying Planet GOP as a result: “The widespread anger has helped the GOP on the grassroots level in some ways, but it’s alienated moderates and independents across the country. The Republicans can’t win a general election with Trump anywhere near the ticket, and they know it.”
FDR defined “fear itself” as follows: “nameless, unreasoning, unjustified terror which paralyzes needed efforts to convert retreat into advance.” Not everyone agrees that today’s fears are unreasoning or unjustified. Here’s an excerpt from a recent political speech:
Instability will continue for decades in many parts of the world—in the Middle East, in Afghanistan and Pakistan, in parts of Central America, Africa and Asia. Some of these places may become safe havens for new terrorist networks; others will fall victim to ethnic conflict, or famine, feeding the next wave of refugees.
The source of that quote is Obama’s 2016 State of the Union. Americans’ greatest fear, of course, is that conflicts overseas will have deadly consequences here. That’s a completely reasonable thing to fear, since it has in fact happened on multiple occasions over the past 15 years.
Downie’s colleague Fred Hiatt, the Post’s editorial page editor, observes that Obama raises these genuinely fearsome specters in order to excuse his own complacency:
In his final State of the Union address, President Obama returned to the optimism that he personified in his first campaign—but applied it only to America.
For the rest of the world, Obama was pessimistic, even fatalistic. It is as though the only way he can process his failure in Syria, and the vast humanitarian catastrophe still unfolding there, is to convince himself that failure was inevitable and will be repeated many times.
But according to a State of the Union preview from the New York Times’s Peter Baker, Obama actually considers the fear of terrorism overblown, and to an even greater extent than he planned to acknowledge in the speech:
Here is what he probably will not say, at least not this bluntly: Americans are more likely to die in a car crash, drown in a bathtub or be struck by lightning than be killed by a terrorist. The news media is complicit in inflating the sense of danger. The Islamic State does not pose an existential threat to the United States.
He went 2 for 3 there: Obama did actually say of the Islamic State that “they do not threaten our national existence.” As if anybody thinks they (or they alone) do. And as if this, also from Baker, is reassuring:
Given how hard it is for intelligence and law enforcement agencies to detect people who have become radicalized, like those who opened fire at a holiday party in San Bernardino, Calif., a certain number of relatively low-level terrorist attacks may be inevitable, and Americans may have to learn to adapt the way Israel has.
By all accounts, Mr. Obama is sympathetic to this view, which is shared by a number of counterterrorism veterans who contend that anxiety has warped the American public’s perspective. But it is also a politically untenable argument at a time when polls show greater fears about terrorism than at any point since the weeks after Sept. 11, 2001. As it is, critics contend that Mr. Obama does not take the threat seriously enough and has not done enough to guard the nation against attack.
Obama was widely criticized for responding to the San Bernardino attack by delivering an address in which he lectured Americans on the danger of “Islamophobia.” He returned to that theme in the State of the Union: “We need to reject any politics that targets people because of race or religion,” he said (note the red herring of “race”), averring that “when politicians insult Muslims . . . that doesn’t make us safer. . . . It diminishes us in the eyes of the world.”
This week he didn’t mention San Bernardino at all. In his mind, the date which will live in infamy is not Dec. 2 but Dec. 7—the day Trump proposed a temporary ban on Muslim immigration “until our country’s representatives can figure out what’s going on.” When the president seems more concerned about the fear of terrorism than terrorism itself, is it any wonder Americans are afraid?
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