The Paranoid Pitch

Like a horror film, the Republican TV debates illustrate with shocking clarity how the extreme right wing in American politics frightens citizens in order to achieve its own ends.

Humorist Andy Borowitz began his latest commentary in the New Yorker magazine this way: “Authorities were urging people to remain calm on Tuesday night after the broadcast of a chilling video that terrified millions. The video, which was broadcast nationally on CNN, appeared to show nine extremists glaring into the camera and making a series of escalating threats. The radicals’ increasingly violent rhetoric and palpable hatred rattled viewers across the nation, sources said. Experts who viewed the video acknowledged that the words and images contained in it were alarming, but advised the public to remain calm until the extremists’ threats could be authenticated. ‘At this point, there is no reason to believe that any of these individuals are credible,’ one expert said.”

What sounded in Borowitz’s satire as if the Islamic State group might have released a new terror video actually turned out to be a reference to the broadcast of the Las Vegas TV debate between Republican contenders for the presidency.

Fear Is Injected into Everything and Everybody

Right from the beginning of the debate — usually restricted to harmless introductions — the competitors began trying to outbid one another with surreal scenarios of an endangered and decaying America as if their paranoid pitches made them the best qualified to fill the position of savior-in-chief. The first thing out of Rand Paul’s mouth was, “How do we keep America safe from terrorism?” Carly Fiorina, former CEO of Hewlett-Packard, opened with, “Like all of you I’m angry. I’m angry at what’s happening to our nation.” Jeb Bush, George W. Bush’s brother and former Florida governor, continued with, “Our freedom is under attack.” Senator Ted Cruz said, “America is at war,” and Donald Trump answered the very first question asked of him with all the pathos of a panic-maker: “Our country is out of control.”

The apocalyptic narrative told by nearly all the Republican candidates comes in the same dramaturgical sequence: First, describe the overpowering enemies of America in as loose terms as possible; the danger can thus be more easily projected onto everything/everyone, and existing resentments (against Latinos or against Muslims) can be made to fit all and smoothly interlock. Then present yourself as the most aggressive cure for terrorism available and the most certain way of restoring national greatness.

Product of a Frivolous Media Complex

The individual anti-terror strategies varied: While Carly Fiorina argued that the attacks in Boston and San Bernardino could have been prevented had a better data analysis algorithm been applied, Donald Trump enthused about his own plan to commit war crimes, like killing family members of Islamic State group fighters as an effective deterrent: “They may not care much about their lives, but they do care, believe it or not, about their families’ lives.”

In the end, it’s not clear which is the more thought-provoking aspect of these debates: That even a moderate candidate like Senator Marco Rubio could in all seriousness claim that the Syrian refugee crisis differs from such past crises in that people then were “fleeing repression” (as if Syria were now a democratic oasis of wellness that people now fled in order to avoid overdosing on freedom). Or that seven of the first questions asked by moderator Wolf Blitzer were based on dangers posed by the Islamic State group, while no questions during the entire debate were asked about terrorist acts in the form of massacres perpetrated by white American gunmen, or whether people thought that stricter U.S. gun laws might be in order.

The only certainty appears to be that the escalating rhetoric of candidates who exploit the social fear of decline is also a product of a frivolous media complex that cultivates every glitzy spectacle as long as it generates amused, horrified attention. Just as children like to perceive real, genuine actions on screen in which they can partake by shouting out, these real American TV debates, on the other hand, can apparently only be tolerated if they are internally fictionalized — as if they have nothing at all to do with real-life politics, as if they were a horror film full of inhuman zombies or monsters we enjoy being afraid of — a fear that entertains us more than scares us.

The Question of Fear in US Society

As manipulative fear-making became a real/fictional instrument in American politics as well as in the media, we were witness to a superb conversation between Barack Obama and author Marilynne Robinson, published in two editions of the New York Review of Books in November. The interview reads like an anticipatory commentary on the Republican debates, and impresses its audience even after the fact with its analytical calm vs. the candidates’ confused agitation.

Obama described the advantage he had when he was still seen as an outsider with little chance of electoral success: “I had the benefit that at the time nobody expected me to win. And so I wasn’t viewed through this prism of Fox News and conservative media, and making me scary. At the time, I didn’t seem scary, other than just having a funny name.”

One impressive passage in the exchange between President Obama and the noted Pulitzer Prize winner actually centered around the question of fear in U.S. society. For Robinson, the foundation of democracy is found in people willing to recognize the good in others.

The strategy of the fear-makers and conspiracy theorists, on the other hand, consists of taking what is obviously good and making it appear to be evil, in order to reject out of hand the arguments and positions of others with whom they disagree. This calculated interplay of fear along with bad intentions leads to the creation of a supposedly dangerous entity that need not be tolerated.

Opposing this corrosive mechanism called fear is the duty not only of every American presidential candidate, but of every like-minded democratic European who doesn’t want to be frightened or harmed by real or surreal extremists here.

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