Steve is back, on the implications of Paris on the GOP presidential race.
It is curious, in hindsight, to realize how many presidential elections can be viewed in utterly simplistic terms: Voters tend to re-act more than act. We tend to elect the candidate who embodies the diametric opposite of the most egregious weakness of the prior administration: Ike was old and boring, so we went for young and exciting Jack Kennedy. Lyndon Johnson had horribly bungled Viet Nam, so we went for the experienced cold warrior Richard Nixon. Nixon turned out to be a crook, so we went for squeaky-clean Jimmy Carter. Carter turned out to be a wimp, so we went for macho cowboy Ronald Reagan. George Bush was a clumsy old patrician goofball, so we went for the guy who played the sax on Arsenio Hall. Clinton turned out to be a womanizer, so we went for the family guy with whom we could have a beer. George Bush turned out to be stupid and ignorant, so we went with the erudite Harvard Law prof. And now the big complaint is that Obama’s too damn cerebral and won’t kick butt.
So, too, today, voters instantly react to the immediate issue: ISIS barbarians slaughter lovely young Parisians, and suddenly the only issues Americans care about are who will kill the ISIS bastards first, and who will keep them away from US soil. Thus: Trump and Cruz ascendant; all others, in decline.
The Friday the 13th terrorism in Paris was ISIS’s 9/11 moment; it was the instant that the world was forced to abandon the notion that ISIS was a regional threat in a remote and distasteful part of the world that is best battled by robot and drone. The vision of black-hooded killers spraying bullets into defenseless civilians in French cafes is very easy for Americans to transpose into images of like carnage at Venice Beach, Wrigley Field, Grand Central Station, and or the Washington Monument. Just as it was clear that the world was forever changed as sunrise came on September 12, 2001, so too we now are experiencing that historical rarity of living within an inflection point: certain that the world will change, less certain of exactly how.
For the still fluid Presidential race, the impact of Paris will be profound.
For the past several months, it’s been assumed that Donald Trump and Ben Carson were on parallel trajectories, creating the impression that they were similar in their appeal and in the profile of their supporters. Both, as “outsiders,” are attractive to the large portion of Republicans who loathe Washington, the Federal government, and even the perceived-as-oft-compromising Congressional leaders in their own party.
Paris has quickly demonstrated that this assumption is flawed.
Carson’s appeal has been based on a biography that champions personal achievement and responsibility; his appeal lies in a combination of a rejection of the role of Federal government and a powerful public embrace of Christian religion to the active exclusion of other forms of worship. This plays well to the Christian fundamentalists.
Trump, on the other hand, is centering his entire candidacy on the notion that in a city where nothing gets done, you need a tough, kick-ass bully who has proven he can get his way by reaping billions in the business world. He has chosen immigration as the issue that symbolizes both how tough he will be and how he intends to defend American business from the lawlessness beyond our borders. Trump plays to the Republicans who we’ll call American fundamentalists: People who feel that the United States has been exploited by shrewd, manipulative foreigners and who feel that Washington, D.C., is populated by wimps who have allowed it to happen.
Ben Carson was the subject of an unnerving New York Times article, which included the quote that “Nobody has been able to sit down with (Carson) and have him get one iota of intelligent information about the Middle East.” However, the quote is not from Rachel Maddow on an MSNBC search-and-destroy mission; it was the candid assessment of Carson’s own advisor. Carson was asked on a Sunday morning show to identify the first countries he’d turn to in order to form a coalition against ISIS. He froze and could not name any. On a Richter scale of frightening ignorance, Rick Perry’s memory lapse doesn’t begin to compare. In the past few days, Carson has had to reel in several factually-vacant quotes (see China in Syria and New Jersey Muslims cheering as the Twin Towers fell).
Now, with Paris, we suddenly have the one situation in which Republicans actually see a valid purpose in the Federal government: to wage war with Muslims in the Middle East. Carson’s shocking lack of command of international affairs is freaking people out, and his numbers are dropping like all that supposed grain in the pyramids.
In bold contrast, Donald Trump’s assertion that he will solve all problems in the Middle East by “bombing the shit out of ISIS” is just the sort of testosterone supplement that xenophobes mainline. No doubt the 25% of Republicans who think we can deport eleven million illegal aliens are living in a fantasy world in which religious caliphates waging land wars in Eurasia can be defeated by drone pilots based in Fort Lauderdale. The fault line is no longer about deporting those eleven million people, it is now about shutting our borders to refugees of a horrendous war whose origin can and must be traced to our shores. The Republican governors asserting an imagined ability to reject Syrian refugees is sort of like claiming to be really good at air guitar: what are they actually doing? Is Chris Christie planning on installing passport controls on the Weehauken side of the tunnel?
But logic aside – far aside – immigration is Trump’s issue; he has stamped it with his brand as boldly as his buildings, golf courses, and casinos. So, the minute Paris redefined our immigration phobia from "Mexicans are taking our jobs" to "Syrians are blowing up our cities," immigration grew even larger, and became a vital, central issue – and Donald Trump’s popularity has surged once again. Trump’s “macho y nacho” strategy -- a combo of high testosterone military assertiveness and xenophobic immigration posturing -- are clearly separating the Donald from the low-T domestic focus of Dr. Ben Carson.
And what about the rest of the Republican field?
One would think that all of the “experienced government officials” would stand to gain from a sudden pivot in focus to the nuances and complexities of global diplomacy and the arcane, layered, official and unofficial competing constituencies in the Middle East. Or, then again, perhaps not. That rapidly receding 4% who had not yet been convinced that Jeb Bush is actually an incompetent candidate had to listen to baby brother offer up that we solve the Syria immigration problem by only accepting Christian Syrians. There’s a wonderful clip of him being asked just exactly how we establish which Syrians are Christian and which are Muslim, and you can witness that painfully awkward moment of a Bush at war with the English language. “Well, you can prove it,” squirming Jeb mumbles, once again – as with his entire candidacy – offering no proof, no logic, and no conviction.
Which brings us back once again to the Cruz and Rubio show. I submit that the recent ascendance of Ted Cruz over Rubio is an echo of the exact same phenomenon that reshaped Trump and Carson. Cruz – like Trump – is the high testosterone fire-breather who stokes the passions of the fearful. Rubio, a la Carson, is generally more even-tempered and moderate. Rubio is always skittish about immigration, having once advanced legislation that alienated red-staters from Baja to South Beach. Cruz, on the other hand, is out in front of the Syrian-bating. In short, the exact two elements that are propelling Trump over Carson – macho posturing and fear-mongering about immigration – are driving Cruz past Rubio.
Finally, please allow me just one last observation: When 130 citizens are brutally slaughtered with AK 47s in Paris, our politicians cannot hold themselves back from the lights, action, and camera; screaming about the changes that must immediately take place in order to protect our citizens from the savagery of demented souls. One only wishes that they displayed such passion, moral rectitude and visibility when children in Connecticut and theatre goers in Colorado were ripped to shreds by the exact same weaponry, which is fully accessible to the demented souls on our own shores. Indeed, it’s an easy inference that Donald Trump thinks that those first graders would still be alive if only they’d been packing heat, and Ben Carson is puzzled why the Parisians sipping their Chateau Neuf du Pape at a sidewalk café didn’t have the guts to run headlong and attack their killers.
Bill Maher was on The Late Show with Stephen Colbert last week, and he confessed that he had completely changed his mind about the duration of the American presidential selection process. Where he had once decried the waste and farce of an 18-month declare/ debate/ primary/ nominate/ elect cycle, he now expressed his deep appreciation for its very length. His reason? Americans are – in his words -- “slow and dim and dumb and need extra time” to finally figure out which candidates are worthy of office.
Let’s hope the Republicans use that time wisely. Iowa is six weeks away.
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