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Op-Ed: When terrorism takes over a presidential campaign

Op-Ed: When terrorism takes over a presidential campaign

The atrocities in Brussels will have an effect on this year’s American presidential race – and it won’t be a good one. J. BROOKS SPECTOR laments the degradation of political discourse in the face of real tragedies.

When the current US presidential campaign first took shape, the common assumption on the part of most analysts, political operatives, pollsters, voters and would-be candidates was that this year’s election, in the absence of a major international crisis, would be primarily focused on domestic economic issues.

Given the continuing concerns over the long shadow of the 2008/9 financial crisis, the increasing attention to growing income inequality in the country, and the ill-repute of banks and bankers for having caused the crisis and largely escaping the punishment that followed, it seemed perfectly reasonable the candidates would hammer away at the state of the economy – and how to fix it – above all else.

Republican candidates would pontificate about continuing the country’s perceived economic weaknesses, rising foreign competition and the job flows to other nations, national tax burdens, as well as nostrums such as vast corporate tax cuts that would encourage growth – in a stealthy return of discredited supply side economics arguments.

Meanwhile, a leftist candidate like Bernie Sanders would focus his ire on the rise in economic inequality, the unreasonable burden of university costs and health care, and, of course, the baleful role of Wall Street and the big banks in causing economic crises like the one the country had just endured. Finally, a centrist like Hillary Clinton would attempt to focus attention on the Obama administration’s record in job growth and the decline in unemployment, the rise in stock prices, a general rise in consumer confidence, the roaring return of the US motor industry, and the decrease in the share of the economy that continuing government deficits actually represent.

The views of most election observers was that prospective voters would need to gird themselves for a nearly endless deluge of tax plan comparisons, testimony from economists over the optimum way to boost economic growth through things like investment subsidies, the real (and job-destroying, price-increasing) effects of tariffs, and the overall impact of free trade initiatives. All this might be boring to many, but it would virtually force candidates – and voters – to think hard about the country’s economic future. As long as it looked like Jeb Bush or Marco Rubio would face off against Hillary Clinton, the domestic economic focus for the 2016 election seemed virtually assured.

But the political landscape has played out rather differently to that which nearly everyone speculated would happen. With the rise and rise of Donald Trump, and the increasingly compelling challenge of Bernie Sanders, at least at first, the discussion still seemed to focus on the economic lay (and ills) of the land – especially among the many who felt seriously abused by economic inequality, or from those many job losses to the rising, new economies all around the world.

However, as Trump’s appeal grew, his criticisms of the international trade regime, his rants against Mexicans, Muslims, the Chinese, and the feckless American government increasingly focused away from the government’s taxation and spending policies and towards stoking fears of foreign enemies coming from all corners – either as nefarious businessmen or bomb-bearing terrorists. The Trumpian cosmology has put America right at the centre of a universe where it is being assailed from every direction and by every manner of evildoer, and that he – and only he and the policies he proposed – represented the only viable barrier against absolute disaster.

Increasingly, other candidates in both the Republican and Democratic Parties have risen to Trump’s bait, either by trying to outdo his angry rhetoric or rebutting it. Either way, they have inexorably moved away from more considered discussions on economic policy or international affairs – and on to Trump’s home turf of barely contained anger.

Moreover, largely unexpected international events have also had something to say about what this year’s US election would – increasingly – focus upon. The most recent horrors in Belgium – in tandem with the roster of other terror acts in San Bernardino, Tunisia, Yemen, Ankara, Beirut, and yet other places within the past year or so – have fuelled the increasingly furious discussion on terrorism spearheaded by Donald Trump and Senator Ted Cruz, now that the battle has devolved into a largely two-man contest for the Republicans.

The Democratic candidates have had little choice to follow in speaking about this topic, given the new prominence of terrorism internationally. The result has been a kind of Gresham’s law – cheap, degrading ideas have relentlessly been driving out more thoughtful ones from public discourse.

And so it is not surprising that combating terrorism became the core of candidate speeches at the America Israel Public Affairs Committee lobbying and advocacy group gathering in Washington the other day, in tandem with genuflections to Israel’s Netanyahu government, and an explicit linking of global Islamicist terror with the presumed fatal and dangerous flaws in the P5+1/Iran agreement over Iran’s nuclear programme.

Increasingly, too, the Republican pitch on terror has become a mantra that Obama and other administration officials and former officials – such as Hillary Clinton – all betray their subconscious softness on terror by failing even to say the words, “fundamentalist Islamic terrorists”.

In tandem with such criticism, Ted Cruz’s idea of specially designated patrols of neighbourhoods likely to house Muslims to preclude domestic terror, Donald Trump’s snarl of a blanket prohibition of entry into the US by anybody who is Muslim, or the utility of further embracing Nato allies or leaving the alliance to strengthen the fight against the bad guys, are gaining discussion in the mainstream in a way inconceivable only a year ago. The long, slow slog against the urban terrorism of nonstate actors that depends on close, multistate co-operation, careful and conscientious use of intelligence, and slow grinding pressure against such groups, as advocated by President Obama, is coming in for increasing ridicule from the Republican challengers. Even Hillary Clinton has been moved to say her administration would put even more pressure on terror groups than the Obama administration has been doing.

Of course the likelihood of yet other urban terrorism outrages occurring between now and 8 November remains real. Since it is increasingly likely the election will be a face-off between Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump, it is an easy bet that political advertising by the latter will bank on something like a picture of Hillary Clinton embracing some child in an obviously Muslim crowd – during her time as Secretary of State – as a way to send the not-so-subtle message that she is “Soft, soft, soft! on Muslims”. If by some chance her opponent is Senator Ted Cruz, watch for something like gruesome images of Christian women and children fleeing rapacious Muslim terrorists wielding scimitars, almost like agitprop from the 16th century. One doesn’t even want to imagine how either of those two candidates would treat Bernie Sanders’ approaches – in the unlikely chance he actually becomes the Democratic candidate in place of Clinton.

In a reportback of Trump’s meeting with the editorial board of The Washington Post on the same day he had spoken at the America Israel Public Affairs Committee, columnist Ruth Marcus, in describing how Trump had presented his views to that gathering, wrote, “And here is the revealing part of Trump: He is not just a ‘counterpuncher’, as he tells us, he is a compulsive counterpuncher. Not only can he not refrain in the moment – he also cannot see another alternative in the cooling bath of hindsight…

Trump is the master of deflection, and the media’s concentration on the Trump outrage du jour serves to protect him from searching inquiry. We tried to remedy that. But the hands discussion [that earlier spate with Marco Rubio about body parts size, reprised at the Post meeting] was illuminating, because presidential character is as important as presidential intellect and preparation. Being presidential doesn’t only mean winning. It also means being in control of your responses, being measured in how you deal with opponents, foreign and domestic. Trump’s personality – you don’t have to deduce this; he has told us – is such that he cannot allow an insult to go unrebutted. In a potential president, this trait is as scary as any of Trump’s substantive flaws.”

In such a climate, of course, the political discourse in a national election will become increasingly debased. It will increasingly look like a comic book where the words above the candidates will be limited to “smash, pow, bang, crunch and crash”, rather than discussion of how to evaluate, rank, and order national priorities, and how to sort out the ways the budget must deal with them.

A great moment to discuss real economic challenges, the real imperatives of renewing the nation’s economy and infrastructure, and the challenges to America’s presence in the world, will all have been wasted. DM

Photo: Former Alaska Governor Sarah Palin speaks at a campaign event for Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump at the Tampa Convention Center in Tampa, Florida, USA, 14 March 2016. EPA/JIM LO SCALZO.

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