A Dutch oven isn’t really an oven – it’s just a big pot – and a Dutch door isn’t much of a door – it’s more a gate with a window on top – and a Dutch treat isn’t a treat at all. You pay your own way – but the British were in a bad mood. The Great Fire of London in 1666 was bad enough, but the next year the Dutch fleet sailed up the Thames, then up the River Medway to Chatham, where they burned three capital ships and towed away the Unity and the Royal Charles, the flagship of the English fleet – and that put a quick and humiliating end to the trade wars with the Dutch. The British fought back with idioms we still use today, about Dutch this and Dutch that. Sure, they lost – they were humiliated – but the Dutch aren’t that scary. Things really aren’t what they seem.
And maybe Franklin Delano Roosevelt was never really president. On Saturday, March 4, 1933, he was sworn in as our new president – but he took the oath with his hand on his family Bible, published in 1686 in Dutch, the oldest Bible ever used in an inaugural ceremony and the only one not in English. Was this a Dutch oath? He used it the next three times too, but maybe it was a bit of an inside joke. Things really aren’t what they seem. That was what he said in that first inaugural address:
So, first of all, let me assert my firm belief that the only thing we have to fear is… fear itself – nameless, unreasoning, unjustified terror which paralyzes needed efforts to convert retreat into advance. In every dark hour of our national life a leadership of frankness and of vigor has met with that understanding and support of the people themselves which is essential to victory. And I am convinced that you will again give that support to leadership in these critical days.
In short, what you think is scary isn’t, and being afraid of what isn’t so will ruin everything – so ignore the bullshit from everyone saying that this economic disaster is the end of everything. That’s what’s really scary. That be-very-afraid crap, from people with their own agendas, can end whatever chance we have of making things better.
That’s what FDR was saying in that first inaugural address, but of course more politely. President Obama is still saying the same thing. The headline was Obama Accuses Trump of Exploiting Working-Class Fears:
President Obama said in a radio interview that began airing on Monday that Donald J. Trump, a leading contender for the Republican presidential nomination, was exploiting the resentment and anxieties of working-class men to boost his campaign. …
Demographic changes and economic stresses, including “flat-lining” wages and incomes, have meant that “particularly blue-collar men have had a lot of trouble in this new economy, where they are no longer getting the same bargain that they got when they were going to a factory and able to support their families on a single paycheck,” Mr. Obama said in the interview with National Public Radio.
“You combine those things, and it means that there is going to be potential anger, frustration, fear – some of it justified, but just misdirected,” the president added. “I think somebody like Mr. Trump is taking advantage of that. That’s what he’s exploiting during the course of his campaign.”
The comments were Mr. Obama’s most pointed response to Mr. Trump since the Republican candidate suggested that Muslims be barred from entering the United States after the mass shooting in San Bernardino, Calif. The attack was carried out by a couple who apparently were radicalized Muslims, one of whom had entered the United States on a fiancée visa.
Trump may have overreacted, but in the 2008 campaign, Obama was caught saying the same sort of thing off-record but surreptitiously recorded:
You go into these small towns in Pennsylvania and, like a lot of small towns in the Midwest, the jobs have been gone now for 25 years and nothing’s replaced them. And they fell through the Clinton administration, and the Bush administration, and each successive administration has said that somehow these communities are gonna regenerate and they have not.
And it’s not surprising then they get bitter, they cling to guns or religion or antipathy toward people who aren’t like them or anti-immigrant sentiment or anti-trade sentiment as a way to explain their frustrations.
That caused Obama no end of trouble – he seemed to insult heavily armed evangelical rural white Christians – the actual Real Americans, as Sarah Palin once claimed – but he actually understood them. They’d gotten the shaft in the previous decades. They had their reasons. It was sympathy, poorly phrased, but this was the middle of the presidential campaign. No one was cutting anyone any slack – but it’s that time again. The conservative blogger Tom Maguire took a screenshot of the New York Times headline and offered a rhetorical question:
The headline is baffling – exploiting fears is now a political no-no?
FDR said it was, a long time ago, and Obama just said that again regarding Donald Trump, but the Washington Monthly’s Martin Longman wonders about that:
It took a second to process what exactly Maguire was getting at. To me, “exploiting fears” is a moral failing. Full stop. For Maguire, exploiting fears is a given in the political process and unworthy of notice.
At first, I was offended. Then I realized that we’re both probably correct in our own way, but with limitations.
I’m sure if I challenged him, Maguire would recite countless examples of Democratic politicians exploiting the fears of the electorate. These would be fears about the Supreme Court overturning Roe v. Wade, or fears about NSA surveillance, or fears about grandma losing her Medicare or Social Security. No doubt, talking about the bad things that may result if the other party wins is a core element of all political campaigning, and it always has been.
I think this is different in kind, though, than using fear itself as a political tool. It’s hard to draw a hard line, and it’s partly about the merit of the threat you’re talking about.
So, what is scary and what isn’t? Longman cites Jim Geraghty at the National Review Online trying to sort that out:
All of other threats that we’re told are more likely to kill us than a terrorist – other drivers, the ladder at home, the stove, the local swimming pool – aren’t deliberately trying to kill us. (Admittedly, at rush hour, it does seem that way with the other drivers.) You may fall off your ladder while putting up the Christmas lights on the roof, but it’s not like there’s a sinister group, al-Laddera, plotting to wobble when you’re leaning over to put that last string up above the gutter. There’s not much the government can do to stop you from falling off a ladder, other than PSAs saying “be careful!” But there’s an awful lot the government can do to target terrorists and mitigate the threat they present.
In other words, for Geraghty, it’s legitimate to continually alarm the electorate about a very low-probability threat to their personal safety because there is at least something the government can do to minimize that threat.
For me, though, the responsible thing to do as a political leader is to calm people’s fears both so that they won’t be needlessly or disproportionately afraid and so that they don’t freak out and make unreasonable demands on their political leaders.
But it’s more than that:
What’s really bad, in my opinion, is to deliberately increase people’s sense of insecurity not primarily so that they will demand policies to keep them safe but to make them more inclined to vote for you and your political party. Making people afraid for political gain is cynical and almost cruel.
So, naturally, I see it as dubious when someone like Donald Trump ramps up people’s anxieties and provides nothing solid as actual policy prescriptions. To me, that’s totally different than arguing that electing Hillary Clinton will result in a Supreme Court less inclined to overturn Roe v. Wade or energy policies less favorable to coal. You can scare and motivate people to vote based on accurate information. That’s not a political no-no, and it never has been.
But “exploiting” fears is a little different, especially when part of your pitch is to create fear when none ought to exist (“The president is a secret Muslim”) or to ramp fear up beyond any rational level, which is what the terrorism vs. wobbly ladder comparison is meant to illuminate.
But that’s not all that Geraghty offers when he writes this:
We’re entering an era where just talking about terrorism garners accusations of fear-mongering. Hillary Clinton accused Republicans of fear-mongering; in the same speech, she’s emphasized that it’s not enough to “contain” ISIS – as President Obama has said in the past; she says we need to destroy it. Somehow it’s perfectly legitimate for her to argue that more needs to be done about ISIS, but when Republicans do it, it’s fear-mongering.
This week’s Saturday Night Live began with a faux Republican presidential debate, and featured Bobby Moynihan as Chris Christie, who began, “Wolf, I would like to answer that with a series of fear-mongering statements.” Faux-Christie continues, “Mothers are putting their kids on buses, and these buses are being driven off cliffs by terrorists! Today, in our great country, one in every three babies born are already in ISIS! They are here, folks, and I am the only one with the stones to take them on!”
Geraghty admits that’s damned funny, and says that’s also unfair:
Look at Chris Christie’s opening statement from the last debate, and see if it strikes you as genuine fear-mongering:
America has been betrayed. We’ve been betrayed by the leadership that Barack Obama and Hilary Clinton have provided to this country over the last number of years. Think about just what’s happened today. The second largest school district in America in Los Angeles closed based on a threat. Think about the effect that, that’s going to have on those children when they go back to school tomorrow wondering, filled with anxiety, to whether they’re really going to be safe.
Think about the mothers who will take those children tomorrow morning to the bus stop wondering whether their children will arrive back on that bus safe and sound. Think about the fathers of Los Angeles, who tomorrow will head off to work and wonder about the safety of their wives and their children.
What is it that Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton done to this country? That the most basic responsibility of an administration is to protect the safety and security of the American people. I will tell you this, I’m a former federal prosecutor, I’ve fought terrorists and won and when we get back in the White House we will fight terrorists and win again and America will be safe.
Geraghty reiterates his point:
The Los Angeles School District closure was frightening, because no one knew if the message was from some crank, some kid trying to get out of a test, or a genuine reason to fear a San Bernardino-style attack. (The shooter had pictures of a high school on his cell phone.) The closure reflected school administrators’ need take every threat seriously – even seemingly implausible ones. (If the administrators ever dismiss a threat that turns out to be a real danger, the outrage will be deafening, followed by the sound of lawyers filing paperwork to sue the district.) Those who are scoffing at the public’s concern about terrorism are rolling the dice, and hoping nothing happens in the coming weeks, months, and year.
But that’s not what Longman was talking about. He was saying that it is quite bad “to deliberately increase people’s sense of insecurity not primarily so that they will demand policies to keep them safe but to make them more inclined to vote for you and your political party.” That is, “making people afraid for political gain is cynical and almost cruel,” but Kevin Drum wonders about that:
As Longman suggests, this is a mighty thin line to draw, and I’m not sure it’s the right line anyway. Here’s the thing that liberals tend not to want to accept: different people evaluate threats in far different ways. This is not right or wrong. It’s just human nature.
Live in California and you’ll see that:
I tend to be almost absurdly non-fearful, for example. This is not because I’m brave in the usual sense: I run from fights at the first opportunity and I have no idea if I’d rescue a drowning child from a watery maelstrom. I’m talking about more abstract fears. Should you be afraid of being mugged? Afraid of terror attacks? Afraid of earthquakes? In my case, I never even bother getting out of bed if I feel an earthquake. I just roll over and wait for it to stop.
This is, by almost any measure, stupid. Sure, most earthquakes around here are fairly small. But not all of them. Wouldn’t it make sense to at least hop out of bed and get ready in case my house starts to collapse? Yes it would. I’m putting my life in danger by underplaying the threat.
Now extend that analogy:
So who has the more correct view of national security threats, liberals or conservatives? As it happens, liberals tend to feel less threatened than conservatives by danger from others, something that we paid a big political price for when we ignored the huge rise in violent crime in the 60s and 70s. Conservatives tend to respond more strongly to threats from others, something that they paid a political price for in the aftermath of the Iraq War. In the first case, conservatives understood the reality better. In the second case, liberals did.
This is not because conservatives were smarter the first time and we were smarter the second time. It’s because, at a very deep level, we react to threats differently. There’s no purely objective way to decide who’s right and who’s wrong in any particular case, but I think you can reasonably say that sometimes conservatives are closer to right and sometimes liberals are closer to right.
So what’s the right response to terrorist attacks? I can’t even imagine being personally afraid of one. The odds of being targeted by some insane jihadist are astronomical. But a vast number of people feel very, very differently. At a gut level, they’re afraid that what happened in Paris and San Bernardino could happen to them – and they want something done about it. Are they right? Or am I right? Who can say?
But that’s why conservatives are exploiting this fear.
And we’ll have to live with that:
Conservatives consider terror attacks a serious and alarming threat. Liberals tend not to, which is why our politicians mostly adopt a pretty even tone about them. In both cases, this response is politically useful. Mainly, though, it’s genuinely how they feel. Conservatives really do feel threatened. Liberals really don’t.
Keep this in mind. It’s not a sham. It’s not just cynicism. I happen to think conservatives are wrong about this, and I think their campaign-trail exploitation of terrorist fear has gone far beyond anything even remotely reasonable. But at its core, this is a real disagreement. How safe are we and what should we do to increase our safety? When you cut through the bombast, there’s a very hard, very bright, very deep, and very human core of division here. And there’s no guarantee that you or your tribe has the right take on it.
So, some questions have no good answers. Should we be scared silly by this or that? Maybe so, maybe not – we won’t know until it doesn’t matter anymore – so on one side you get things like this from Edwin Lyngar:
I would remind you of the Great Ebola Panic of 2014. Just before the last midterm election (convenient timing), our nation was both obsessed over and terrified about the “threat of Ebola” (picture the word dripping with green slime for effect). “Close the Borders, Now!” screamed irrational, cowardly headlines, written (one presumes) by toddlers hiding underneath a pink “My Little Pony” blanket. It’s the essence of irrational.
I’m still waiting for my apology from the many news outlets that lobbed article after article, featuring innumerable talking heads, liars and cheats. Where is the Ebola that I was promised? Television news was particularly irresponsible. The fiction of Ebola must have impacted the midterm elections but in ways we will never be able to guess or quantify. Some television stations probably made more money and someone got a book deal, but in the end, all the fear and handwringing was over nothing. I want my 2014 back.
So one tribe says this:
We have witnessed terrorist acts and violence, but those isolated incidents are nothing compared to the damage we are doing to ourselves. We are shredding our national self-esteem and violating our own deepest values over almost nothing. I know fear, and I too have let it drive me to irrational behavior. But this latest bout of national fretting has reached beyond what is decent. We are acting like cowards, and I am ashamed. We need not be conquered by a handful of dehydrated, religious fanatics to lose our country if we’re willing to destroy it ourselves.
And the other tribe:
The convergence of fears over terrorism, a perceived threat of gun laws being changed and the Christmas holiday have sent gun sales soaring in what is already the busiest month of the year for firearm purchases.
Guns are at the top of many Christmas lists, especially if November is any indication. Last month, the FBI ran more than 2.2 million firearm background checks on potential buyers, a 24 percent increase from November 2014. On Black Friday, a record 185,345 background checks were processed by the FBI.
These are the other folks:
At places like Adventure Outdoors in Smyrna, Georgia, business has nearly doubled compared to a year ago at this time, according to manager Eric Wallace.
“Ever since the Paris attacks, we’ve had a lot of customers coming in,” Wallace told Gabe Gutierrez on TODAY. “Buying first guns, buying guns to protect their homes, their families, and themselves.”
“Like any good husband, I asked for the list of Christmas items that you’d like to have and one of the items was a firearm,” gun owner Louis Cole told Gutierrez. “Above jewelry was a firearm.”
Companies like “The Well-Armed Woman” in Scottsdale, Arizona, have done brisk business selling accessories like holsters, concealed carry purses and bullet jewelry targeting female gun owners. A shooting range in Las Vegas, “The Gun Store,” offers bachelorette parties where guests shoot pink AK-47s.
“It is a significant gift of love, to arm the people that you love with the tools and the training to protect themselves,” Well-Armed Woman owner Carrie Lightfoot said.
But we have nothing to fear but fear itself, right? Half of America disagrees, sometimes the one half and sometimes the other half, and we won’t know which half is right until it doesn’t matter anymore. But nothing is ever what it seems. Life is a Dutch treat. It’s no treat at all.