Fear has been a recurring theme in the presidential race -- fear of ISIS, fear of extremists, fear of Muslims, fear of refugees -- and the main debate was no exception. Some candidates used fear-based rhetoric in the prime debate, just as Huckabee and Santorum did during the undercard debate.
A Washington Post transcript of the debate made for depressing reading. For example, Jeb Bush warned listeners that freedom is supposedly in peril, the economy is floundering, ISIS wants to destroy America, and "Washington" is partially to blame.
BUSH: Our freedom is under attack. Our economy is under water. The leading democrat is under investigation. And America is under the gun to lead the free world to protect our civilized way of life. Serious times require strong leadership, that's what at stake right now. Regarding national security, we need to restore the defense cuts of Barack Obama to rebuild our military, to destroy ISIS before it destroys us. Regarding economic security, we need to take power and money away from Washington D.C. and empower American families so that they can rise up again.Ted Cruz told the audience that "America is at war" with Islamic terrorism and claimed that President Obama is unwilling to call extremism what it is. He offered himself as a solution to these problems, claiming that the U.S. would "utterly destroy ISIS" under his leadership if elected president.
CRUZ: America is at war. Our enemy is not violent extremism. It is not some unnamed malevolent force. It is radical Islamic terrorist. We have a president who is unwilling to utter its name. The men and women on this stage, every one of us, is better prepared to keep this nation safe than is Barack Obama or Hillary Clinton. We need a president who understands the first obligation of the commander-in-chief is to keep America safe. If I am elected president, we will hunt down and kill the terrorists. We will utterly destroy ISIS. We will stop the terrorist attacks before they occur because we will not be prisoners to political correctness. Rather, we will speak the truth. Border security is national security and we will not be admitting jihadists as refugees. We will keep America safe.Trump, who has his own history of fear-mongering and fear-based cruelty, reminds us that irrational fear can result in disturbing decisions. Trump advocated for shutting down Internet access to regions that are engaged in war with the U.S.
BLITZER: So, are you open to closing parts of the Internet?Rand Paul criticized Trump for his unconstitutional ideas about shutting down the Internet and killing ISIS members' families, reminding him that the U.S. is bound by laws.
TRUMP: I would certainly be open to closing areas where we are at war with somebody. I sure as hell don't want to let people that want to kill us and kill our nation use our Internet. Yes, sir, I am.
PAUL: ... Is Donald Trump a serious candidate? The reason I ask this is, if you're going to close the Internet, realize, America, what that entails. That entails getting rid of the First amendment, OK? It's no small feat.Ben Carson also made disturbing statements amid the atmosphere of fear. When asked if he could authorize air strikes that would kill thousands of innocent civilians, Carson replied that he could.
If you are going to kill the families of terrorists, realize that there's something called the Geneva Convention we're going to have to pull out of. It would defy every norm that is America. So when you ask yourself, whoever you are, that think you're going to support Donald Trump, think, do you believe in the Constitution? Are you going to change the Constitution?
HEWITT: We're talking about ruthless things tonight -- carpet bombing, toughness, war. And people wonder, could you do that? Could you order air strikes that would kill innocent children by not the scores, but the hundreds and the thousands? Could you wage war as a commander-in-chief?The campaign strategy of some Republicans is chilling but simple: cultivate fear among voters, then cast oneself as a strong leader by promising to vanquish the source of the fear. Fear is not only a crude tool for drumming up political support, but it can breed ruthlessness and dehumanization. Unfortunately, some of the Republican candidates were only too happy to appeal to those voter impulses during the debate.
CARSON: Well, interestingly enough, you should see the eyes of some of those children when I say to them we're going to have to open your head up and take out this tumor. They're not happy about it, believe me. And they don't like me very much at that point. But later on, they love me ... Later on, you know, they really realize what's going on. And by the same token, you have to be able to look at the big picture and understand that it's actually merciful if you go ahead and finish the job, rather than death by 1,000 pricks.
HEWITT: So you are OK with the deaths of thousands of innocent children and civilian? It's like--
CARSON: You got it. You got it.
Islamic extremism is a very real threat. However, irrational fear, unconstitutional policies, savagery, and ham-fisted war plans will not help the U.S. stop Islamic extremism. Republican candidates need to stop cultivating irrational fear among voters and start approaching these issues in a mature manner.