The GOP debate: Fright-wingers compete to freak us out

     From left: Republican presidential candidates John Kasich, Carly Fiorina, Marco Rubio, Ben Carson, Donald Trump, Ted Cruz, Jeb Bush, Chris Christie, and Rand Paul take the stage during the CNN Republican presidential debate on Tuesday in Las Vegas. (AP Photo/Mark J. Terrill)

    From left: Republican presidential candidates John Kasich, Carly Fiorina, Marco Rubio, Ben Carson, Donald Trump, Ted Cruz, Jeb Bush, Chris Christie, and Rand Paul take the stage during the CNN Republican presidential debate on Tuesday in Las Vegas. (AP Photo/Mark J. Terrill)

    I would’ve preferred last night to watch “Fargo,” a pitch-black comedy about bloodlusting knuckleheads, but instead I dutifully tuned in the Republicans, and I got the same kind of characters.

    There was Ted Cruz, touting the awesomeness of carpet-bombing ISIS  (“You would carpet bomb where ISIS is, not a city, but the location of the troops”) — apparently clueless about the fact that ISIS troops are embedded in the cities, amongst civilian adults and children.

    There was Chris Christie, jonesing to shoot down Russian planes in a Syrian no-fly zone (“Not only would I be prepared to do it, I would do it”) — a burst of bellicosity so egregious that two-percent candidate Rand Paul had to slap him silly: “We don’t need to confront Russia from a point of recklessness that would lead to war.”

    There was Donald Trump, vowing to launch “very, very firm” assaults on terrorists’ families, because, in his mind, the families are all part of the conspiracy. For instance, he said, “when you had the World Trade Center go, people were put into planes that were friends, family, girlfriends, and they were put into planes and they were sent back, for the most part, to Saudi Arabia. They knew what was going on. They went home and they wanted to watch their boyfriends on television.” But this was yet another whopping Trump lie. The official 9/11 investigators discovered that the hijackers had severed contact with their families long before the attack — and none of them had families in America.

    • WHYY thanks our sponsors — become a WHYY sponsor

    Heck, even one of the moderators — conservative radio commentator Hugh Hewitt, tapped by CNN to make the candidates feel comfy — got into the spirit when he asked Ben Carson whether he was Tough Enough to kill lotsa kids: “We’re talking about ruthless things tonight …. Could you order air strikes that would kill innocent children by not the scores, but the hundreds and the thousands? …. So you are OK with the deaths of thousands of innocent children and civilians? Can you be as ruthless as Churchill was in prosecuting the war against the Nazis?” (The doc replied that he’d “do what is necessary.”)

    Yes, folks, it was another Republican fright night — we’re all gonna die unless we elect their Toughness (just like in autumn ’14, when they said we were all gonna die from Ebola) — and if you listened only to them, you’d never know that San Bernardino’s hideous death toll was only a fraction of the 10,000 Americans killed each year by the Second Amendment arsenal. Or that, for every Farook and Malik, there are hundreds of white-guy domestic terrorists toting easily acquired weapons of war.

    Early on last night, Carson called for a moment of silence for the San Bernardino victims. How fitting it was that he and his comrades offered no such silence for the people recently shot dead at the Planned Parenthood clinic in Colorado. Or for the 10 people shot dead this fall at Umpqua Community College in October. Or for the nine people shot dead last June at the historic black church in Charleston.

    But worst of all was Christie. In his ongoing bid to mask his failed gubernatorial record with macho bluster, he crafted this masterpiece of hilarity:

    “We’ve been betrayed by the leadership that Barack Obama and Hillary 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.”

    Hours before Christie spoke, officials concluded that the L.A. threat was a hoax. Either Christie  didn’t know this, or, more likely, he chose not to mention it. So he was implying that Obama and Clinton are somehow responsible for a hoax. Perhaps, if Christie cares so much about little kids being “safe and sound,” he could’ve mentioned that Monday was the third anniversary of Sandy Hook, where 20 little kids were gunned down by a white all-American loser from a gun-loving family. But that would’ve breached the total Republican fixation on ISIS.

    (By the way, is Christie living in 1950s America? Did you catch that line about how “the fathers will head off to work” and worry about “the safety of their wives” sitting at home?)

    Hey, we all know the ISIS threat is serious. But, as I detailed here last week, the Republican contenders have no magic solutions; they either agree with what the Obama team is already doing, or they disagree among themselves about what to do differently. Last night, we heard it all again.

    For instance, Jeb Bush declared at one point, “We need to embed our forces, our troops, inside the Iraqi military.” Um, Jeb? The Obama administration is already embedding our forces inside the Iraqi — and Kurdish — military.

    At another point, Carly Fiorina said that we should get the techies to help us break the terrorists’ encrypted communications: “We need the private sector’s help because the government is not innovating …. They must be engaged, and they must be asked. I will ask them.” Um, Carly? They’ve already been asked. The Obama administration has been reportedly talking to the techie companies all year about what Carly thinks is her bright idea.

    But on the broader issue of American strategy in the Middle East, these candidates are deeply divided. Woe to the viewer-voter who tuned in hoping for clarity. At least four of them — Trump, Cruz, Paul, Carson — appear to reject the neoconservative belief in American-led nation building and regime change. Trump, in a rare outburst of sanity, said it best:

    We’ve spent $4 trillion trying to topple various people that, frankly, if they were there and if we could’ve spent that $4 trillion in the United States to fix our roads, our bridges, and all of the other problems, our airports and all of the other problems we’ve had, we would’ve been a lot better off. I can tell you that right now. We have done a tremendous disservice, not only to Middle East, we’ve done a tremendous disservice to humanity. The people that have been killed, the people that have wiped away, and for what? It’s not like we had victory. It’s a mess. The Middle East is totally destabilized. A total and complete mess. I wish we had the $4 trillion or $5 trillion. I wish it were spent right here in the United States, on our schools, hospitals, roads, airports, and everything else that are all falling apart.

    An outraged Fiorina said, “I’m amazed to hear that from a Republican presidential candidate” (because, hey, why would anyone want to spend trillions on our roads, bridges, and schools?), but whether Trump realized it, he had identified a fundamental Republican flaw: It was Jeb’s brother, the most recent Republican president, who destabilized the Middle East by marching into Iraq for phony reasons, and planting the seeds from which ISIS has sprung. Rand Paul said it, too: “Out of regime change you get chaos. From the chaos you have seen repeatedly the rise of radical Islam.”

    So they mask their flaws with crackpot bluster. Trump thinks we can thwart ISIS by closing down part of the Internet (whatever that means), Christie thinks we should keep Americans safe from five-year-old Syrian orphans, Christie boasts that he would partner successfully with King Hussein of Jordan (um, King Hussein of Jordan died in 1999) … and all the while, for two and a half hours, not a single candidate (and not a single terrorist-fixated CNN moderator) sees fit to mention the most consequential foreign policy event of the past week: the historic Paris climate change pact, championed by the American president, and endorsed by 188 countries from the developed and developing worlds.

    But these “Fargo” characters don’t do good news. They prefer to traffic in fear. The only good news is that they’re done debating for the year.

    Follow me on Twitter, @dickpolman1, and on Facebook.

    WHYY is your source for fact-based, in-depth journalism and information. As a nonprofit organization, we rely on financial support from readers like you. Please give today.

    Want a digest of WHYY’s programs, events & stories? Sign up for our weekly newsletter.

    Together we can reach 100% of WHYY’s fiscal year goal