The message from last night’s Republican presidential debate is that we are a fearful people; vengeful, but afraid.
We’re afraid of immigrants: Mexican immigrants, Muslim immigrants, Syrian refugee immigrants. Rand Paul is more afraid of Donald Trump carving up our constitutional liberties than of terrorism. Jeb Bush is afraid that Trump would be an incompetent president. Trump is afraid of China, Japan, Mexico, Mexican immigrants, Muslims, Syrians, just about everybody really. Marco Rubio is afraid that terrorists are recruiting Americans. Chris Christie is afraid of the new normal established under Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton, the new normal being fear. Christie and Jeb Bush are afraid that if the other candidates alienate Muslim Americans we’ll be unable to work with them to disrupt terrorist threats. Any relative of a terrorist should fear Donald Trump. Ted Cruz boasts that the whole world should fear him.
Dr. Carson’s diagnosis is that the nation is sick and cannot be cured by political correctness. Carson fears that our politically correct squishiness is making us a target for hardened terrorists. He cited a Muslim Brotherhood memorandum that, "they will take advantage of our PC attitude to get us."
Cruz knows just what to fear: “The problem is because of political correctness, the Obama administration, like a lot of folks here, want to search everyone's cell phones and e-mails and not focus on the bad guys. And political correctness is killing people.”
The job of an American president, though, is not to demagogically exploit our fears. In his preface to The Presidency of Abraham Lincoln, the historian Alan Paludan wrote:
At the best American presidents recognize that their duty as the chief opinion maker is to shape a public understanding that opens options and tells the truth about what the people can be and what their problems are. Appealing to fears we have, manipulating them to win office or pass a law or achieve another goal, does not so much reflect who we are as it in fact creates who we are. It affirms us as legitimately fearful—afraid of something that our leaders confirm to be frightening—and as being citizens whose fears properly define us.
It is much harder and perhaps in a modern campaign strategically unsound to remind us that our strength is not in our capacity to carpet bomb innocents but in our ideals. Yes that is what Lincoln did, while simultaneously navigating through the greatest threat this nation has ever faced. It is not the job of the president to exploit our fears, but to call us back to “the better angels of our nature.” All the candidates and the American people lost last night.