Stirring Up Mass Panic Is Donald Trump’s Only Hope for Winning the White House

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Presidential Candidate Donald Trump Holds Florida Town Hall Event
Donald Trump.Photo: Andrew Harrer

Most weeks, New York Magazine writer-at-large Frank Rich speaks with contributor Alex Carp about the biggest stories in politics and culture. This week: the terror attacks in Brussels, the GOP quest to unite around an anti-Trump, and a farewell to Margaret Sullivan, the New York Times public editor. 

In the wake of the terror attack in Brussels this week, NBC’s Matt Lauer and Savannah Guthrie caught some criticism for practically suggesting to Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton that torture might be necessary. How much do such responses of high-profile journalists contribute to creating fear and panic in the U.S.?
Fear has brought out the worst in America throughout its modern history. We tirelessly recall that FDR told America it had nothing to fear but fear itself at his first inaugural address in 1933, but often omit the part that he signed an order to incarcerate Japanese-Americans in internment camps later in his presidency. So many calamities in modern American history have been prompted by fear, it’s impossible to list them all, from the Red Scare of the McCarthy era to the failure of the Reagan administration to address the AIDS crisis to the misbegotten, 9/11-generated Iraq War, which helped create the Islamic State that has rained down blood on Paris, San Bernardino, and Brussels in less than five months.

The missteps of morning talk-show hosts are, truly, the least of our problems right now — and in general I think we should worry less about the ginning up of panic by television news (or other journalistic platforms) and keep our focus on the fearmongering politicians who are running for president in an election year. Trump does not need prompting from Lauer and Guthrie to talk about torture as a panacea for terrorism. His fear-driven solutions for dealing with ISIS — more torture, sealing our borders, reducing support of NATO — are as ineffectual as they are incoherent. Cruz’s plan to have wholesale policing of American Muslim communities is nothing if not a propaganda gift to the Islamic State, inviting more terrorism. And John Kasich’s proposal in the aftermath of Brussels: President Obama should cut short his trip to Cuba. That’ll show ’em!

You will notice that none of the Republican candidates — nor Clinton, who called for steady leadership and one of her typical bullet-point lists of more or less existing American policies — proposes ground troops in the Middle East. You’ll notice that Thomas Friedman and Roger Cohen, both of whom offered thoughtful critiques of Obama policy in this morning’s Times, had no real solutions of their own, unless Friedman’s pitch for American support to the developing democracies of Tunisia and Kurdistan counts as one. (As goes Tunisia, so might Syria? This seems like magical thinking.) I certainly don’t have a solution either, but I do get why Obama is doing everything he can to tamp down fear, even at the price of being criticized for passivity, weakness, etc. Policy based on fear prompts even rational politicians like Clinton to sign on to debacles like Iraq, and politics based on fear can only increase the odds of a self-professed strongman like Trump gaining power.

Ted Cruz’s big win in Utah last night, as well as Jeb Bush’s endorsement of him, suggest that the GOP nomination still isn’t quite Trump’s for the taking. Did yesterday provide any additional hope for voters hoping to avoid a Trump nomination?
Mormons really do not like Trump, and if America (Mormon population about 1.7 percent) were Utah (Mormon population 58 percent), he’d be done. Meanwhile, back in the real world, nothing has happened to slow Trump’s path to the nomination. The GOP is still in the same place, and it’s not going to change: Either Trump is going to have a majority of delegates by the time the party convenes in Cleveland, or he’s going to have a plurality, in which case all hell is going to break loose as the anti-Trump forces attempt to secure the nomination for a candidate with fewer delegates than Trump or possibly a “compromise choice” (e.g., Paul Ryan) who arrives at the convention with no delegates at all. Any American planning to take a vacation the week of July 18 may want to reconsider: This is going to be binge-watchable must-see TV, and you will never get to the beach.

As for Jeb Bush’s endorsement: Surely if we’ve learned anything from this political cycle it’s that endorsements from the GOP “Establishment” mean nothing. If they did, Jeb would still be in the race, for no one in the Republican field had collected more of them. And once again, we have an illustration of the timidity that helped crater the Bush candidacy. Bush is finally — finally — putting distance between himself and his brother George, who said “I just don’t like the guy” when speaking of Cruz to a room of donors back in October. We can look forward to more bold stands from Jeb now that he’s back in private life, but it’s past time when any of them would merit an exclamation point.

Margaret Sullivan, the Times’ public editor, leaves her post next month, on the heels of what is probably her biggest success: a rewriting of the Times’ anonymous-sourcing policy. What should the newspaper’s next public editor learn from Sullivan’s tenure?
The job of public editor really gained traction after the paper’s own fear-induced calamity in the wake of 9/11. The Times’ inability to apply serious journalistic scrutiny to the Bush administration’s case for the war in Iraq — an institutional failure that did not just involve credulous and ideological reporters like Judith Miller but editors in the chain of command to the top of the masthead — required serious self-examination and reform if the paper was going to regain the trust of its readers and even many in its own newsroom. The first public editor, Daniel Okrent, played a significant role in pushing for such reform and asking the hard questions that the paper had failed to ask itself in the run-up to the war.

Since then, public editors have come and gone with far less impact. But that was not the case with Sullivan. She has been fearless and provocative, and, as her tenure nears its end, she has scored a major achievement in getting the Times to reform its use of anonymous sources. Earlier on she got the paper to drop its odious willingness (shared by other journalism outlets) to give some of those quoted in its news columns the right to “approve” their quotes after the fact. She got Michael Hayden, the former head of the NSA and the CIA, to say on the record that the Times story on warrantless government surveillance, held back by the paper for 13 months at the urging of the Bush administration, in fact did not endanger American national security. Sullivan also took on the Times’ failings in dealing with poverty, sexism, and even its lack of racial diversity in its staff of culture critics, often prompting change.

One hopes the next public editor will learn from Sullivan’s tenure that nothing should be off-limits; a strong critic, advocating for both the readers and the highest standards, makes the paper better and its often-opaque practices more transparent. She is going to be a tough act to follow. Meanwhile, the Times’ loss is going to be another gain for Martin Baron’s ever-more-competitive Washington Post. Sullivan is launching a free-ranging media column there that is likely to be a must-read throughout this election year and beyond.