In March of 1933, facing the dire circumstances of the Great Depression, newly elected President Franklin Delano Roosevelt delivered one of the most often quoted phrases in American political discourse:
“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,” Roosevelt said.
What Roosevelt understood was that the nation would not be able to respond to an incredible challenge if it acted out of fear. He asked Americans to resist fear and to rely on the national character and reason to climb out of the worst financial crisis in history.
A time of crisis is no time to be consumed by emotion.
Emotional appeals, however, were the centerpiece of political speech at the Republican National Convention in Cleveland last week, where Republican nominee Donald Trump and his surrogates painted a picture of a nation under threat from Islamic terrorism, immigrant-fueled crime and Hillary Clinton. The solution: Trump would keep bad people out of the country and he would get tough on crime.
The problem is that the threats outlined by Trump and the GOP are greatly overstated. Crime is at its lowest level in 30 years. Immigration rates into the U.S. are down, particularly from Mexico, which Trump would like to wall off. How could a campaign win on a promise to fix a problem that doesn’t exist?
The answer was provided in a fascinating exchange between CNN reporter Alyson Camerota and former House Speaker Newt Gingrich last week. When confronted with the fact that crime was down, Gingrich responded that the facts didn’t matter. What matters is that people felt it.
Here are some highlights from that exchange:
Newt Gingrich: The average American, I will bet you this morning, does not think crime is down, does not think they are safer.
Alyson Camerota: But it is. We are safer and it is down.
Gingrich: No, that’s just your view.
Camerota: It’s a fact. These are the national FBI facts.
Gingrich: But what I said is also a fact. … People feel more threatened.
Camerota: Feel it, yes. They feel it, but the facts don’t support it.
Gingrich: As a political candidate, I’ll go with how people feel and I’ll let you go with the theoriticians.
Let’s forget that Gingrich here dismisses FBI crime statistics as a theory (which may be the most troubling aspect of the entire interview). He admits, quite frankly, that he believes it’s more important for politicians to assuage public perception, not to, I don’t know, help people to understand the facts.
There are problems facing this country that need attention. An increase in violent crime in the country’s largest city is troublesome. The threat of terrorism, both Islamic and domestic, is real and should be addressed. But scaring people to get votes will not get us very far in finding the real solution.
— Pete Mazzaccaro