Never let it be said that the Republican Party is not responsive to its voters.
Just two months ago, many of the GOP candidates for president, including Donald Trump, Lindsey Graham, and Marco Rubio, were saying that the United States should welcome some of the Syrian refugees who have suffered so much; all have now changed their minds. Ted Cruz and Jeb Bush have taken the position that we should welcome Christian refugees but not Muslims. John Kasich proposed a new government propaganda agency to promote "Judeo-Christian Western values" to places like the Middle East and China.
All it took was a terrorist attack in a country thousands of miles away to bring a stampede to the right, a wave of xenophobia and religious bigotry, and a call to transform public policy to more closely align with whatever frightens people at the moment, rationally or not.
It isn't just the presidential candidates; almost every Republican governor has declared that he or she will refuse to accept any Syrian refugees (even though they don't actually have that legal authority), and Republicans in Congress are rushing to pass a bill to stop refugees from coming (which will likely get the support of plenty of cowardly Democrats).
And despite the hope of some in the GOP establishment that voters would now turn toward more "serious" candidates, the polls that have been released since the Paris attacks show Donald Trump gaining strength and sitting firmly atop the field. Yahoo News published a truly extraordinary interview with Trump on Thursday, in which he all but said that because there was a terrorist attack in France, we have to not only shred the Constitution, but betray every value we claim to hold dear:
"We're going to have to do things that we never did before. And some people are going to be upset about it, but I think that now everybody is feeling that security is going to rule," Trump said. "And certain things will be done that we never thought would happen in this country in terms of information and learning about the enemy. And so we're going to have to do certain things that were frankly unthinkable a year ago."
Yahoo News asked Trump whether this level of tracking might require registering Muslims in a database or giving them a form of special identification that noted their religion. He wouldn’t rule it out.
"We're going to have to — we're going to have to look at a lot of things very closely," Trump said when presented with the idea. "We're going to have to look at the mosques. We're going to have to look very, very carefully." [Yahoo News]
You might read that and say, well, Trump is just a buffoon who doesn't think before opening his mouth, so you can't take anything he says seriously. Which is true. But it's also true that the Republican electorate is quite open to that kind of message. A poll just out from the Democratic firm PPP found that 27 percent of Republican primary voters support having the government shut down every mosque in the United States; 38 percent were opposed, and 35 percent were unsure. A full 41 percent of Ted Cruz supporters and 37 percent of Trump supporters want to shut down all mosques.
At the risk of introducing context into this discussion, we have to keep in mind some simple and important facts. ISIS has done ghastly things and made life horrific for the people unfortunate enough to live under their rule, but the danger they pose to you and your family is somewhere between microscopic and sub-atomic. Around 30,000 Americans are killed every year by guns, and another 30,000 or so die in car accidents. Those are proximate, real threats to your safety; terrorism is not.
Or to think about it another way: You are literally more likely to be struck by lightning than to be the victim of a terrorist attack. Since 9/11, 26 of us have been killed here in America by jihadi terrorists, which just happens to be the exact same number of Americans who have died in lightning strikes so far in 2015 alone.
Even if ISIS were wildly successful in mounting terrorist attacks within the United States, they might kill hundreds of Americans. Which would be terrible, but it wouldn't constitute an "existential" threat or a danger to our "way of life."
And I must repeat something I've mentioned before on the refugee issue: The fact that an ISIS member can pose as a refugee to enter Europe has nothing to do with the danger we might face in America from a Syrian refugee, despite the fact that the word "refugee" appears in both places. It's relatively easy to get from the Middle East to Europe as a refugee, and once there, one can move easily between countries. It's incredibly difficult to get from Syria to the United States as a refugee; the process includes lengthy background checks and takes as much as two years. The attackers in Paris were Belgian; if a Belgian wants to get to America, all he needs to do is get on a plane. He doesn't even need a visa.
So ISIS could send an operative to the United States posing as a refugee, in the same sense you could drive from Philadelphia to New York by going through Seattle. You could, but you wouldn't bother, because there are much easier ways to do it.
But those facts can't stand up to images of people who look like "us" killed by terrorists. And when voters are afraid, politicians — or at least some politicians — swing into action.
It's hard to remember a time when the Republican presidential candidates seemed more energized than they are right now, with the opportunity to thunderously denounce the administration for putting all our lives at risk and attack each other for being insufficiently alarmed about the terrorist threat. Who knows what they'd do if there was actually an attack on American soil. We'd survive it, but those running for president would be almost certain to lose their minds.