World·Analysis

Crowded Republican presidential field ramps up the paranoia

Every four years, presidential nomination time, is when the Republican tail, otherwise known as "the base," gets to wag the dog, Neil Macdonald writes. This year, because of a super-crowded field, the paranoia level feels especially ramped up.

Every four years is when the GOP tail gets to wag the dog, this time is especially heated

Republican presidential candidate, Senator Ted Cruz, of Texas takes the stage at the Iowa Faith & Freedom Spring Kick Off in Waukee last month. (The Associated Press)

Ted Cruz, the Canadian-born U.S. senator from Texas, was educated at Harvard and Princeton universities. In general, admission to and graduation from those schools requires brains and sophistication.

So the only reasonable conclusion that can be drawn when Cruz says he shares the fears that a U.S. Army exercise that is about to take place across several states is really part of Barack Obama's plan to invade and take over Texas (which, to be clear, is already part of the U.S.) is that Cruz is playing to what's widely called the freak show.

And that freak show, euphemistically known as "the Republican base," loves Cruz fiercely in return.

In just a few years, he's risen to the very pinnacle of the far-right, don't-tread-on-me end of his party by pursuing a simple tactic: no conspiracy theory too idiotic, no limit to the craziness he can get behind.

And now that he is running for president, he may have to declare the army's Operation Jade Helm as a campaign gift.

The huge military exercise will take place in July across the American southwest, and so fevered are the conspiracy theories about Obama's alleged coup that Greg Abbott, the Republican governor of Texas, has instructed the commander of the Texas State Guard to monitor what's happening and report back to him.

"During the training operation, it is important that Texans know their safety, constitutional rights, private property rights and civil liberties will not be infringed," declared Abbott.

The prospect of what amounts to a local state militia trailing around after some of the most elite special forces in America is almost comical.

But Abbott isn't doing this for nothing: he is doing it out of deference to the freak show. Same with Cruz.

Crowded field

The dog-wagging, gun-waving Republican tail/base enjoys its greatest influence every four years, in the drawn-out period to pick a presidential candidate.

And because the GOP field for 2016 is especially large — nearly 20 candidates with some sort of profile are desperately trying to break away from the pack — the freak show this time is especially heated.

Scott Walker, the governor of Wisconsin, is running around insisting that his experience busting Wisconsin's public-service unions has prepared him to take on ISIS.

Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker holds up a devotional book while at the Iowa Faith & Freedom spring kick off, with other Republican hopefuls, in Waukee last month. (The Associated Press)

Furthermore, he says, Ronald Reagan's firing of nearly 11,000 air traffic controllers in a 1981 labour standoff was, weirdly, "the most significant foreign policy decision" of his lifetime.

Walker has positioned himself so far to the right that he's talking not just about limiting illegal immigration, but legal immigration, too (just in case any Hispanic voter might be thinking of voting Republican.)

Mike Huckabee, the former Arkansas governor and religious crackpot who once suggested the mass murder of schoolchildren at the 2012 Sandy Hook elementary school in Newtown, Conn., was because prayer was banned in public schools, is now saying the government wants to "criminalize Christianity."

He also seems to be suggesting state governments should ignore high court rulings they disagree with. Such as the legalization of gay marriage.

No less than George F. Will, one of U.S. conservatism's public greybeards, called Huckabee's fundamentalist message "appalling."

Avoid hypotheticals

At the more clownish end of the lineup is Donald Trump, addicted as ever to attention, any attention, promising a big announcement in June.

His greatest political feat to date was leading the so-called birther movement against Barack Obama, who finally, bemusedly, furnished Americans with proof that he wasn't born in Kenya.

Ben Carson, a neurosurgeon and the party's only serious black candidate, has compared Obamacare to slavery.

Even non-freak show candidates, knowing they must veer right during primary season, are having bizarre moments.

South Carolina Senator Lindsey Graham, trying hard to sound less moderate than he actually is, warned recently that "If I'm president of the United States and you're thinking about joining al-Qaeda or ISIL, I'm not gonna call a judge. I'm gonna call a drone and we will kill you."

And Jeb Bush, the brother of George W. and someone who actually stands a good chance of winning the nomination, has been frantically flipping over the question of whether he would have invaded Iraq. Most politicians know better than to answer a hypothetical. Not Bush.

First he declared a "news flash," saying he'd have done the same as his brother. It took him four walk-back attempts to decide he wouldn't have invaded after all, "knowing what we know now."

Former Florida governor Jeb Bush recites the Pledge of Allegiance during a Clark County Republican Party gathering in Las Vegas earlier this week. (The Associated Press)

By this point, conservative readers will be fuming that this column is another liberal media carve job.

But I've looked hard at the Democratic field, which basically consists of Hillary Clinton.

Her assertion that she and her husband, who have earned tens of millions just making speeches, were "dead broke" after his term as president, does qualify as politically stupid, but it's not likely to cost her the nomination.

She's since apologized for the remark, while still insisting it was true.

There was also a strange uproar within the party recently when President Obama, disagreeing with Democratic Senator Elizabeth Warren, referred to her as "Elizabeth," drawing accusations of sexism.

Warren isn't running for president, but she is beloved by the party's left, which long ago stopped revering Obama.

For sheer loopiness, though, the Democrats don't even compete. Republicans utterly dominate the paranoid political freak show in this country.

Why that is, I cannot explain. I know a lot of smart Republicans. But this is nomination season. They've apparently gone to ground.

Clarifications

  • An earlier version of this article referred to Texas Governor Greg Abbott calling on the state's National Guard to monitor U.S. army war games in Texas this summer. In fact, he called on the Texas State Guard, a sister unit, for this task. The column has also been changed to reflect Donald Trump's role in the so-called birther conspiracy, rather than the truther conspiracy, surrounding Barack Obama's place of birth.
    May 20, 2015 12:57 PM ET

About the Author

Neil Macdonald

Opinion Columnist

Neil Macdonald is an opinion columnist for CBC News, based in Ottawa. Prior to that he was the CBC's Washington correspondent for 12 years, and before that he spent five years reporting from the Middle East. He also had a previous career in newspapers, and speaks English and French fluently, and some Arabic.

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