Sen. Lindsey Graham, the latest Republican to join all the cool kids running for president, wants you to know that the world is a very scary place and that is why he should be president.
"I want to be president to protect our nation that we all love so much from all threats foreign and domestic," Graham said in his announcement.
Graham is one of the Senate's most distinguished hawks, but he isn't an outlier here. The entire Republican field, Rand Paul excepted, is trying to convince you that the world is dark and full of terrors: the United States is under threats at every turn, that our fundamental national security is at risk, and that the world is, as Graham once said, "literally about to blow up."
The exact opposite is true. Today, the United States is actually enjoying a time of extraordinary safety: threats to the homeland are few and very far between. And while it's true that there are lots of bad things in the world, it's conflict-free as it's ever been, at nearly any point in human history. On this, the Republican candidates are just wrong.
The GOP's constant, escalating fearmongering
It has now become a familiar pattern: a Republican candidate makes an outlandish claim about a threat to America. Experts respond that the threat is exaggerated, or nonexistent, but by then the claim has already garnered headlines and valuable airtime. Other candidates chime in to agree about the threat and offer their own solutions. Or they raise yet another claim about yet another danger to the homeland, and the whole cycle begins again.
Some of the more specific claims are really, really, really outlandish. Former Sen. Rick Santorum warned that Iran might knock out America's electrical grid with a sneaky electromagnetic pulse (EMP) attack. "An electromagnetic pulse over the state of Iowa could knock us back to the stone age," he said, per the Guardian. "Worse, [at least] people in the stone age knew how to live in the stone age. We don’t." Two other candidates, former Governor Mike Huckabee and Dr. Ben Carson, have also warned of EMP attacks.
But the odds of this actually happening are "roughly the same as terrorists deploying MegaMaid from Spaceballs to steal America’s oxygen," according to Matt Duss, the president of the Foundation for Middle East Peace.
Duss's comment reflects the expert consensus. "I had the impression that nobody who was technically competent believed the scare stories about EMP," renowned physicist Freeman Dyson told the Project on Government Oversight in 2011 — when then-GOP presidential candidate Newt Gingrich was warning of the same thing.
Sen. Ted Cruz, former Texas Gov. Rick Perry, and Sen. Marco Rubio have all expressed concern that ISIS could set up shop in Mexico in order to sneak across the border. There is no evidence that this has happened, or that it is in the works. It's hard to imagine, to put it mildly, that a bunch of Islamist militants bent on establishing a caliphate in the Middle East would take a detour to set up shop in a largely Spanish-speaking Catholic country. Or that Mexico's drug cartels have any interest in getting caught up in the inevitably massive US military backlash to an ISIS attack launched from Mexico.
More commonly, though, GOP claims involve blowing real concerns — Iran's nuclear program, say, or Russia's adventurism in Ukraine — totally out of historical proportion. "The world is exploding in terror and violence, but the biggest threat of all is the nuclear ambitions of the radical Islamists who control Iran," Graham said in his announcement speech, implying, somewhat implausibly, that an Iranian bomb could lead to nuclear "genocide."
Rubio takes this game to its logical conclusion on his campaign website, where he claims "the world has never been more dangerous than it is today."
That, as Jon Chait says, "is not just wrong but insanely wrong." Chait points to this chart of per capita battle deaths, from Steven Pinker's compelling book on the decline of violence, to make his point:
It's conceivable this peace won't hold forever. And the conflicts in places like Ukraine, Syria, and Iraq are horrible. But they don't threaten the foundation of world peace the way that, say, World Wars I or II did. Saying the world "has never been more dangerous" at this particular point in time is simply incorrect. In fact, fewer people are dying from wars than at any point in the 20th century, and in all likelihood most of human history.
The truth: America is surprisingly safe
Those specific rebuttals hint at a broader truth: despite headline-grabbing chaos in other parts of the world, the United States is surprisingly safe. When Graham, for instance, writes that "we have never seen more threats against our nation and its citizens than we do today," it just sounds absurd.
America's most significant rival, China, shows zero interest in fighting a war with the United States. The US spends more on defense than the next nine biggest defense spenders combined. America has partners or allies on every populated continent on Earth, and faces no opposing superpower like it did during the Cold War.
And even though terrorism remains frightening, the fear it inspires is out of proportion to the actual danger it presents. In the years since the 9/11 attacks, the US has gotten quite effective at screening potential terrorists and disrupting terrorist plots. It is very, very difficult for potential terrorist operatives to get to the United States undetected, and groups like ISIS and al-Qaeda have failed to recruit large numbers of American residents to their causes.
A major attack isn't inconceivable, but the risk is pretty low compared to things we're used to living with (like gun violence). Two academic studies, recently reported by the Atlantic's Jonathan Rauch, attempted to quantify the risk of an American citizen dying in a terrorist attack based on past attacks. The first one put the odds at about one in 950,000. The second put them at one in 3.5 million.
By comparison, the odds of getting hit by a car and killed as a pedestrian is one in 704, per the National Safety Council. You're over 100 times more likely to die by literally walking around than you are to be killed in a terrorist attack.
Where the fearmongering comes from
So why are GOP candidates spending so much of their time claiming a litany of ever-scarier threats to the nation?
One very plausible answer has to do with the general conservative approach to world affairs. Neoconservatism, the dominant foreign policy position in the GOP, holds that American global dominance is a good thing in principle. The world is a scary place, they argue, and only forward-deployed American military might is holding us back from a world on fire from terrorism and aggressive authoritarian states. The implication is that the world really is a threatening place, and only the aggressive deployment of US force can prevent a looming catastrophe.
The neoconservative "love affair with the American military machine has another aspect to it: the tendency to inflate threats to national security, either out of genuine concern or as a way to mobilize public opinion," historian Justin Vaïsse wrote in a Brookings study of neoconservative ideas. "From the Committee on the Present Danger of the 1970s to the Rumsfeld Commission on the ballistic missile threat in 1998 and the agitation around Iraqi weapons of mass destruction (WMD) in 2002-2003, neoconservatives have often succumbed to unwarranted alarmism."
It's also politically savvy. "For Republicans, who have long benefited from attacking Democrats for their alleged weakness in the face of foreign threats, there is little incentive to tone down the rhetoric," Micah Zenko and Michael Cohen write in Foreign Affairs. "The notion of a dangerous world plays to perhaps their greatest political advantage."
So the excessive rhetoric from Republicans shouldn't come as a surprise: it's both ideologically congenial and politically convenient. Let's just not confuse it with reality.