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Newt Gingrich’s convention speech was an absurd dive into fearmongering

Republican National Convention: Day Three (John Moore/Getty Images)
Zack Beauchamp is a senior correspondent at Vox, where he covers ideology and challenges to democracy, both at home and abroad. Before coming to Vox in 2014, he edited TP Ideas, a section of Think Progress devoted to the ideas shaping our political world.

CLEVELAND — In a convention full of irresponsible speeches, Newt Gingrich’s may have just taken the cake. Its takeaway message — and I’m paraphrasing only slightly — is that if you don’t elect Donald Trump, ISIS could nuke an American city. He said that electing Hillary Clinton could very well destroy the United States.

"The cost of Hillary’s dishonesty could be the loss of America as we know it," Gingrich warned.

His speech was useful, in a sense. Not as instruction on terrorism — it wrong was in every major particular.

It was useful instead in exposing what’s so terrifying about the role foreign policy plays in Trumpism. At the Republican convention, foreign policy is generally reduced to terrorism, and terrorism is hyped to make the world look far more terrifying than it is. ISIS isn’t a problem to be solved; it’s a culture war wedge, one designed to make Hillary Clinton into a villain and Trump into a conquering hero.

It is base fearmongering, designed to terrify people into voting for an authoritarian who wants to punish huge numbers of Muslims for the actions of a tiny few.

And that crowd, judging from the reaction to Gingrich’s speech, is eating it up.

Gingrich is wrong about everything

Much of Gingrich’s speech is too vague to fact-check — just scary-sounding platitudes masquerading as truth-telling and brave honesty. But the basic message, that the terrorists will somehow defeat America, is impossible to miss.

"We are at war with radical Islamists, we are losing the war, and we must change course to win the war," Gingrich says.

This threat is so grave, according to him, that electing Hillary Clinton might well cause a catastrophic terrorist attack, which (somehow) would endanger the United States itself:

A catastrophic attack on innocent Americans is a very real threat. Which brings us to the heart of the matter.

We are sleepwalking through history as though this is all about politics. It is not. It is about our safety and our survival as a country. And this is why every American should be terrified at the prospect of a Hillary Clinton presidency.

When Gingrich gets specific, attempting to actually defend his theory that the US is "losing" a war on terrorism, his speech becomes nonsensical.

For example, he cites a statistic that 30,000 people worldwide were killed by terrorists in 2015. That’s true enough — the numbers come from the most recent edition of the State Department’s annual report on terrorism.

But what Gingrich neglects to tell you is that this is a significant drop from the 2014 total — of about 13.4 percent. If the number of worldwide deaths from terrorism is a metric of winning or losing, then the terrorists are actually in decline.

But more fundamentally, the idea that America is "losing" a war on terrorism is absurd. ISIS, currently the world’s most fearsome terrorist group, has lost roughly 30 percent of its peak territory in Iraq and Syria. Its revenue has been roughly cut in half, forcing it to slash fighter salaries by about half. Virtually every credible analyst now believes that its territorial empire there is doomed to collapse.

The United States, by contrast, is the world’s most powerful military nation by every conceivable metric. It has played an integral role in defeating ISIS in Syria — without even deploying a significant amount of ground troops. A vanishingly small number of Americans are killed by terrorism every year; the odds of being killed by terrorism are roughly equivalent to the odds of being crushed by your own furniture.

There is no world in which it makes sense to warn, as Gingrich does, that the United States’ very survival is at risk due to groups like ISIS and al-Qaeda.

This is why Newt needs to hype the threat of nuclear terrorism. It’s the only way that terrorist could be a threat on the scale that Gingrich is asserting:

The danger is even worse than September 11, when 19 hijackers murdered almost 3,000 Americans.

No. The worst-case scenario is losing an American city to terrorists armed with weapons of mass destruction.

Instead of losing 3,000 people in one morning, we could lose more than 300,000.

Instead of losing two great buildings, we could lose block after block after block to a nuclear event.

Okay, that sound scary! But note that Gingrich provides no evidence that this is likely to happen. The closest thing to evidence he has is a quote from a January 2001 commission paper:

Back in January of 2001, the Hart Rudman Commission warned that terrorists QUOTE, "will acquire weapons of mass destruction ... and some will use them. Americans will likely die on American soil, possibly in large numbers." Fifteen years later, the dangers are even greater.

But do you know what hasn’t happened since 2001? A terrorist nuking an American city.

Experts on terrorism today believe the odds of this happening to be very low. Neither North Korea nor Pakistan has any interest in handing over a nuclear weapon and risking retaliation, any more than either of those countries would nuke the United States directly. And it’s very, very hard for terrorists to get nukes unless countries get them.

"The fear of terrorist transfer seems greatly exaggerated," Dartmouth professor Keir Lieber and Daryl Press conclude in a 2013 paper on the question.

Gingrich, then, is hyping up extremely unlikely threats to make the world look far, far scarier than it is. It is a way of linking Hillary Clinton to the scary Muslim other, one of the convention’s biggest boogeymen to date. It is turning foreign policy into another culture war, where one side "understands" the threat from radical Islam and another doesn’t, and the way we talk about it (rather than the policies we propose) is what matters.

And do you know what the wildest thing about all this is?

Gingrich’s speech, despite warning that Clinton might literally destroy the country, felt pretty milquetoast compared with the rhetoric about throwing her in jail that’s dominated the convention thus far.

That’s how much of a spectacle this has become.

How the Republican Party went from Lincoln to Trump

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