Bad incentives and the politics of fear
It would be nice if Republicans felt they had to solve problems
Probably the single most high-impact political event of my lifetime occurred on the morning of September 11, 2001, when a coordinated group of hijackers seized control of four American airliners and tried to crash them into high-profile buildings. Two planes struck the two towers of the World Trade Center, a third hit the Pentagon, and the passengers on the fourth plane — alerted to the nature of the terrorists’ plans — stormed the cockpit and brought the plane down in a sparsely populated area of Pennsylvania.
This was of course a striking event on its own — thousands of people murdered, enormous buildings destroyed, a huge shock to the airline industry — but what made it a signature political event is that it caused the popularity of the incumbent president to soar. That was in part a “rally ‘round the flag” effect. But it also reflected a deeper reality which is that when people feel physically threatened, they tend to gravitate toward the political right, which they associate with a greater willingness to deploy unrestrained violence in order to defend the community. That’s why, for example, high-profile ISIS killings in 2014 were a problem for Democrats during the midterms, whereas al-Qaeda attacks boosted George W. Bush.
Had Palm Beach County designed its ballot better back in 2000, it’s likely that Al Gore would have been president in the fall of 2001. There was a bit of a principled disagreement during the Clinton-Bush transition as to whether the Clinton administration’s focus on non-state security threats was correct, and it seems the Bush team decided to somewhat deprioritize the Clinton-era focus on al-Qaeda relative to state actors and great power conflicts.
A Gore administration would probably not have made that choice, and it’s at least possible that a more consistent top-down focus on al-Qaeda and counterterrorism issues would have led to the unraveling of the plot. And that would have been a big news story, but hardly an era-defining political event. But by the same token, had Gore been president and not foiled the attack, he likely would not have enjoyed a comparable boon in his public opinion ratings. There would have been some rally effect, but also a lot of vicious criticism from the right blaming Democratic weakness for the security failure.
The basic dynamic here — security threats benefit the political right — is familiar enough that we sort of take it for granted. But it creates a paradoxical set of incentives. For a Democratic administration, fending off threats to people’s physical security is a political imperative, whereas if Bush’s security team had been more on-the-ball and prevented the attack, that would have resulted in a worse outcome for them politically. Had he prevented the murder of thousands of people, the GOP wouldn’t have done so well in the 2002 midterms and wouldn’t have been able to pass a second round of regressive tax cuts or the big expansion of Medicare Advantage that happened in 2003.
From the standpoint of the GOP’s interest group base, it’s bad to prevent terrorist attacks.
Trump campaigned against Trump-era rioting
During the summer of 2020, the United States was rocked by massive racial justice protests, some of which were in turn marred by arson, looting, and rioting.
The extent of this is often exaggerated on the political right — it’s just not the case that dozens of American cities burned to the ground — but it was a pretty big deal, especially because it occurred in the context of a pandemic that was already dealing a blow to central cities. My sense of these events, at least on the east coast, was that the arson and looting that occurred was overwhelmingly opportunistic crime rather than political gestures. In my neighborhood, the liquor store and the cell phone repair shop had their windows smashed and ransacked, but the banks and the fast-casual salad place did not. This is to say people were looting the stores that had fun stuff they could steal rather than going after the symbols of neighborhood gentrification or global capitalism. In Portland specifically, I do think you saw more engagement from ideologically motivated anarchists. But broadly speaking, I think the rioting is better thought of as crime than as an attempt at social revolution.
But the rioting certainly had a political impact and became a major talking point on the political right and for Donald Trump’s re-election campaign.
This then became a very clear example of a similar incentive issue. I do understand the logic of “fear of looters and anarchists makes me want to turn to the political right,” but Trump was president while this stuff was happening. Both Trump and Joe Biden spoke out against rioting during the fall campaign, but you could tell by the tone that Biden was genuinely hoping that people would not riot because he thought rioting was bad for the cities where it was happening and bad for him politically, while the right greeted the outbreak of a new round of disorder in Kenosha with glee because they don’t care about cities and thought rioting was good for them.
A big part of the politics of rioting, of course, was Trump's warning that what we saw in Kenosha would spread nationally if Biden were put in charge.
I think we can now say from the standpoint of 2023 that this has not occurred. And while I of course don’t expect to see conservatives giving Joe Biden credit for anything, it’s noteworthy that conservatives don’t seem at all interested in why their confident forecasts about this were mistaken. It’s pretty important to try to hold yourself accountable for bad predictions if you want to understand the future better. But of course not everyone actually does want to understand the future better. In particular, while a person genuinely interested in minimizing the number of riots would ask a question like “why was my forecast about rioting so bad? What is it about these dynamics that I’ve misunderstood?” a person who just thinks he benefits from rioting probably won’t worry too much about this.
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