Happy new year! Welcome to the Apocalypse!
After the briefest cessation for the holidays, the Republican presidential hopefuls are back at it, clawing one another's throats and releasing a batch of TV ads that leave no doubt all that peace-on-Earth, good-will-toward-man stuff is so December.
Terrorists scowl, missiles fly, bombs burst, sirens wail: frightening stuff and utterly predictable.
“Harnessing fear is a powerful means of moving voters,” notes Kathleen Hall Jamieson, one of the country’s leading experts on political advertising. It would be stunning, she said, if candidates didn’t tap into the country’s post-Paris and San Bernardino jitters.
“Looked at in isolation, you might call it doom and gloom,” said Jamieson, who directs the Annenberg Public Policy Center at the University of Pennsylvania. “But if you take it in the context of the last two months, it’s a realistic way of suggesting, ‘I’m going to deal with these problems.’ ”
The 30-second spots also reflect, like snapshots in miniature, the personalities and prerogatives driving the quickening GOP contest.
Those swarming immigrants that Trump promises to thwart with an impenetrable U.S.-Mexico border wall were actually filmed in Morocco, as the truth-sniffing hounds at PolitiFact first reported.
The give-no-quarter Trump campaign blithely brushed the fact-checkers aside, saying Morocco was purposely used as an example of lawlessness. (What next? Gambling in Casablanca?)
In his new spot, Florida Sen. Marco Rubio, a charismatic first-term senator and the youngest candidate in the White House field, projects weightiness and seeks to distance himself from a certain president who shares an awkwardly similar background.
"I approve this message,” Rubio says, all earnestness and pinched brow, “because America needs a real commander-in-chief and a president that will keep us safe."
In New Hampshire, it’s everyone in the pool against New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, who has been rising in polls and threatens to seize the establishment-favorite mantle from Rubio and erstwhile front-runner Jeb Bush, Florida's ex-governor.
Texas Sen. Ted Cruz and his backers elevate an increasingly heated feud with Rubio in a spot that goes directly to the gravitas question, albeit lifting from a deliberately humorous spot that Rubio put out ahead of one of last year’s GOP debates.
All of that darkness and calamity could end up backfiring on the candidates, Jamieson suggested, if voters grow convinced the problems raised are insoluble.
“There’s a large body of academic research about fear, and one of the things it says conclusively is that if you’re going to activate fear and enhance anxiety, you have to simultaneously tell the audience what you can do to reduce their fears," she said.
Failing that, she said, voters may simply decide to stay home. Perhaps those prescriptive ads are coming; there are 25 shopping days until Iowa voters cast the first 2016 ballots.