Colum Kenny: Americans are no more stupid than Europeans

US voters are badly served by politicians and the media on foreign affairs

'I have beaten breast cancer. I have buried a child," pleads former Hewlett-Packard chief executive Carly Fiorina on prime-time TV as she bids to become US president on the basis that "I fought my way to the top".

Candidates vying for the Republican Party nomination met this month for their fifth marathon TV debate, at the Venetian Theatre in Las Vegas.

Hand on heart, each stood still while a sexy Ayla Brown, skirt above the knee and flanked by giant electronic US flags, belted out the national anthem. She sang of "the rocket's red glare" and "bombs bursting in air" that "gave proof that our flag was still there". Seven of the nine candidates wore stars and stripes in their lapels.

Calling for "America" to "win again", as the candidates did, appeals to a swathe of US voters. So, too, does wanting this most multicultural country to kick out immigrants. Jeb Bush blamed them for an epidemic of heroin overdoses. Front-runner Donald Trump declared: "Walls work. Speak to the folks in Israel. " Texan Ted Cruz claimed to see the front-line against Islamic State "in Kennedy airport and the Rio Grande".


Retired neurosurgeon Ben Carson proclaimed the US "the most exceptional country that the world has ever known". Florida's Marco Rubio modestly deemed it "the greatest country in the history of all mankind". The doctrine of US exceptionalism lurked behind much of what was said.

Yet the candidates neither looked nor sounded much different from Irish politicians pitching for election. Perhaps that was what was most disconcerting. At the end of the day, a single frail human being must carry the full weight of being “leader of the free world”.


Europe barely rated in the two-hour debate and climate change was a sideshow, mentioned dismissively in passing. In the Republican race for the White House, military spending and security are the key foreign policy issues.

It is easy to dismiss these debates as a circus, an unseemly scramble to court votes, but on one level they are admirable. Hours of prime-time television are devoted to politics.

It is natural to ask “who won?” and to cherrypick the best soundbites for news reports, but more significant in the long run are the shared assumptions of the candidates.

They all support greater spending on the US military. Ohio governor John Kasich put it bluntly: "Frankly, it's time that we punched the Russians on the nose." New Jersey governor Chris Christie said he would shoot down Russian aircraft over Syria.

Maybe a TV debate is no place for nuances. There weren’t many. A bumbling Jeb Bush seemed soft as he pledged to take the best advice. Trump sneeringly dismissed him: “You’re a tough guy, Jeb.”

Some of the Vegas crowd laughed at Cruz wanting to carpet-bomb Syria to see if sand could glow. But the San Bernardino attack was no joke. Americans are scared by death on their own doorstep. Some candidates want more “boots on the ground” again in the Middle East. “Bring back the warrior class,” demanded Fiorina.

Most also discount “regime change” to foster democracy. Backing dictators is back in fashion, even if it is just a case of my enemy’s enemy is my friend.

Syrian refugees were rebuffed, despite the US role in their current fate. Mentions of Iran, including by one presenter, were uniformly hostile and lacking in sophistication.


Candidates fudged the surveillance issue. Hands off Silicon Valley. Trump was even booed by part of the audience when he spoke of infiltrating the internet to fight terrorists. Fiorina hinted at levels of co-operation between US companies and the US government that have global implications.

So do US voters really swallow what, from this side of the Atlantic, seems to be blatant populism? There are many differences between Europe and what at first glance looks like a similar society. Assumptions about social services, for example, are not shared.

Americans though are no more stupid than Europeans. A friend from Ohio emailed me this week, saying: “Please don’t take the nonsense from America seriously. Most of us are pretty sensible.”

And, of course, she is right. But many US citizens are badly informed on foreign policy, especially since the advent of shock-jock radio and TV channels as overtly ideological as Fox News. Too many voters abstain.

So which candidate has the safest pair of hands? My Democrat friends in Kentucky have little time for their state senator, Rand Paul, a fiscal conservative who "opposes most government-supported social services". But on the basis of this TV debate alone, Paul came across as measured, sensible and consultative. He even cited the Geneva Convention.

Which may be why he will not be president and why we should not rely on television debates alone to decide how we vote.