Chris Christie's frightening authoritarianism: Why his new 9/11 pander may be his worst yet

GOP guv thinks 9/11 fear-mongering and blasting Edward Snowden will revive his 2016 chances. Good luck with that

Published May 18, 2015 7:33PM (EDT)

  (AP/J. Scott Applewhite)
(AP/J. Scott Applewhite)

With his reputation damaged by “Bridgegate,” his ratings in New Jersey dropping like a stone, and a surplus of establishment-friendly 2016 candidates either in the race already or expected to announce, it’s hard to imagine why Gov. Chris Christie would bother to run for president.

But as Alec MacGillis laid out in his masterful profile of the man from early last year, there’s always been a short-sighted, mindless quality to Christie’s ambition. So despite the fact the level of enthusiasm for a Christie presidential campaign is about as low as his average rank among the GOP’s many contenders, it looks very much like Christie 2016 is in America’s near-future. And if the planned remarks on mass surveillance Christie released to the press on Monday are any guide, it’s going to be a long slog before his inevitable defeat.

As Christie’s advisors — the ones not dealing with federal indictments, I mean — are happy to tell any reporter willing to listen, the New Jersey governor is basically putting all of his campaign eggs in the New Hampshire primary basket. The idea is that Christie’s signature format, the town hall, is especially well-suited for the small towns and cantons of the Granite State. There’s also an ill-defined theory that Christie’s previous and minor transgressions against orthodox conservatism won’t cost him nearly as much in the New Hampshire primary as they will in the Iowa caucuses. (Unmentioned: The fact that it’s been more than a decade since Sen. John McCain first won in New Hampshire.)

It’s no surprise, therefore, that Christie chose New Hampshire as the venue for what will almost certainly be the most significant speech on national security he’s delivered in his relatively short and Garden State-focused political career. And the gist of his remarks will also be familiar — at least to those who remember how the governor handled himself while arguing with Sen. Rand Paul during the summer of 2013. Back then, Paul raised some reasonable and relatively mild concerns about the National Security Agency (NSA) and its habit of warrantless bulk surveillance. Christie responded with, as Vice President Joe Biden once said, “a noun, a verb and 9/11.”

If Christie's speech is any guide, that’s a strategy he is going to hew to in 2016. Except, this time, he’s throwing in Edward Snowden — that would be the noun, for those of you keeping score — in order to keep his waving of the bloody shirt contemporary and fresh. “When it comes to fighting terrorism, our government is not the enemy,” Christie said. “And we shouldn't listen to people like Edward Snowden, a criminal who hurt our country and now enjoys the hospitality of President Putin — while sending us messages about the dangers of authoritarian government.” That zinger about pallin’ around with Putin is an old saw and to be expected; but Christie didn't mention that a federal court recently declared Snowden’s analysis of bulk surveillance essentially correct.

The pale, bespectacled, awkward and geeky Snowden is a good foil for Christie; I can already picture reporters trying to explain reddit to septuagenarian New Hampshire conservatives, their faces turning red with rage and incomprehension. But because Christie is never one to take a risk by overestimating his audience’s intelligence, he’s also going to throw a more tried-and-true conservative bogeyman into his national security analysis. You see, it’s not just Snowden we have to blame; it’s those godless, America-hating fat cats in Hollywood, too. The reason people are so needlessly worried about the NSA, Christie argued, is because Hollywood has “made our intelligence agencies the villains in practically every movie from the last 25 years."

Unless it is supposed to be understood as an exceptionally dry bit of sarcasm (which, to be clear, it is not) this is a remarkably silly thing for Christie to say. Sure, it’s true that, from time to time, Hollywood depicts elements of the CIA a violent, unhinged and anti-democratic. But almost always — even in the Bourne movies Christie referred to later in the speech — these are elements of the intelligence community; we’re supposed to see them as villains who’ve abandoned the liberal democratic norms the rest of America’s spooks hold so dear. Most of the time, though, Hollywood doesn’t even go that far: Every year, for example, the acclaimed Hollywood film “Zero Dark Thirty” looks more like a propagandistic, CIA-boosting fabrication.

Snowden and Hollywood, Christie said, “want you to think that there's a government spook listening in every time you pick up the phone or Skype with your grandkids.” (Note that last word, “grandkids,” if you doubt the advanced age of Christie’s target audience.) Snowden and Hollywood, Christie claimed, “want you to think of our intelligence community as the bad guys” and, even worse, “they want you to think that if we weakened our capabilities, the rest of the world would love us more.” Whether or not any of this is true — which, of course, it isn’t; and it’s not hard to find out what Snowden really thinks — Christie will have none of it. He’s tired of the insinuation that illegally spying on, detaining or torturing people is necessarily bad.

Christie’s point here, which we could charitably describe as an argument, is frankly too threadbare and unserious to actually warrant serious discussion. Like his proposal to cut Social Security, it’s a message that’s been massaged so as to be palatable to the GOP rank-and-file while, at heart, being primarily directed toward the Republican Party donor class. It is Christie’s way of signaling to the Sheldon Adelsons and Lockheed Martins of the world that he’s one of them already; and if Jeb Bush continues to falter and Scott Walker stumbles, all they’ll need to do to get Christie on their side is sign a check.

What it also signals, though, is that Christie will be campaigning like he’s Rudolph Giuliani and the year is 2008. Chris Christie’s campaign for president technically has not started — but it already cannot end soon enough.

By Elias Isquith

Elias Isquith is a former Salon staff writer.

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