Whoa, If True: Jeb Bush, the Electromagnetic Pulse, and What You Can Do to Stay Safe on the Campaign Trail

The former Florida governor's wonkiness extends to extraterrestrial threats.

IN SPACE - JUNE 7: In this handout from NASA/Solar Dynamics Observatory, a solar large flare erupts off the sun June 7, 2011 in space. A large cloud of particles flew up and then was pulled back down to the sun's surface. According to NASA, the event is not suppose have any effect once the particles reach the earth on either June 8 or June 9.

Photographer: Handout/Getty Images

This is the third installment of  "Whoa, If True," an occasional look at the conspiracy theories that migrate from the wilds of the Internet to the well-covered tundra of presidential campaigns.

With a fire crackling inside a 19th-century, wood-framed clubhouse on the outskirts of Concord, New Hampshire, on Friday, former Florida Governor Jeb Bush was doing what he does best: Displaying his breadth of knowledge by fielding questions on a range of issues, and giving his opinion on how best to solve nearly every one.

The ninth of 12 questions that Bush took on this crisp April evening inside the cozy Snow Shoe Club was from a woman who began her inquiry by telling the likely Republican presidential candidate that, "One of the largest threats that we have in our country right now is the EMP threat, whether it's from foreign..."

Bush cut her off. But not for the reason you might expect.

"EMP, in English, is the electromagentic? The pulse?" he said. "Oh, I read about this."

"Right," the woman continued. "It could be a solar thing, or it could be something that's going on. If we had one of those? With our dependence on electronics? What would you do to secure our system?"

It might sound like something better discussed among Star Trek fans, or from underneath tin-foil, tri-corner hats. But fears about an electromagnetic pulse—and the ensuing chaos from the theoretical meltdown of the nation's grid that such a blast would cause—appears on the verge of breaking into mainstream Republicanism. Former U.S. House Speaker Newt Gingrich has said it may be the "catastrophe that ends civilization." Paul Singer, the billionaire Republican donor, told his investors last year that it was the "one risk that is head-and-shoulders above all the rest." The Congressional Electromagnetic Pulse Caucus was founded in 2011 by U.S. Representative Trent Franks, an Arizona Republican.

And now count Jeb Bush, the son of one former president and brother of another, among the fearful.

Jeb Bush answers questions at the Snow Shoe Club in Concord, New Hampshire on April 17.
Jeb Bush answers questions at the Snow Shoe Club in Concord, New Hampshire on April 17.
Michael C. Bender/Bloomberg

"First of all, it scared me to no end," Bush said about his research into the issue. "It could happen naturally by some solar burst, or it could happen by some threat of terror. Both of which are possible. We have to fortify the grid, obviously."

In the doomsday scenario, a nuclear weapon could be detonated high above any American town or city. The electronic interference would immediately fry the nation's power grid, rendering computers, cars and cell phones useless, and leading to a breakdown of modern society.

As Bush mentioned, the cause could also be one of America's most underrated enemies: The sun. 

The threat from the center of the solar system is one that scientists—and business managers—take seriously. Last year, NASA reported on a 2012 sunburst that, had it occurred a week earlier, would have "thrown modern civilization back to the 18th century."

In 1859, a powerful solar storm known as the Carrington Event, disrupted telegraph service. Today, such a storm could leave 130 million Americans without power. Power disruptions lasting from 16 days to 2 years could affect as many as 40 million Americans, according to a 2013 report by Lloyd’s, a 350-year-old insurance marketplace.

Bush is prone to eyebrow-raising theories: He says divisive immigration debate has helped depress fertility rates in the U.S., and disputes the pass interference penalty that cost his hometown University of Miami football team the 2002 national championship to the Ohio State University.

The EMP threat appears to hold a special place in his fear-of-the-weird pantheon, however. Bush called the potential pulse a "huge threat to our national security," saying that most Americans would be helpless without electric power.

"Maybe out in the woods here you might—maybe, I don't know—probably there's some people," Bush said, his gaze fixed on the gloaming outside the clubhouse window. "But most Americans could not function without reliable power sources."

And with that, he was ready to move on to the next topic.

"Yes?" he said, looking for a question. "Anybody in the back?"

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