Donald Trump is the presidential candidate Osama bin Laden made. Nothing demonstrates that like Trump’s performance in the wake of the shooting that took place in Orlando on Sunday.
If the goal of a terrorist is to spread terror, then his most potent weapon is not a gun or an explosive vest, but the fear-mongers within a targeted society — especially those who embody or inflame the impulses that support the terrorist’s narrative about his enemies. And in that regard, it is hard to imagine a more effective ally of extremism than Trump, who uses his global platform to trumpet views that are a caricature of the ignorant, hateful American. His words seem designed to support the narrative that the United States is intolerant, racist, and at war with all the people of Islam.
Trump made this clearer than ever in the hours after the news of the attack on the Pulse nightclub. He renewed his call for a ban on all Muslims from entering the United States, tossing aside the freedom of religion on which America was founded and ignoring the fact that the shooter in Florida was, in fact, a U.S. citizen who would not be affected by such a ban. He called on the president of the United States to resign, thus politicizing a terror attack and magnifying its impact in the worst possible way. Also, of course, he appeared triumphant even in the wake of the shooting, claiming that it validated his views on extremism — thus showing his willingness to place his demagoguery and narcissism ahead of the sensitivity and leadership an attack like this ought to generate in a would-be president.
In a speech on Monday, he compounded these damaging missteps. He went to new heights in his grossly unconstructive and self-serving effort to spread hysteria when he suggested that if we don’t change our policies on terror, “we’re not going to have a country anymore — there will be nothing left.” This places the threat posed by the relatively small number of extremists in the world (there are perhaps 30,000 members of the Islamic State) on a par with the existential threat posed by the USSR during the Cold War. It is absurd. It is wrong. And it is damaging. It serves only one purpose: to stir up fear and support for his out-of-control policies.
He illustrated that by doubling down on his call to ban Muslims from entering the United States while reiterating his support for the gun lobby. He characterized allowing Muslims into the country as a potential Trojan horse — once again implying that all Muslims are a threat, stirring up hatred against a religious group in a completely un-American way. What a combination — targeting a group for their spiritual beliefs, suggesting that they represent an existential threat to all Americans and our way of life while arguing that we need to continue providing Americans with assault weapons, which exist for one purpose: killing other people in mass numbers.
Together his actions send an ugly message to the world about the kind of people America seems willing to consider placing at the head of its government.
The 2016 election marks the fourth presidential election since 9/11. Each has been powerfully influenced by those attacks. The first was a referendum on George W. Bush’s response to the attacks and, in the end, his re-election was a vote of confidence in the way he was waging the war on terror. The second and third, in 2008 and 2012, were about America’s search for another way to deal with terror and the related upheavals in the Middle East that were so closely tied to it. While Barack Obama may have repudiated Bush, he could not and did not really try to shift terror from being the central national security issue on the minds of Americans.
I outlined the Bush and Obama presidencies and how they handled these challenges in my book National Insecurity and referred to the entire period as an “Age of Fear.” I argued that future generations would see the foreign policies of both presidencies as being reactive to terror — Bush reacting to 9/11, Obama reacting largely to Bush’s reaction to 9/11. No politician during this period dared to note that the threat from terror was less than existential (even though it clearly was).
The rise of the Islamic State during Obama’s term created a new threat that was even more ominous than al Qaeda, one that not only had aspirations to its own territory but that had cannily become the first terror group to embrace an open-source model. Anyone could be part of the Islamic State simply by claiming they were. It was decentralized. It was not hierarchic. It was seeking to spread terror. It recognized that by embracing the alienated and angry who were willing to act out in its name — even if they had little prior connection to the group — it would make the Islamic State seem larger and more ominous. The coffee shop attack in Sydney, Australia, was a perfect illustration. Sunday’s attack by Omar Mateen is another.
When I wrote the conclusion of my book, I expressed the hope that the 2016 presidential election would be different, that perhaps we could turn our attention away from terror and back to bigger issues shaping the world, that we would address the bigger questions influencing Americans’ quality of life — from inequality to the rise of major new powers globally. I hoped we had come to the end of the Age of Fear.
Early rhetoric from Trump suggested that this hope would go unfulfilled. From the earliest days of his candidacy — and particularly in the wake of the San Bernardino attacks — Trump has fanned the flames of many Americans’ anxieties about terror, about Islam, and about distant unfamiliar cultures of which many Americans still know painfully little. But now it is clear, once again, that terror will be a centerpiece of this presidential election cycle. Once again, bin Laden’s desire to set the U.S. agenda will have been realized, albeit posthumously. Once again, many U.S. citizens will ignore the fact that the only way to truly defeat terror is to refuse to be terrorized, to set fears aside, and to focus on cultivating the wellsprings of our strength.
The near-certain Democratic candidate, former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, has reacted more soundly. Her comments on the Orlando shooting have been strong but temperate. She decried the attacks, but did so without making America look more hateful or without stirring up more hate as Trump did. “I’m not going to demonize and demagogue and declare war on an entire religion. That’s just plain dangerous, and it plays into ISIS’s hands,” she said on the Today show.
But even with her measured approach, the U.S. presidential campaign will nonetheless turn largely on the question of who can keep us safer from such attacks. Sadly, it seems likely that Clinton’s call for the one set of measures that could have made Sunday’s attack considerably less likely — new gun control measures including an assault weapon ban and stronger background checks — will have little real political traction. Our national pathology about guns, a disease that is killing Americans at a rate hundreds of times higher than terror attacks, is no closer to a cure today than it was after Columbine or Newtown.
It is hard to imagine there won’t be any more attacks between now and the election. But even if there aren’t, this week’s events assure that Trump’s anti-Muslim hate talk will continue and that there will be a market for it among scared and angry voters. His own extreme views will make this a subject that dominates the political debate at the center of the election campaign.
This is ironic, of course. Because if it is the case, if Trump goes on as he has — attacking all Muslims, talking about bans, embracing torture, and arguing that restraint and fact-based policies are weak — he will continue to play into the hands of the terrorists. He will spawn new recruits for the Islamic State. He will trigger new hatred or fear of the United States. In fact, he will strengthen our enemies while fostering the divisions in America that actually weaken us and make us more vulnerable.
In fact, for all his rhetoric about threats, Trump will miss the greatest national security threat America faces — even though each morning it will stare back at him in the mirror when he shaves. Because that threat is clearly him. Trump would be the president the bad guys want us to have. He is a racist, know-nothing, global bully with no respect for international law, out to alienate the vast majority of Muslims, despite the fact that many are deeply sympathetic to the United States and could be our most important allies in combating extremism.
Further, Trump is a danger because he has failed to recognize that first and foremost what happened in Orlando was an American tragedy. Those victims in Orlando are part of a hated and bullied class of Americans, and they were slaughtered with firearms that were too easily purchased in America. Mateen wore the belief system of a terror group like a cheap suit, seizing it as a justification that was as insincere and unrelated to Islamic values as Trump’s response is to true American values. In failing to see this as an American problem rather than one we can blame on some “other,” we assure nothing will be done to address it and thus it can only get worse.
What a great victory that is for Osama bin Laden. What a victory it is for all extremists. It weakens the most powerful nation in the world in the only way it can really be done — from within. That was bin Laden’s greatest insight, of course. He knew no terror group or foreign power could defeat the United States; it could only be done by us to ourselves. In this election cycle, it once again seems clear that a substantial number of Americans — and the GOP candidate — seem absolutely committed to proving that thesis right.