How ISIS and Trump Enable Each Other

AP Photo/Charlie Neibergall

Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump speaks during a campaign rally Saturday, December 5, 2015, in Davenport, Iowa. 

This is an updated version of an article that originally ran at The Huffington Post.

ISIS is the best thing that happened to Donald Trump since he narrowly averted bankruptcy as a real estate mogul. And Donald Trump is the best thing to happen to ISIS since George W. Bush blew up the status quo in the Middle East by needlessly invading Iraq.

The new normal is random acts of mayhem, inspired but not coordinated by ISIS. We have feared something like this ever since the attacks of 9/11. Until now, these were problems for somebody else’s country like Spain or France, places where homegrown, deeply alienated Muslim young people were either recruited and orchestrated by radical Islamists or looked to ISIS for inspiration.

Now the reality of freelance terrorists has come home. If mayhem can strike an obscure health facility in San Bernardino, it can strike anywhere. All it takes is a young Muslim or Muslims with no record of radical activity (and therefore no police file or intelligence footprint) to become sufficiently radicalized and alienated.

With weapons easily purchased in the U.S., it’s just too easy to assemble an arsenal and evade detection—unless we want to solve the unemployment problem by becoming a police state.

This new reality has several consequences. First, it means that even if we obliterate ISIS in Syria and Iraq, mutant radicalism will keep proliferating in our own backyard. For this, there is no easy cure, even if we increase the surveillance state ten-fold.

My wife and I went to a Broadway show over the weekend. There, just inside the entrance, was a benign looking golden retriever, who turned out to be a bomb-sniffing dog. As we walked in, a friendly local patrolman said to the dog’s handler, “Call me if you need me.”

Are you kidding? You can just imagine the result if suicide commandoes with AK-47s chose to assault that theatre. The dog would be hamburger along with dozens if not hundreds of patrons.

By escalating fear of random attack, anywhere, anytime, ISIS has changed one other fact on the ground. Attacks like these are the best windfall for the Republican Party since 9/11.

As you may recall, George W. Bush was feckless and adrift until the events of that awful day. After a day of Dick Cheney running the country while Air Force One flew aimlessly around, Bush was reborn as a wartime president, repeatedly declaring that he’d found the defining mission of his presidency. His gratuitous war in Iraq seeded today’s conflicts.

By the same token, the Republican field was a stalemated mess until the latest attacks in Paris and San Bernardino. Trump was ahead, but not decisively ahead, while various anti-Trump figures were jostling for position and canceling each other out. Party leaders were wringing their hands, knowing that Trump could drag down the whole party and that Marco Rubio would likely be a much stronger candidate in the general election, but had an uphill climb to be nominated.

But that was then. Americans are increasingly terrified, and the tough-guy bravado of Trump is just what the moment rewards. Every new attack boosts Trump’s standing in the polls.

Trump’s insane rhetoric—blaming Muslims in general, wanting to erect walls, invoking Hiroshima as a positive example, seeing terrorists in refugee children, supporting waterboarding-plus—is just what frightened people want to hear. Never mind that the tough talk doesn’t add up to a strategy.

So escalating Islamist radicalism is a gift to Donald Trump. If attacks continue and the country is increasingly terrified, Trump could well be nominated. Other GOP candidates are belatedly repudiating Trump’s hateful statements, but so far they haven’t hurt his standing on the polls.  

Then you have to wonder what happens next—a religious test for immigrants and refugees? A mass round-up of Muslims on the model of the World War II Japanese internment? A mass-surveillance state? 

What’s less obvious is how the Republicans help ISIS. But consider: The right wing’s fervent defense of the right to buy assault weapons makes the U.S. a sitting duck for random mayhem. Yes, terrorists were able sneak weapons into France, where gun laws are much tougher, but that’s because the cops were asleep at the switch. Several earlier plots involving those guys had been foiled. They were on the radar screen and should have been intercepted before they struck.

America, by contrast, is a terrorist’s paradise—not because of civil liberties but because of the ease of purchase of military arms. All of the assault weapons purchased for the San Bernardino attack were bought legally. Terrorists getting more assault weapons, committing more random attacks, generating more fear, producing more support for the insane premise that armed Americans might stop such attacks, equals a virtuous circle for the NRA and the GOP.

As The New York Times reported, even aside from the risk of getting killed in a terrorist attack, Americans are more likely to be killed by a gun than citizens of nearly all other nations—and four times as likely to be killed by a gun as citizens of Israel, a country on a permanent war footing.

And there is a second way in which Donald Trump and other right-wing Republicans are ISIS’s best friends. Every time Trump disparages Muslims who are not radicals, he increases the chances that some will turn into radicals. Trump’s collected speeches are like an ISIS recruiting video.

Take a close look, and none of the right-wing bravado adds up to a serious program for containing or destroying Islamist radicalism, either in the Middle East or at home. But with Americans increasingly afraid, it may have more appeal than rational leadership.

In recent years, business elites have had the fantasy that a billionaire savior is just what the Republic needs. They had in mind a thoughtful moderate like Michael Bloomberg, not a swaggering demagogue like Donald Trump.

For more than two centuries, America has navigated crises without succumbing to the temptation to turn to a dictator. This could be our closest call yet—if we are lucky.

President Obama’s Oval Office address Sunday night was one of his best, reminding Americans that “tough talk,” or “giving into fear,” or discrimination against Muslims will not keep us safe. His speech was forceful, yet rooted in reality and respectful of the complexity of the challenge that we face. He reminded Americans of the values that make us a free society. It was the opposite of demagoguery. 

Some liberals were disappointed that Obama did not sound more bellicose—but that would have been pandering. Nothing he might have said would have silenced the naysayers.

Others felt that he should have stolen the right’s thunder by announcing some dramatic new initiative. Which would be what, exactly?

Obama was wagering that most Americans are mature enough to respect the truth. Let’s hope he’s right. If voters are taken in by Trump’s increasingly fascist rhetoric, shame on the citizenry.

It is Barack Obama’s fate to be a relatively soft spoken and measured leader—and Hilary Clinton’s fate to be female—at a time when too many Americans are looking for a simplistic, macho, swaggering cross between Mussolini and Patton.  Somewhere in hell, the zealots of ISIS and the extremists of the Republican Party are doing a danse macabre together.

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