Trump’s Global War on Terror

Many things seem obvious in retrospect, including the US presidential election of Donald Trump, who campaigned on the same populist energy driving political movements in the UK. and elsewhere. One thing that becomes more clear in light of post-election surveys is the role of terrorism as an issue, and how it can be exploited to generate and direct fear among citizens. Trump was able to effectively incorporate this fear into his “Make America Great” masterframe. In this respect, he built on a rhetorical foundation established 15 years earlier.

After September 11, 2001, the administration of George Bush announced its Global War on Terrorism, a framing that has shown remarkable resilience since then in spite of its shortcomings as a way to organize foreign policy responses (How does one fight against a tactic?). Since that time the frame has become deeply embedded in political discourse. An organization called the ‘Global War on Terror Memorial Foundation’ has even recently advocated building a suitable monument in Washington, D.C. (Scruggs, 2016).

Although President Obama avoided the frame himself, Trump capitalized on it (even recruiting ‘Mayor of 9/11’ Rudy Giuliani as one of his closest advisers). Surveys showed that among voters listing ‘terrorism’ as an important issue, Trump was the significantly preferred candidate. Why was he deemed more effective than Hillary Clinton, in spite of much of the foreign policy establishment supporting her?

Trump more effectively appealed to fear, linking fear of terrorism to fear of the Other, specifically Muslims. His Republican convention acceptance address, already noted by other observers, underscored the dark tone of his appeal. In this respect, his anti-terrorism strategy (“We will destroy ISIS.”) lined up with his nationalist protectionism and related xenophobia. A proposed ban on Muslims entering the US was a natural extension of those policies and served to further diagnose the problem in the minds of the voters. 

My interviews several years ago with American journalists showed they had a hard time defining the War on Terror frame when Bush was invoking it to justify Afghanistan and later Iraq. They said, “We all know what it means.” Moving into that ambiguous space Trump was able to equate it with ‘Radical Islam’, providing reason enough for his supporters to be wary of Muslims. In linking terrorism with a major world religion Obama had declared that phrase to be an unhelpful analysis, and one that even helped confirm the extremists’ ideology. He was attacked accordingly by Trump and Giuliani, who were able to promote a more simple diagnosis—one that regrettably risked playing into the hands of extremist groups. 

Of course, a simplistic solution to a complex problem is always seductive. In the face of unvarnished, shoot-from-the-hip Republican rhetoric, the multi-factor and contextualized explanation for extremism risks sounding not ‘authentic’, a deadly sin in current political communication, failing to fit the rapid-fire social media and 24/7 news environment. Thus, the institutional press had a difficult time engaging with a more complex but realistic approach to the problem of terrorism. 

I was concerned that perhaps a late-campaign terrorist attack—either in the US or abroad–would benefit Trump’s messaging and distort the election, but, as it turned out, the fear had been there all along. For Americans, 9/11 breached their expectations that the government would keep them safe, and that breach has not been fully resolved. Ultimately, however, security is not a sustainable national value, so eventually — as with promises to bring back the coal mines, steel mills, and a world gone by — voters will soon see that Trump will not be able to deliver.

US journalism has been faulted for decades for its preoccupation with campaign tactics and lack of policy coverage, but in this election more thoughtful analysis was desperately needed to counteract Trump’s xenophobic extension of Bush’s War on Terror. We will need it even more during the next four years.