For the better part of two decades since the Sept. 11 attacks, the specter of international terrorism dominated the national psyche. This year, the issue of international terrorism has all but faded away entirely, even within electoral politics. Threats from abroad have hardly factored into this election. Likewise, political leaders have shied away from talk of democracy promotion abroad.
This is in stark contrast with every other election held after 9/11, including the one that brought Trump into office. The 2016 election was held in the wake of a series of deadly jihadi attacks in Europe and the United States, with ISIS still in control of much of Iraq and Syria. The GOP candidates competed for how tough they could sound on terrorism, a battle won by Donald Trump’s vow to “bomb the shit” out of ISIS and “bring back waterboarding.” Hillary Clinton spent much of the campaign on the defensive for her handling of the Benghazi siege and the Obama administration’s handling of ISIS.
Today, ISIS is a shell of its former self, and its leader has been killed. The military tide had already turned against the caliphate before Trump took office, but you’d still think he would make a bigger deal about this considering what a major issue it was in his 2016 campaign. And yet, his 6,000-word hourlong speech at the Republican National Convention included just two sentences boasting of his counterterrorism victories—one of which was about Iran. (There was also another odd section in which he said Joe Biden “oversaw the rise of ISIS.”) According to a Pew poll in 2016, over 80 percent of Americans said the issue of terrorism was “very important” to their vote, the second-highest number after the economy. In this year’s version of the survey, it didn’t even make the top 12 issues listed. Only 21 percent of Democrats and 29 percent of Republicans see terrorism as a “very big problem” in the country today, a lower number than those who think the same of the budget deficit. To the extent that terrorism is an issue at all in this election, it’s the allegations that the Trump administration has downplayed the threat of white supremacist violence. There’s some logic behind this: As of last August, right-wing terrorists have killed more Americans on U.S. soil than jihadis have since 9/11. Meanwhile, when Trump talks about “terrorists” these days, he’s more likely to be talking about antifa.
At the same time, the once-constant talk of spreading democracy has also quieted. In the name of fighting terrorism and promoting democratic government, George W. Bush, and to a lesser extent Barack Obama, violated international law and tolerated human rights abuses. But Trump has dropped even the pretense of championing democratic ideals abroad. The tolerance for wanton state cruelty and disdain for basic standards around human rights are now ends unto themselves.
For years, the U.S. used counterterrorism to justify the violation of human rights norms, most famously through the torture of detainees by U.S. personnel. Likewise, Trump has made clear through his pardons of U.S. service members accused or convicted of war crimes, and his statements about those pardons, that he thinks Americans should be violating the human rights of detainees and civilians, that U.S. troops are “killing machines.”
Trump didn’t exactly invent the idea that dictatorships with a tolerant attitude toward torture can be useful counterterrorism allies, even if he put it a lot more crudely than his predecessors did. The W. Bush administration also tolerated and even encouraged worse abuses by autocratic U.S. allies in the Middle East, like Egypt and Jordan. Many Republicans were appalled during the 2016 campaign when Trump defended Syria’s Bashar al-Assad from criticism, saying he was “killing ISIS.” But 14 years earlier, the Bush administration transferred a dual U.S.-Canadian citizen to the custody of Assad’s regime for torture.
Trump has not bothered to hide his interest in collaboration with authoritarian leaders. According to published excerpts of Bob Woodward’s new book, the reporter at one point pressed the president about Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s role in the killing of journalist Jamal Khashoggi. Trump boasted, “I saved his ass. I was able to get Congress to leave him alone,” before referring to Saudi Arabia’s purchase of U.S. military hardware and its role as a U.S. ally in the Middle East. This comes a few months after former national security adviser John Bolton’s account of Trump telling Chinese leader Xi Jinping that building concentration camps for Muslims in Xinjiang was “exactly the right thing to do.”
The Chinese government has justified the persecution of the Uighurs as a response to a number of terrorist attacks by Uighur separatists, at times using rhetoric that seems directly lifted from America’s global war on terror. Saudi Arabia, despite being the birthplace of Osama bin Laden and its decadeslong record of exporting extremism, has also touted itself as a key U.S. ally in fighting terrorism and, more specifically, Iran—now viewed by many in Washington as the primary terrorist threat in the Middle East.
The George W. Bush administration’s emphasis of democracy promotion helped set the stage for Trump’s open embrace of dictators. The militarized neoconservative approach to foreign policy and the catastrophic war in Iraq discredited the notion of democracy promotion for millions of Americans. Generations think of American democracy promotion and what comes to mind is not the Marshall Plan or the fall of the Berlin Wall but forever wars in Iraq, Afghanistan, Syria, and Libya. It’s not surprising that Americans have little use for the promoting of freedom abroad given the mess the “freedom agenda” got us into. Trump has capitalized on this cynicism. In his rhetoric, human rights, international alliances based on shared democratic values, and international law are for suckers. This cynicism is not confined to the right, by any means. Left-leaning Democrats have only recently started to find a way to talk about global freedom and democracy without the taint of neoconservatism.
Trump has managed to shed the lofty rhetoric of the post-9/11 era while preserving its embrace of violence and lawlessness. It’s an attitude that’s persisted even as the threat of international terrorism has faded.