The World

Did the War on Terror Create Trump?

A new book argues that “America First” wasn’t a break from the post-9/11 era; it was its inevitable conclusion.

Bush uses a bullhorn as he stands on rubble surrounded by rescue workers, firefighters, and police.
George W. Bush at ground zero on Sept. 14, 2001. Eric Draper/White House/Getty Images

Is the war on terrorism over? Some days it can feel that way. The 2020 presidential election was the first since the 9/11 attacks in which jihadi terror wasn’t a major issue. During the election, polls showed only about a quarter of Americans view terrorism as a “very big problem.” Donald Trump made Barack Obama’s supposed failure to defeat ISIS a centerpiece of his 2016 campaign; in 2020, Trump hardly mentioned the fact that he had presided over the destruction of the group’s territory and the killing of its leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi.

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There has been only one deadly foreign jihadi attack on U.S. soil in the past three years, killing three people, while violence by the far right, white supremacists, incels, and other closer-to-home extremists have emerged as a much more pressing threat. True, President Joe Biden has launched airstrikes against Iran-backed militias in Iraq and Syria, prompting a debate over war powers in Congress, but that’s a far cry from the Obama era when hundreds of drone strikes were carried out.

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On the other hand, as the journalist Spencer Ackerman would argue, we’re still very much living in a country shaped by the response to the attacks 20 years ago. Even as Biden winds down the “forever wars,” he retains the 9/11-era legal authorities that went along with them to pursue threats, as he put it, in “places in Africa and the Middle East and beyond.” Biden’s director of national intelligence is a veteran of the Obama-era drone program.

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Ackerman, a contributing editor at the Daily Beast and Substack newsletter writer, has written about the “forever war” for the past two decades as an investigative journalist and pugnacious blogger. In his new book Reign of Terror: How the 9/11 Era Destabilized America and Produced Trump, he makes the case that the fight against terrorism has shaped our politics and society even more than is commonly acknowledged, and led directly to the rise of Donald Trump.

Ackerman covers the familiar main points of this period, from the attacks themselves to the buildup to Iraq, to Abu Ghraib and torture, to the drone program, to surveillance, WikiLeaks, and Snowden. But his project seems to be less to recount these events than to recount how we thought about them—how at the time of 9/11, American exceptionalism “left Americans poorly equipped to understand that the sort of geopolitical, economic, and cultural impact [the country] has on the world would at some point provoke a violent hostile response” and yet “equipped the nation very well to turn the trauma of that response outward onto the world.”

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He writes: “For the 9/11 generation, the first generation to be extremely online, the War on Terror was an early red pill, releasing an omnidirectional, violent nihilism that viewed itself as the only rational, sophisticated, honorable, and even civilized option.” I mean it as a compliment when I say that this is clearly the work of an author who was himself extremely online for much of this period and has a gift for conveying the overcaffeinated, manic energy of online political discourse.

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Reign of Terror is at its strongest when Ackerman recalls some of the outrages-of-the-week of the past 20 years, which may have faded from memory but feel portentous in retrospect. Recall, for instance, the 2010 “ground zero mosque” affair, in which the likes of Islamophobic conspiracy blogger Pamela Geller and the far-right political provocateur Geert Wilders pushed a story into the mainstream to the point that it became a major issue in that year’s midterm election. Future Trump administration figures including John Bolton, Rudy Giuliani, and the Donald himself all played prominent roles in what now appears like a dress rehearsal for how the distinction between the internet fever swamps and “mainstream” politics fell away during the Trump years.

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I had completely forgotten a few of the episodes Ackerman recounts, though they were major stories at the time. For instance: the uproar over the planned sale of the management of six major U.S. ports to the Emirati company Dubai Ports World in 2006. As Ackerman recalls, the campaign against the sale on dubious national security grounds was led by Democrats, who, “adrift and out of power, found a way to make Islamophobia work for them.”

Ackerman savages Republican leaders for embracing bigotry and violence during the war on terror’s apex years, but he saves some of his most scathing contempt for Democrats who were themselves often willing to embrace the security state uncritically if it allowed them to look tougher than Republicans. This is how Robert Mueller, who as FBI director had “constructed and presided over an apparatus of domestic infiltration of Muslim communities throughout the country,” went on to become a folk hero of #Resistance liberals during the Trump years. As for the Obama administration, he gives former adviser Ben Rhodes significant space to defend its record. But the author seems mostly disappointed with a president who came into office vowing to end “dumb wars” yet governed as someone more concerned with reforming the “habits” and optics of counterterrorism, “rather than its machinery, its authorities, or its material impact on human beings.”

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Given that entire server farms dotting the Great Plains are probably set aside to store the mass of content purportedly explaining Trump’s political rise, Ackerman deserves credit for bringing some new ideas to the topic. In his view, America’s response to 9/11 unleashed a dark torrent of nationalist anger, directed first and foremost against Muslims—perceived as terrorists or terrorist sympathizers.

The political and military leaders who oversaw the war on terrorism in its early years didn’t talk about it this way. Bush took pains to emphasize that the U.S. was not at war with Islam and famously visited a mosque shortly after 9/11. (There’s something quaint, after the Trump years, about recalling the White House going into damage control mode over Bush using the word crusade in a statement.) These leaders emphasized national security, stamping out extremism, and spreading democracy. But the darker undercurrent was always there.

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Ackerman revisits the famous incident during the 2008 election in which Republican candidate John McCain was lauded across the political spectrum for shutting down a questioner who called Obama an “Arab,” prompting the candidate to grab the mic and describe his opponent as a “decent family man and citizen.” Ackerman writes: “McCain meant to include Obama within the American fabric, but his formulation, however inadvertent, excluded ‘Arabs,’ by which the woman meant Muslims, from it. … It appeared never to have occurred to McCain that the open-ended war he helped build, against an amorphous enemy, would lead her and other Americans to unleash racist fanaticism.”

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While Muslims and those perceived to be Muslims may have borne the brunt of such anger, the war on terror also unleashed anger against the “decadent left,” which conservative journalist Andrew Sullivan warned in 2001 could “mount a fifth column” from “its enclaves on the coasts.”

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When Trump burst onto the scene, he was perfectly positioned to capitalize on this dynamic. Trump, Ackerman believes, “understood something about the War on Terror that [those who launched it] did not. He recognized that the 9/11 era’s grotesque subtext—the perception of nonwhites as alien marauders, even as conquerors, from a hostile foreign civilization—was its engine.”

Because of his skepticism about the wars in Afghanistan and (belatedly) Iraq, Trump was sometimes mistakenly thought of as anti-war (“Donald the Dove, Hillary the Hawk,” ran the headline of one 2016 Maureen Dowd column). Rather, Ackerman observes, Trump was able to make the war on terror “an instrument of his will,” harnessing the antipathy to foreigners, minorities, and politically correct liberals that the post-9/11 era had unleashed while jettisoning all the talk of democracy promotion, global security, and international alliances. The distinction created one of the main tensions of his administration. Trump consistently stocked his national security team with generals like James Mattis (because he liked Mattis’ nickname “Mad Dog”) or Fox News uber-hawks like John Bolton because he thought they were killers. But much to his frustration, these men turned out to be steeped in the old internationalist logic of the war on terror; they didn’t much care for the dictators he praised or the things he said about immigrants and did care about projects he considered pointless, like keeping troops in Afghanistan and Syria.

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Trump promised to “bomb the shit out of” terrorists on the campaign trail, and followed through, not only against ISIS in Syria but on new battlefields as well. More disconcerting, under Trump, the logic of the war on terror came to be applied to new targets. Ackerman sees a throughline from the abuse of terrorism suspects at black sites under Bush to the confinement of migrants in freezing “hieleras under Trump. In the Bush administration’s politicization of intelligence in the buildup to the war in Iraq, Ackerman sees a precursor to Trumpworld’s clashes with the “deep state.” In the troubled summer of 2020, the Trump administration and its Republican allies in Congress hyped the “terrorist” threat of antifa to justify using military force and tactics on the streets of American cities.

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The book compellingly argues that, the protestations of neoconservative Never Trumpers notwithstanding, Trump’s “America First” doctrine was not a break from Bush’s “freedom agenda”; it was its inevitable conclusion. Less convincing is the suggestion that, as the subtitle suggests, the war on terror “produced Trump.” For that to be true, the dark energies unleashed during the war on terror would have to be a unique occurrence in American history. But from the Alien and Sedition Acts at the end of the 18th century through the internment of Japanese Americans and the Red Scares of the 20th, many Americans from a wide range of political positions have taken international tension as an opportunity to demonize minorities, foreigners, and their perceived sympathizers. As Ackerman himself writes, the “reign of terror launched after 9/11 was familiar to nonwhites across four hundred years of American history.” And yet none of these historical periods produced a leader as anomalous as the 45th president. He seems to want to have it both ways: to suggest that this period was fundamentally American, and also a radicalizing exception.

Reign of Terror was seemingly finished shortly after the events of Jan. 6, which led many Democrats to once again seek to demonstrate their hawkish bona fides by calling for new surveillance and new legal authority to pursue domestic rather than international extremists. Ackerman is probably a bit too cynical in predicting that nothing much would change once “liberals and their security state allies” returned to power. For better or worse, the withdrawal of U.S. troops from Afghanistan, despite the Taliban’s rapid advance and what appears to be the inevitable collapse of the country’s internationally backed government, shows a basic rejection of the “security state’s” arguments.

But the larger point that shooting wars inevitably become culture wars, and that the most vulnerable members of society bear the brunt of both, is worth remembering, no matter who the enemy may be.