In some ways, Donald Trump has hijacked the Republican Party and diverted its attention into populist obsessions with trade, immigration, and identity that are orthogonal to the core interests of mainstream conservatism. But on the subject of Islamic terrorism, Trump has not hijacked orthodox conservatism. He has intensified it, given it a more explicit policy objective, and brought its ideas closer to their logical conclusion. Sunday’s mass murder in Orlando, and the political response that has ensued, reveal Trump as a true conservative thought leader, and further reveal the ugliness of those thoughts.
A dozen years ago, George W. Bush ran for reelection, at a time when the post-9/11 fog of panic that had transformed him into a fearless and admired war leader had not yet dissipated. At that time, when Republicans wanted to depict Democrats as soft on Islamic terrorism, they would accuse them of seeing terrorism as a matter of “law enforcement.” (To take one of many examples, Bush charged during one debate, “My opponent said this war is a matter of intelligence and law enforcement. No, this war is a matter of using every asset at our disposal to keep the American people protected.”) The accusation had political force because it conveyed a larger metaphor, that Bush (allegedly) took terrorism seriously, and his weak, intellectual, vaguely French opponent did not. But it was also connected to a real policy idea. Neoconservatives believed that overturning hostile regimes in the Middle East would spread pro-Western democracy and eliminate sources of cultural, political, and financial support for terrorism. Their conviction that the war on terrorism must be an actual, military war, and not merely “intelligence and law enforcement,” reflected a genuine policy doctrine.
Obviously, it failed. And after the Bush doctrine collapsed, Republicans were left groping for a point of differentiation on terror policy. (In 2008, when Barack Obama said he would pursue Osama bin Laden into Pakistan if necessary, John McCain depicted his opponent as overly aggressive: “he said he wants to announce that he’s going to attack Pakistan. Remarkable.”) This did not prove to be a politically fruitful line of attack, especially after the strategy Obama outlined resulted in the killing of bin Laden. And so by Obama’s second term, Republicans had retreated to a different line of attack: Democrats are too politically correct, too sensitive to Muslim sensibilities, to identify the source of Islamic terrorism. Only Republicans can defeat the enemy because only Republicans can identify it in sufficiently blunt terms.
This is the standard right-wing line on terrorism. “We need a President who is serious – who will identify the enemy by name and do everything necessary to defeat it,” wrote the staunch movement conservative Ted Cruz. “As a matter of rigid ideology, far too many Democrats – from Barack Obama to Hillary Clinton – will refuse to utter the words ‘radical Islamic terrorism.’” The Wall Street Journal editorializes, “President Obama could also help if he weren’t so reluctant to acknowledge the domestic danger from ISIS. Mr. Obama did say in his Sunday remarks that this was ‘an act of terror,’ though he still can’t muster the words Islam or jihad or Islamic State.” And it is also Trump’s line: “Is President Obama going to finally mention the words radical Islamic terrorism? If he doesn’t he should immediately resign in disgrace!”
But why exactly will uttering the words “radical Islamic terror” catalyze ISIS’s defeat? Most Republicans have no answer. It is merely a taunt, meant to signify Obama’s alleged lack of spine, without any policy content. Trump, almost alone among his party’s leadership, has developed the talking point into an analysis. He opposes not only the handful of words Obama uses to identify the enemy, but the entire strategy of trying to distinguish the minority of dangerous extremist Muslims from the peaceful majority. Rather than focus the scope of government targets, Trump proposes to widen it.
This idea undergirds his proposal to ban all Muslim immigrants and refugees. It also animates his lies that Muslim-Americans celebrated the destruction of the World Trade Center in 2001, and that Muslim-Americans in San Bernardino knew about the impending attack last summer but did nothing to stop it. It is the same thread that allows him to claim vindication in the Orlando massacre for his policies, which putatively would target only immigrants, even though the Orlando attack was carried out by a native-born U.S. citizen. Trump has defended his ban on Muslim refugees not merely as a tool to prevent terrorists from infiltrating the border disguised as refugees, but on the grounds that the entire Muslim population, peaceful and radical alike, is the breeding ground for a fifth column. There is “no way to screen [refugees], pay for them, or prevent the second generation from radicalizing.”
Extending his rationale to the second generation is an important and chilling expansion of Trump’s doctrine. He proposes to treat all Muslims as a suspect class of probable enemies. What Trump calls “political correctness” is simply the presumption that Muslims are mostly peaceful and, in the absence of evidence of hostile intent, have a right to equal treatment. As with most of his policies, Trump has left the details of his plan vague, but its overall contours are clear enough. The plan is to persecute Muslims.
There are two broad grounds for objection to Trump’s plan. First, there is the moral objection against discriminating against citizens on the basis of their religion and nationality. Trump would subject the vast majority of innocent Muslims to exclusion and discrimination in order to stop the dangerous minority. It is worth considering the conservative approach to this trade-off in contrast to its approach to gun control. Terrorists have increasingly turned to gun violence as their primary tool of mass murder. Currently, a person on the terrorism watch list is unable to purchase a seat on a plane, but they can buy an assault rifle. It would be possible to at least limit their access to dangerous weapons by strengthening gun laws. But Trump and his entire party reject any such measures out of hand. “They will try to exploit this terror attack to undermine the Second Amendment right to keep and bear arms of law-abiding Americans,” wrote Cruz. Any imposition at all upon the rights of law-abiding gun owners is intolerable, while impositions upon the rights of law-abiding Muslims are fervently desired. The right’s calculation of which group should be inconvenienced, and to what degree, is governed by identity politics rather than strategy.
Then there is the practical objection: Since radical Islamists recruit allies by presenting the conflict as a division between Muslims and the West, any rhetoric that plays into the war-of-civilizations narrative aids their cause. What’s more, treating the Muslim community as aliens or with suspicion increases the number of radicals, and decreases the number of allies who will help identify extremists. This was precisely the strategy that inspired the Bush administration to carefully and extensively distinguish between Islam and the ideology of the terrorists who claimed to represent it. Six days after the 9/11 attacks, Bush told the world, “The face of terror is not the true faith of Islam. That’s not what Islam is all about. Islam is peace.” In succeeding years, Bush repeated this message over and over. Obama has followed the same strategy, identifying terrorists as “thugs and killers,” and asserting, “We are not at war with Islam. We are at war with people who have perverted Islam.”
The post-Bush-doctrine Republican Party is no longer guided by an idealistic and impractical vision for defeating radical Islam. All it has left is a residue of fear and nationalism, ripe for manipulation by a demagogue. The logic of Trump’s conquest of the Republican Party is most glaringly obvious when it is splayed against the backdrop of the terrorist threat. He has taken control of an empty vessel and steered it toward its only possible course.