What gives terrorists power are the reactions they are able to elicit from their intended targets: hysteria leads to poorly-calibrated reactions that can be exploited to the insurgents’ advantage.
For instance, it is beyond the capacity of Islamic terror groups like ISIS to, themselves, meaningfully challenge the prevailing global order. However, they have been able to very effectively goad Western nations into undermining their own values, norms, institutions and interests—to curb their own freedoms, rights and civil liberties–and in the name of fighting terrorism, no less!
What does any of this have to do with Trump? A lot, it turns out.
This is your brain on terror
In the lead-up to the November 2016’s historic vote, Democrats had pinned their hopes on an “electoral firewall” to ensure that even if Trump won the popular vote, Clinton would win the presidency. But now that Trump won the Electoral College while Clinton took the popular vote, Democrats are calling to abolish the current system in favor of direct selection.
Democrats have lamented Trump as a threat to the Republic and a challenge to our civic norms, values and institutions. Yet some of these same partisans have cheered attempts by government agents to illegally sabotage Trump’s administration. One widely-shared article even went so far as to extol the virtues of a military coup to depose him. There were calls for impeachment before Trump even took office.
Democrats cried foul when massive numbers of protestors refused to accept the legitimacy of President Obama and vowed from the outset to limit his tenure to one term. Yet now that the tables are turned, progressives are in the streets proclaiming Trump is “not my president,” are contemplating the creation of a “Tea-Party for Democrats,” and are committed to resisting anything and everything Trump puts forward.
Democrats spent the last year lambasting Trump and his supporters for peddling in conspiracy theories and fake news. However, since the election there has been a marked up-tick in leftist consumption of similar content. Some have gone so far to work at establishing a “Brietbart of the left.”
As Jon Stewart pointed out, the same leftists who condemn painting all Muslims as illiberal or terrorist-sympathizers have displayed few qualms about depicting Trump voters as necessarily racist, misogynistic, xenophobic, etc.
Perhaps more disturbingly, progressives righteously condemned violent incidents at Trump rallies, but have come to celebrate and justify political violence directed against Alt-right leader Richard Spencer, libertarian provocateur Milo Yiannopoulos, conservative political scientist Charles Murray—and most recently, against a pro-Trump rally—prefaced with the disclaimer, “I don’t approve generally approve of violence, BUT…”
In fact, despite progressives having spent the last eight years calling for greater gun control and condemning right-leaning dissidents for arming themselves against the government, leftists are increasingly stocking up on weapons and training at ranges as well. Some have even resorted to doomsday prepping.
This is not merely the garden-variety hypocrisy which comes with most political reversals: Trump’s election has left many Americans terrified. And in their panic and desperation, progressives have been betraying their own values and undermining their own interests. This is what terror does: it drives otherwise decent and reasonable people towards tribalism, authoritarianism and myopic militancy.
The Terror Feedback Loop
Media organizations often play a critical, if inadvertent, role in purveying terror: Groups like al-Qaeda and ISIS reach American audiences largely through mass media coverage of their intentionally transgressive acts and statements. By exaggerating the threat posed by terrorists, or the significance of their actions, policymakers and media organizations help groups like ISIS seem more substantial and dangerous than they actually are—enhancing their perceived legitimacy and credibility—and eventually reifying the threat in the process.
A similar dynamic is taking hold in American political discourse:
Over the course of the 2016 election Donald Trump was provided with an equivalent of $2b in free advertising by media outlets. While the tenor and tone of the coverage was overwhelmingly negative and alarmist, it nonetheless allowed him to reach untold millions of Americans on a daily basis. Attempts to “hold Trump accountable” by means of the press have largely backfired:
Constantly repeating Trump’s “alternative facts”—even under the auspices of debunking them—actually rendered his claims more plausible. Through non-stop coverage of his “deviance,” Trump’s rhetoric and behaviors were eventually normalized. By breathlessly reacting to every outrageous thing Trump said or did, they made him the axis around which the election turned. Meanwhile, media organizations undermined their own credibility by taking such a uniform, overt, at times irresponsible, and ultimately futile, stand against him.
Consider one of the press’ recent Pyrrhic victories: Trump accused mainstream media organizations of ignoring or downplaying incidents of Islamic terrorism. Their response? To compile and widely disseminate extensive lists of Islamic terror attacks they’d previously reported on, with links to the initial reports. That is, in an attempt to prove Trump was factually incorrect they brought about the very outcome he was after in the first place: amplifying the perceived salience of Islamic terrorism. Sweating the details, they ceded the narrative.
To be clear, I am not saying Trump is somehow analogous to ISIS or Al-Qaeda. Indeed, the point of this article is to highlight how counterproductive and deeply disturbing progressives’ hysterical and hyperbolic reactions to Trump have been.
However, terrorism is, at its core, an asymmetrical form of politics “with the addition of other means.” And given that progressives seem to find themselves at a loss with how to respond to Trump’s insurgency, they could perhaps take a few lessons from terrorism literature about how to avoid playing into their adversary’s hands:
First, concentrate resistance on what Trump actually does rather than on his rhetoric or tweets. Any form of recognition is a type of honor; most of the President’s outrageous statements do not deserve a response.
Second, understand that Trump is trying to generate hysteria and outrage. Deny him that victory. Respond to provocations in a measured way (if at all). Forbearance is almost always better than an ill-conceived reaction.
Third, acknowledge that Trump is the President of the United States of America, and almost certainly will continue to be for the next four years (at least). Refusing to normalize is not an option—Trump is our normal now. If you want to undermine Trump, banalize him instead:
Measured in contrast to his predecessor, or relative to his rhetoric, Trump hasn’t actually done much of anything. Make this the story. Depicting Trump as some kind of visionary and transformative leader, laying waste to everything liberals hold dear, will only reinforce the astronomical approval ratings he continues to enjoy among his base (contemporary narratives about Trump’s eroding support, while perhaps comforting, seem to be ill-founded).
Fourth, to the extent that Trump is trying to circumvent, undermine or overturn prevailing norms, rules, and institutions—he will only be vindicated and empowered if his opponents follow suit. Maintain the moral high-ground–and as often as possible work through the system and compel Trump to do the same. If this seems implausible or naïve, consider that even a plurality of violent terror campaigns are ultimately neutralized by political means.
Finally, recognize that meaningfully resisting Trump will require broad and durable coalitions that include moderates, disaffected conservatives, and the politicians beholden to them. However, progressives are not going win Trump supporters over to their side by demonizing and demeaning them anymore than the U.S. could defeat terrorism by indiscriminately targeting Muslims. Indeed, the tendency of progressives to seemingly denigrate and dismiss certain constituents is a big part of the reason someone like Trump could enjoy widespread appeal in the first place.
Put another way: to the extent that one’s adversary is empowered by denigration, outrage and polarization, the most radical forms of resistance may be dignity, humility, civility, trust and cooperation. Granted, this approach isn’t sexy or particularly cathartic. But then again, continued Democratic losses wouldn’t be so great either, right?
The first step to beating an opponent like Trump is refuse to play his game.