Donald Trump and ISIS are sworn enemies. Yet the two have unwittingly boosted each other’s fortunes.
As a presidential candidate, Trump tapped into and benefitted from Americans’ fears of terrorist attacks by radical Islamists. Terrorism ranked second after the economy in a Pew poll of 2016 voter concerns, with 80 percent calling it “very important” to their vote. Trump’s embrace of “politically incorrect,’’ us-against-them rhetoric vilified Muslims, intentionally or not, and resonated with loyalists, who carried him to the White House. Likewise, the president-elect’s Tweet-first, ask-questions-later reaction to suspected terror attacks has perversely boosted the Islamic State’s brand, amplifying its perceived global reach and, according to experts, its appeal to vulnerable youth. Trump takes pride in pointing the finger at militant Islam before facts are available and investigations complete (or even begun).
The latest case in point is Trump’s statement following Monday’s attack on a Berlin Christmas market (released 12 hours before the German chancellor weighed the evidence and put out her own statement). Trump declared, “ISIS and other Islamist terrorists continually slaughter Christians in their communities and places of worship as part of their global jihad.” On Twitter, he lumped the German truck attack (whose perpetrator is still at large) with the assassination of Russia’s ambassador to Turkey by a policeman shouting protests over bombing in Syria and the shooting in a Zurich mosque by a Swiss man of Ghanaian descent: “Today there were terror attacks in Turkey, Switzerland, and Germany — and it is only getting worse. The civilized world must change thinking!”
Trump’s clash of civilizations plays into violent extremists’ hands by letting them terrorize Americans’ collective psyche and proving ISIS’ case that there’s an irreconcilable West-versus-Islam divide. “This is exactly what they want,” says Jessica Stern of Boston University, coauthor, with J.M. Berger, of “ISIS: The State of Terror.”
It may look like a clash of civilizations “if you’re sitting in Manhattan,’’ said Stern. “It’s actually something else: a clash within Sunni Islam, a sectarian clash between Sunni and Shia, and a clash within Western civilizations” between mostly white, non-Muslims who have benefitted from globalization and those who have lost and are now backing right-wing, populist nationalist movements.
Statistics undermine Trump’s case that Islamic terrorism poses an unprecedented existential threat to the West. More than 300 Americans were killed in non-terror homicides for every one American killed by terrorists last year, according to government figures. And while more than 200 people died in terror attacks in North America and Western Europe last year, that’s small compared to death tolls in previous decades, when the Irish Republican Army, the Red Brigades, and other terror groups were active.
Harvard professor Steven Pinker, who has crunched centuries’ worth of data on violence, homicide, and terrorism, notes that terrorism in the United States and Western Europe is far lower than in earlier decades, and that it accounts for less than 1 percent of terrorism worldwide. Three-quarters of all terrorism deaths last year happened in Iraq, Afghanistan, Nigeria, Pakistan, and Syria, according to the Global Terrorism Database at the University of Maryland.
But fear of terrorism isn’t about numbers; it’s about emotion. The question, now that Trump is heading to Washington, is whether the president-elect’s knee-jerk approach is crazy, as mainstream foreign policy makers fear, or crazy-like-a-fox brilliant. Trump’s made no secret of his admiration for Richard Nixon, who expounded a “Madman Theory” of foreign policy, saying he wanted the North Vietnamese to think he was crazy enough to hit “the nuclear button” so they’d beg for peace. Perhaps the man with the “secret plan” to defeat ISIS intends his rhetoric to have the same effect.
Dimitri Simes, a foreign policy adviser to Nixon after he left the presidency, who now runs Nixon’s think tank, the Center for the National Interest, sees clear parallels in “the Madman approach.” That said, Nixon was well read and experienced in foreign policy, while Trump seems to rely on intuition more than analysis. Simes admits that Trump’s campaign proposals for a Muslim registry or ban, which he refused to walk back on Wednesday, would be unconstitutional and counterproductive, but says Trump is signaling willingness “to use great force and to be ruthless. Once his team is in place, he’ll need to be more disciplined.” National security greybeards perturbed by a president-elect who shoots words from the hip without a script underestimate him at their peril, Simes says: “He’s outfoxed everyone.”
Indira A.R. Lakshmanan is a Washington columnist. Follow her on Twitter @Indira_L.