Yesterday Donald Trump gave his response to the terrorist attack in Istanbul while speaking at a rally in Ohio, and it was about as Trumpian as you could get, demonstrating both why he has a powerful appeal for some people, and why he can’t broaden that appeal to include a majority of Americans. Trump touched on some primal feelings, but he also couldn’t help but reveal how much of his own responses to terror are dictated by insecurity and fears of inadequacy.
Here’s what he said:
We’re living in Medieval times. We have to stop it. We have to be so strong, we have to fight so viciously and so violently, because we’re dealing with violent people, vicious people…
We have laws. And the laws say you can’t do this, you can’t do that, you can’t do a lot. Their laws say you can do anything you want, and the more vicious you are, the better…
So we can’t do waterboarding but they can do chopping off heads, drowning people in steel cages. They can do whatever they want to do. They eat dinner like us. Can you imagine them sitting around the table or wherever they’re eating their dinner, talking about the Americans don’t do waterboarding and yet we chop off heads. They probably think we’re weak, we’re stupid, we don’t know what we’re doing, we have no leadership. You know, you have to fight fire with fire.
This passage is vulgar for many reasons, not least Trump’s envy at ISIS’ ability to go around chopping people’s heads off. But it’s increasingly obvious that we’ve never had a major party nominee who was so plainly motivated by his own insecurities.
Trump is positively obsessed with the idea not only that we’re weak, but that we’ll be thought of as weak by others. And perhaps most importantly, that once others decide we’re weak, they’ll laugh at us. I have no idea what formative experience in his youth created this obsession, but it was evident long before he ran for president, and it comes out on issue after issue. ISIS is laughing at us. Mexico is laughing at us. China is laughing at us. OPEC is laughing at us. The world is laughing at us. It seems that nothing is more horrifying to Donald Trump than the idea that somebody might be laughing at us, or more specifically, at him.
Some people obviously share this view, just as some share his disgust with the fact that we have stupid things like laws and moral restraint (his voice drips with sarcastic contempt when he talks about it). But those people are a minority. As Greg has noted, one of the reasons Trump isn’t doing as well as previous Republicans on questions of terrorism is that he’s shown himself to be erratic and unpredictable, so the voters are much more likely to believe that Hillary Clinton could be trusted to act responsibly in a crisis.
But another key reason is that Trump misunderstands the emotional component of terrorism policy. Persuading people on this issue requires a substantive appeal — here’s what I propose to do and why it will be effective — but it also requires an emotional appeal. The crucial point is that he fails on both.
Let’s compare him to the last Republican president, who succeeded smashingly for much of his term in convincing Americans that he’d protect them from terrorism. During George W. Bush’s time, the enemy, Al Qaeda, was understood as a single organization that was planning to attack us, and the question was how to stop those attacks. In that context, Bush’s advocacy of the use of torture had a logic to it, even if it was ineffective and morally abominable. We held prisoners who might have held information that could prevent future attacks, and to some, torturing them to extract that information seemed reasonable.
But ISIS is a very different kind of enemy. Yes, it’s an organization, but the organization itself doesn’t actually pose much of a threat to us. That threat comes from lone wolves, like in San Bernardino or Orlando. There’s nobody to torture to find out what those people might be planning. It’s not like we have a bunch of ISIS prisoners and we’re debating the best way to get them to tell us what they know, and once we do the threat will disappear. Trump’s advocacy of torture has no practical utility whatsoever.
On an emotional level, Trump is basically forcing people to admit to themselves that, if they are going to vote for him, they are embracing barbarism. To some people, like those who voted for him in the primaries, that’s perfectly fine. His naked bloodlust is part of his appeal. But to a large number of Americans in the political middle, it presents a problem. Again, George W. Bush’s experience is instructive. He always had a keen understanding of how to make conservative policies acceptable to those who might be resistant to them. He talked about “compassionate conservatism,” which had virtually no substance underneath it, but was a way of convincing moderates that they could vote for him in good conscience.
And Bush knew that when it came to external threats, Americans didn’t just want cries for vengeance, they also wanted a fatherly reassurance that their president would keep them safe. The version of strength he presented was a cowboy version, the gunslinger who is skilled in the ways of violence but uses it reluctantly, to protect the weak and innocent when evildoers leave him no choice.
That’s not Trump’s version, and he’s the most literal candidate we’ve ever known, unable to communicated anything in a subtle or implied fashion. He doesn’t even bother to argue that torture is an intelligence-gathering technique; we have to do it so ISIS won’t think we’re weak and laugh at us. If your morals give you a problem with that, it becomes hard to justify signing on with him. It’s the same thing he does on questions of race. Instead of offering dog-whistles and subtle appeals to white solidarity, Trump shoves it right in your face: Mexicans are rapists, we need to keep out the Muslims, America for Americans. He won’t allow you to tell an optimistic and inclusive story about your own support for him.
Now try to imagine how this obsession with weakness and the possibility of being laughed would play out if Trump were actually president of the United States. If I were his chief of staff, in the interests of international peace and stability I’d hire a young supermodel, preferably Eastern European (since that seems to be where his tastes run), to come into the Oval Office every morning and say, “Oooh, Mr. Trump, you are so big and strong! Surely every man envies you and every woman wants you! Others might be laughed at, but not someone who is so manly!” That daily affirmation could be what stands between us and a global cataclysm.