The following is an excerpt from Spencer Ackerman’s new book, “Reign of Terror: How the 9/11 Era Destabilized America and Produced Trump,” out now.
Every Republican national leader since 9/11 had backed the harshest possible prosecution of the War on Terror. Even Mitt Romney pledged to double Guantanamo. Those relatively few prominent Republicans who did object to the war, like senators Rand Paul and Mike Lee, did so on the respectable grounds that it was costing America freedom and wealth. They were openly disdained by the ascendant McCains of the party. Rand Paul’s father, Ron, sought the presidency on an antiwar platform, but he was even more marginal, despite an enthusiastic following on the far right.
Handling the party’s nativists was a more delicate proposition for GOP leaders. Romney and McCain, uncomfortable fits in nativist circles, compensated by advocating “self-deportation” for undocumented immigrants or releasing “complete the danged fence” ads, to say nothing of proposing that the nativist Sarah Palin should be a heartbeat from the presidency. No Republican since 9/11 had been able to combine nativism with antipathy to the futility of the War on Terror and seize control of the party. It occurred to few to try. Then, in June 2015, Donald Trump descended his escalator at Trump Tower.
In his infamous announcement speech, the one claiming Mexicans were rapists and criminals invading a supine America, Trump demonstrated just how effortlessly 9/11 politics amplified nativism. His great insight was that the jingoistic politics of the War on Terror did not have to be tied to the War on Terror itself. That enabled him to tell a tale of lost greatness: “We don’t win anymore.” Trump was able to safely voice the reality of the war by articulating what about it most offended right-wing exceptionalists: humiliation.
It was a heretical sentiment to hear from someone seeking the GOP nomination. Every major Republican figure had spent the past 15 years explaining away the failures of the war or insisting that it was a noble endeavor. Trump called it dumb. His America was suffering unacceptable civilizational insults. “We have nothing” to show for the war, he said, and certainly not the spoils of war that Trump believed were due America. “Islamic terrorism” had seized “the oil that, when we left Iraq, I said we should have taken.” The war was a glitch in the matrix of American exceptionalism, and Trump offered a reboot.
But except for the Afghanistan war, which he considered particularly stupid, Trump was no abolitionist. “I want to have the strongest military we’ve ever had, and we need it now more than ever,” he stated. He threatened to sink Iranian boat swarms, even as Iran was aligned with the United States against ISIS in Iraq, engaged in the ground combat Obama desperately sought to avoid. Then there was ISIS, at home as well as abroad. Trump pointed specifically to ISIS’s spoils: the 2,300 Humvees they drove out of Mosul. “The enemy took them,” he complained, pledging that “nobody would be tougher on ISIS than Donald Trump.” His latest position on Iraq was that it was dumb to get in, dumb to get out, and now the United States had to win, whatever that ultimately meant.
Trump’s incoherence was less important than what it revealed: a disgust at waging the war on its familiar terms, along with an enthusiasm for voicing its civilizational subtext. The same weakness that made the War on Terror a no-win situation had also yielded the current wave of Central American migration. Trump promised to crash the wave against a giant wall on the southern border for which he would make Mexico pay. The socialist writer and critic Daniel Denvir observed that Trump’s pledge to extort Mexico’s wealth for the wall was effectively a demand for imperial tribute. The analysis applies equally to his claim on Iraq’s oil.
Trump would tolerate no more nonsense about a “war of ideas.” Brutality would be defeated by greater brutality. The euphemism of the War on Terror had been an attempt to conceal such disreputable behavior, but Trump brought it unapologetically into the open. He lied that “thousands and thousands” of Muslims in Jersey City had cheered the fall of the Twin Towers. As vengeance, Trump would “bomb the shit out of ISIS” and stop fighting “a politically correct war,” by which he meant one that distinguished between guerrillas and civilians. “You have to take out their families,” he told Fox. Torture “absolutely” works, Trump asserted, showing faith in the CIA’s 15-year-old narrative. He pledged to bring back “a hell of a lot worse than waterboarding” and stock Guantanamo Bay full of “bad dudes.” ISIS’s assault on Paris meant there was “no choice” but to close mosques within the United States. Before 2015 had ended, Trump delivered his ultimate response to ISIS: calling for a ban on all Muslim immigration. “We can’t take a chance,” he said, denying that ISIS fighters were meaningfully distinct from the Muslim civilians they raped, terrorized, and turned into refugees. It was Cheney’s one-percent doctrine applied civilizationally. Stephen Miller was so excited by these promises that the following month he joined Trump’s campaign. His old boss, Jeff Sessions, the first senator to endorse Trump, helmed the candidate’s foreign policy and national security working group.
Trump’s instinct for violence extended from his rallies, where he offered to post bail for anyone arrested for beating up protesters, to Moscow, where he praised Vladimir Putin as a strong leader. The path blazed by the white supremacist Steve King was still too far for most Cold War–forged Republicans. Trump ambled down it. “[Putin’s] running his country and at least he’s a leader, unlike what we have in this country,” he said in December 2015. Even Bill O’Reilly was discomfited, and when he asked Trump about Putin’s assassinating his enemies, Trump responded, “What, do you think our country’s so innocent?” After all, he continued, Russia fights “Islamic terrorism all over the world, that’s a good thing.” Where others, liberal and conservative alike, flinched at or denied the brutality that built America, Trump was proud of it. It made America great.
There were legions who had been waiting for such a champion. At a March 2016 Trump rally at the Kentucky International Convention Center, a 25-year-old man in Trump’s signature Make America Great Again (MAGA) hat physically pushed out protester Kashiya Nwanguma, whom he called “leftist scum.” The man, Matthew Heimbach, pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor but was proud of his actions, which he justified by claiming that Nwanguma was a member of Black Lives Matter. “White Americans,” he wrote, “are getting fed up and they’re learning that they must either push back or be pushed down.” Heimbach was a neo-Nazi, leader of the fascist Traditionalist Worker Party. A more bourgeois but no less fascist Trump supporter was Richard Spencer, who through the “altright” united white nationalists and internet-addicted provocateurs. The alt-right was a bridge between Trump support and open fascism, possessed of just enough deniability. “This is a movement of consciousness and identity for European people in the 21st century,” Spencer explained to NPR. The Southern Poverty Law Center later concluded that through Trump, “the radical right suddenly felt a connection to mainstream politics and a realistic hope of gaining political power, which drew more adherents — and a wider variety of adherents — to the movement.”
Fifteen years of brutality as background noise made it easy for many to misinterpret Trump’s position on the War on Terror. Journalists listened to his invective against it and called him antiwar, as if he had not been promising to “bomb the shit” out of millions of people. “Donald the Dove,” Maureen Dowd of The New York Times wrote, “in most cases . . . would rather do the art of the deal than shock and awe.” Such attitudes revealed what elites chose to believe about Trump and what they opted to consider merely an act for the rubes. What they overlooked by focusing on Trump’s criticisms of the ground wars was that he wanted to expand the War on Terror to frontiers it had yet to reach. Most important, they heard Trump describe the enemy as Radical Islamic Terror. For 15 years, nativists, stoked by Fox News, had considered such a definition a prerequisite for winning the war. Elites had never understood why the right was so spun up about the phrase. Trump knew that “Radical Islamic Terror” extracted the precious nativist metal from the husk of the Forever War.
None of this was tolerable to the Security State and its allies. Sean MacFarland, a David Petraeus-favored officer during the Iraq occupation who now commanded the war against ISIS, rejected indiscriminate bombing as “what the Russians have been accused of doing in parts of northwest Syria.” Dozens of Republican-aligned security luminaries signed open letters refusing to serve in a Trump administration, birthing the Never Trump Beltway movement. But the architects, contractors, and validators of the War on Terror were placed in awkward positions. One of the letters decried Trump’s “expansive” embrace of torture, since their own embrace of “enhanced interrogation” foreclosed on a more categorical rejection. Former NSA and CIA Director Mike Hayden, who had lied so extensively about torture that the Senate compiled his falsehoods into a separate annex of the torture report, who secretly constructed a surveillance dragnet around the United States while imploring Congress to set the balance between liberty and security, characterized Trump as “unwilling or unable to separate truth from falsehood.” Nor was there any self-reflection from signatories like Iraq occupation chief Bob Blackwill, who took over as Bush’s personal envoy after Paul Bremer, and who had asserted against “the professional pessimists within parts of the U.S. intelligence community” that “2005 will be a good year in Iraq for President Bush.” None of them seemed to understand that they had created the context for Trump. He was about to show them.
Trump relished his critics’ revulsion. He presented it to his crowds as validation: the people who had gotten America into an unwinnable war hated him. Why listen to them? After a suicide bombing in Afghanistan, Trump lamented, “When will our leaders get tough and smart?” He thanked the Never Trump signatories for stepping forward, “so everyone in the country knows who deserves the blame for making the world such a dangerous place.” There was no credentialism capable of stopping Trump, not even from the military. His uniformed detractors weren’t truly reflective of the military, as they had been “reduced to rubble” by Obama. He insisted he had a secret plan to defeat ISIS that the generals would either love or, in disliking it, reveal their incompetence. It was a dominance politics rarely played against the military. To make it work, Trump, a Vietnam draft dodger, had to show he was unintimidated by attacking even the most venerated. McCain, who could not abide Trump, was no genuine war hero because, as Trump boasted, “I like people who weren’t captured.”
Because the Security State couldn’t win the War on Terror it was waging, Trump had a permanent cudgel against it. Why accept the expertise of the architects of a quagmire? He championed the explanation that these so-called intelligence experts, political generals, amoral attorneys, and other liberals had misunderstood that this was a war of survival against Radical Islamic Terror. All of them had condescended to the nativist right since 9/11, and they had marched America into humiliation. Wrapped in a redemptive flag, the nativists were not afraid to challenge the authority of the military. The Cheneyites hadn’t been, either, though neither side tended to see the continuity.
Trump and his nativist followers, the coalition known as MAGA, did not quite offer a Dolchstosslegende. They didn’t claim the Security State had deliberately lost the War on Terror, but rather that it had flinched at confronting a civilizational assault. The offer Trump made to the Security State was an alibi. He would “unleash” the military, which meant, as John Rambo had said, that the military had not been allowed to win. It was easier for the MAGA crowd to accept that than to accept that their American exceptionalism had marched America into ruin.
The sense of civilizational besiegement that the Forever War inspired was central to MAGA. With Breitbart providing a voice, and social media providing networking and amplification, the alt-right was able to rebrand white nationalism and even outright neo-Nazism. Its members spoke in terms of civilizational “replacement,” by which they meant the loss of a racial caste hierarchy with whites at the top, a status conferring though never guaranteeing substantial material benefits. (Demagogues and bosses had long divided the working class by blaming any unfulfilled white expectation of material comfort on nonwhites.) Fluent in online sarcasm and provocation, members of the alt-right half joked that they were “meme war veterans,” by which they meant propagandists out to radicalize conservatives, and not merely the “101st Fighting Keyboardists” whom progressives had mocked as chickenhawks when they typed their vituperative defenses of the Iraq war. In the style of fascists everywhere, the alt-right reveled in its transgressions and its apocalyptic fantasies of crushing its opponents. Such transgressions extended into classical anti-Semitism, previously taboo among conservatives, such as using “(((globalists)))” as a term for Jews to evade internet-platform censorship. Nonwhites had a place in the movement, provided they espoused the superiority of “Western civilization.”
The alt-right understood what could fuel their appeal to so-called “normies.” In July 2016 the troll site 4Chan began a petition to call Black Lives Matter a terrorist organization “due to its actions in Ferguson, Baltimore, and even at a Bernie Sanders rally.” It garnered over 120,000 signatures in a week. BLM cofounder Patrisse Khan-Cullors wrote, “The accusation of being a terrorist is devastating, and I allow myself space to cry quietly as I lie in bed on a Sunday morning listening to a red-face, hysterical Rudolph Giuliani spit lies about us.”
For his entire career, manipulating reality had redounded to Trump’s benefit. Two generations earlier he had aggressively courted New York reporters to ensure frequent publicity. He planted anonymous quotes, sometimes using the fake name John Barron. When he told his crowds that the lying news media used anonymity to cover for what he called fake sources, he spoke from experience. He pledged to Alex Jones, who had matriculated from calling 9/11 an inside job to becoming an all-purpose right-wing conspiracy broadcaster, “I will never let you down.” He surrounded himself with criminals like his fixer, Michael Cohen, who would threaten reporters when necessary. Trump specialized in areas that often function as cash laundries: real estate, casinos, licensing. He covered repeated business failures with debt while portraying himself in entertainment and news media as the embodiment of capitalist brilliance and sexual potency. His campaign rallies played “Real American,” the theme music of professional wrestler Hulk Hogan. His defining features — gilded apartments, ridiculous hair, media thirst, transparent lies — occasioned contempt from the sophisticated. As did Trump’s unsubtle bigotry; they preferred theirs structural instead of flagrant. Trump, like a good con man, harnessed that contempt. It drew him closer to his constituency.
From “REIGN OF TERROR: How the 9/11 Era Destabilized America and Produced Trump” by Spencer Ackerman, with permission from Viking, an imprint of the Penguin Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Random House, LLC. Copyright © 2021 by Spencer Ackerman