Wednesday, June 15, 2016

Trumpism and Orlando

The horrific attack that took forty-nine lives in Orlando Saturday night is such a moral catastrophe that, in some sense, any discussion of its political implications must be profane. The sheer number of lives destroyed and the gratuitously evil motives underpinning this act render any attempt to place it into a political context absurdly venal. I thus venture into the ensuing debate about this tragedy with trepidation and apologies.

Though any political discussion of the Orlando shooting is morally fraught and irreducibly callous, the response of the presumptive GOP nominee to the crisis has lowered the bar to a new threshold that would have been difficult to anticipate mere weeks ago. Listing the ways in which Trump's comments violate good taste and proper reason would be a Herculean task unto itself. His self-congratulation about having been "right" about "radical Islam," his renewed calls for a ban on Muslim immigration, his veiled accusations against the President of the United States- all are enough to make the gorge rise and the mind reel.

I would endeavor, however, if I may be forgiven for doing so, to set aside the many logical and moral objections that might be made to Trump's arguments, to focus on their practical fallacies. Trump presents this tragedy as a test case proving the cogency of his position- a validation of "Trumpism" as a whole, especially with relation to foreign policy. Nothing could be further from the truth.

Among the many tragic aspects of this event is the manner in which it was foreordained to be politicized. Through mad luck or evil intent the murderer in Orlando concocted a crime that implicated a bevy of flashpoints in American society and culture- homophobia, racism, sexism, ethnocentrism, debates over gun control, etc. In the ensuing discord over the meaning of this horror, its very nature as an act of terror has been partially obscured. This unfortunate turn has been, in part, facilitated by Donald Trump. His insistence that this crime must only be construed as motivated by "radical Islam" has inspired a countervailing claim that the role of ISIS in this atrocity must be discounted altogether.

Both of these positions are false. On the one hand, this murder would not have happened outside the contexts of rampant homophobia, gender stereotyping, lax gun laws, and other contingencies. On the other hand, it is not plausible to suggest that this murderer, however twisted his personal psychology, would have been motivated to act exactly as and on the scale that he did without the larger context of ISIS and its global "jihad." Without ISIS, this man could not have viewed himself as anything but an angry and frustrated murderer. ISIS provided him with a universe of "value" in which his terrible crime could be construed as part of a "revolution."

More important to this discussion than the killer's motives are those of ISIS. This act fit perfectly into their world view and ideally served their twisted agenda. ISIS of course does not represent even a fraction of Muslims worldwide, and its program can not in any way be taken as characteristic of Islam as a whole. But ISIS does desire that its supporters carry out attacks against innocent civilians- the more random and gratuitous the better. The fact that this murder targeted groups with whom those most opposed to Islamophobia were in sympathy made this attack even more laudable from ISIS's perspective. Anything that detracts from Americans' (and Europeans', and any non-ISIS supporters') ability to make sense of the conflict, thus sowing more anger and paranoia, plays perfectly into ISIS's goals.

In this latter sense, the comments issuing from Donald Trump since the attack in Orlando took place could not have been more pleasing to ISIS if they had written the words themselves. Trump's assertion that the Orlando attack should make people fear all Muslims dovetails perfectly with ISIS's world view. On this ISIS and Donald Trump agree- Islam, properly understood, is something that non-Muslims should fear. The fact that the vast majority of Muslims do not believe this (and have as much to fear from jihadi terrorists as anyone else) is of little consequence to ISIS, and they can only be happy that Donald Trump is helping to get the message out.

The problem is more than one of messaging, however. The Orlando attack underscores a way in which ISIS has been more successful and poses an even greater threat than prior groups like Al Qaeda. Though 9/11 was devastating, it did not succeed in inspiring mass lone-wolf attacks as we have seen in San Bernadino and Orlando. ISIS's success in taking and holding territory in Iraq and Syria, giving physical form to the maliciously absurd fantasy of an emergent "caliphate," has fueled the imagination of deranged and/or aggrieved individuals in ways much more dramatic than that of other jihadi groups.

Against that context, Trump's "America first" advocacy of withdrawal, isolationism, and war by proxy (for example, farming out the struggle against ISIS to the likes of Vladimir Putin) is the height of folly. Orlando demonstrates that the US must remain engaged, and must prosecute the war against ISIS until that group has been destroyed and its ersatz "caliphate" dismantled. Donald Trump presents himself as the tougher, wiser agent in the "war on terror," but this notion, again, could not be further from the truth. Of the two presumptive major-party nominees in this election, it is Hillary Clinton whose record and world view are proven more effective to respond to the threat embodied by atrocities like Orlando.

Orlando shows that we have serious social problems that must be redressed here in the U.S. But it also demonstrates that the threat of ISIS is real. To deny that the former is true, as Donald Trump implicitly does, is malice and folly. But to deny that the latter is true is also egregiously unwise.

In order to effectively confront ISIS, the US must be vigilant about protecting the rights and freedoms of Muslim-Americans at home, but must likewise be aggressive in our pursuit of ISIS militants abroad. This is precisely the opposite of the prescriptions posed by Donald Trump. He would have us curtail the rights and freedoms of Muslim-Americans here in the US (thus driving more unbalanced or aggrieved individuals to commit acts of violence), while leaving the fight against ISIS militants abroad to clients and proxies. His "strategy" is thus a bizarre inversion of the course that should and must be taken to confront this danger. One of the many reasons that we should reject Trump is precisely because the threat of ISIS is real, and his approach to confronting it will result in continuing disaster.

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