Will Trump Exploit a Terrorist Attack for His Own Ends?

Because Trump’s tweets are spontaneous, they provide a useful indicator–a kind of Rohrschack Test–of his fundamental instincts. One recent tweet, reacting to the Federal Court’s  blockade of his immigration executive order, was nothing less than a wake-up call for concerned Americans. Trump tweeted: “Just cannot believe a judge would put our country in such peril. If something happens, blame him and court system.” In other words, judges questioning Trump’s orders threaten the safety of the nation and must be held accountable.

Several alert journalists, including Paul Krugman, Nate Silver, and co-authors Curtis Bradley and Neil Siegel writing for Lawfare, have raised red flags about such a “blame-shifting narrative.” Specifically, they see it as a means for Trump “to reduce the future checking power of institutions like the judiciary and the media, especially in the wake of a terrorist attack.” More ominously, it prepares the way for a bold assertion of executive power.

The blame-shifting narrative, based largely on Trump’s paranoid and narcissistic instincts, begins by assuming that Trump’s view of the world is more accurate than anyone else’s (“nobody knows the system better than me“). It is a dark narrative, one that presupposes a kind of Hobbesian war of all against all, where civilizations collide, nations strive to dominate, and Islamists and border-crossers pose existential threats.  Trump’s unnuanced authoritarian approach, as shown in his first immigration executive order, follows logically from this mindset. Since Trump “alone can fix” the problem, those opposing him become part of the problem and potential enemies of the people.

The Trumpian narrative is calculated to sideline an alternative narrative based on strategic interests. That alternative narrative, long held by American military and security experts (dare we use the word?), views a combination of careful vetting, intelligence, and diplomacy as the logical and proven prescription for security. Unlike the Trumpian outlook, it rejects drastic measures based on religious stereotyping, which it understands can exacerbate tensions and put the United States in greater danger.

But a concern for strategic interests did not get Trump elected. Appeals to fear, nostalgia, and a need for payback mobilized his populist base and won him personal confirmation as well as his current office. The narrative of blame falls in with this trope, proving politically advantageous by turning the tables on his critics. Moreover, it empowers Trump in a cynical sense because it negates his accountability for failing policies. On national security it presents him with a win-win situation: full credit to himself if his policies result in less terrorist events, and the ability to deflect blame onto others if such events escalate.

As a candidate, Trump has already shown a tendency to spin terrorist events in ways that favor his own ambitions. He used the Orlando bombing of June 12, for example, to congratulate himself on his foresight and to indirectly swipe opponents for lack of toughness. More recent comments even suggest that he needs such events and wants to see more of them. How else does one explain his eerie statement that the news services are not reporting enough of them, or worse yet, conspiring to hide them? 

And surely such events will occur, regardless of the nation’s most careful steps to prevent them. We all know this. The United States is not a  police state that intrudes into people’s minds. There is no guarantee that some religious nut will not commit a violent act, especially in the divisive climate that Trump has fomented.

In the event this happens, preparing for a dangerous overreach by an out-of-control government is part of being a good citizen. To those who share our values: Follow the news. Be defenders of the press, the courts, conscientious government servants, and others who pose limits on authoritarian executive power. Donate to the ACLU, the CPJ (Committee to Protect Journalists), and similar organizations that support our freedoms. Connect and circulate with allies in the struggle. Be willing to discuss the Trump problem in our daily interactions. Watch Stephen Colbert, Samantha Bee, and John Oliver and share their videos with  friends (never forget the salving effect of humor for deflating demagogues). And be ready to jump to the phone and put on our boots when abnormal events start happening.


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