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“We Might Be One Terrorist Act Away From a Trump Presidency”

| December 7, 2015

trump presidency one terrorist act away

The problem with popularity contests. (Andrew Dallos)

By Ian Buruma

There are many roads to political disaster: greed, hubris, the charisma of the demagogue, and, perhaps most dangerous of all, fear. When people panic, they can become hysterical, and hysteria often leads to mass violence. When politicians convince people that they are in a life-or-death battle – that survival is a matter of “us or them” – anything becomes possible.


Adolf Hitler combined all the elements of political catastrophe: hubris, charisma, greed, and the idea that “Aryans” and Jews were locked in a struggle for survival. Of course, none of the demagogues in the West today – from Donald Trump in the United States to Marine Le Pen or Geert Wilders in Europe – are comparable to Hitler. None has promoted dictatorship, let alone mass murder. But they are definitely stirring up the politics of fear.

Trump, for one, also promotes greed, openly boasting of his wealth, and has somehow refined outlandish hubris and contradictory posturing into a bizarre form of charisma. On the one hand, he promises to fix all the world’s problems, and to show China, Russia, the Islamic State, or anyone else who is boss. On the other hand, he claims that his vast and powerful country cannot take in desperate refugees from Syria, because, he warns, Muslim asylum-seekers might stage “one of the great military coups of all time.”

Trump’s Republican colleagues in the race for the US presidency, such as Ted Cruz, Ben Carson, and Marco Rubio, stoke similar fears about refugees. Cruz, as well as the supposedly more moderate Jeb Bush, even suggested that only Christians should be allowed into the US.

More than 10,000 people are killed every year by gun violence in the US – all but a handful for reasons having nothing to do with Islam. And yet all of the Republican candidates are proud of opposing gun-control measures; indeed, they have no problem allowing people to enter a school or a bar bearing concealed weapons. But even a relative handful of Muslim refugees is too dangerous to contemplate.

This is not to say that terrible acts of Islamist terror could not happen in the US, or elsewhere. They have, and there probably will be more of them, so long as the Middle East remains in turmoil and revolutionary Islam appeals to disaffected Western youth. But it is hardly an existential threat.

An American friend of mine speculated that, “We might be one terrorist act away from a Trump presidency.” A spectacular murder spree by Islamists could spook Americans enough to vote for the greatest fear-monger. Anything is possible, but I don’t believe American voters would be that stupid.

The greater danger is, however, that the demagogues will drive even mainstream politicians into their camp. Since the November 13 terror attacks in Paris, François Hollande, the unpopular but altogether sensible French president, has been so afraid of being labeled a weakling by politicians of the right and far right that he has declared a national state of emergency – and war on the Islamic State (ISIS).

As long as France’s state of emergency lasts, police may arrest people without warrants, break down the doors of private residences in the middle of the night, take over restaurants and other public places with armed force, and generally behave like agents in a police state. Most French citizens are now so frightened of Islamist attacks that such measures are widely supported. But they are almost certainly counter-productive.

A national leader can declare war on a state, not on a network of revolutionaries. ISIS, despite its claims, is not a state, and Hollande should not treat it as one. Besides, even if bombing ISIS strongholds in Iraq or Syria makes military sense, it won’t break the spell of Islamist revolution for frustrated, bored, and marginalized young people in French slums.

On the contrary: The canny leaders of ISIS also rely on an apocalyptic “us or them” view of the world. Most Muslims are not violent revolutionaries who condone, let alone admire, mass violence. ISIS seeks to broaden its support, especially among young Muslims, by convincing them that true Muslims are in an existential war with the West – that the infidels are their mortal enemies. For them no less than for Trump, fear is the most powerful weapon.

So the more a Western government allows its policemen to humiliate and bully Muslims in the name of security, the more ISIS is likely to win European recruits. The only way to combat revolutionary Islamist violence is to gain the trust of law-abiding Muslims in the West. This will not be easy, but arbitrary arrests are surely the wrong way to go about it.

Likewise, when it comes to civil wars in the Middle East, Western restraint is usually a better strategy than hasty military intervention driven by domestic fear. Republican candidates in the US are already using the recent murder spree in Paris to blame President Barack Obama, and by extension any future Democratic candidate, for being weak. Trump has promised to “bomb the shit out of ISIS.”

This bellicosity has had the effect of pushing Hillary Clinton, the front-runner for the Democratic presidential nomination, into distancing herself from Obama. Like Hollande, she has to assuage public fear by talking tough and promising more military action.

Obama has consistently resisted the temptation to unleash more wars. His policies have sometimes been inconsistent and irresolute. But in his refusal to give in to panic and act rashly, he has been far braver than all the big talkers who accuse him of being a wimp.

ian-burumaIan Buruma an Buruma is Professor of Democracy, Human Rights, and Journalism at Bard College. He is the author of numerous books, including Murder in Amsterdam: The Death of Theo Van Gogh and the Limits of Tolerance and, most recently, Year Zero: A History of 1945. © Project Syndicate.

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34 Responses for ““We Might Be One Terrorist Act Away From a Trump Presidency””

  1. Rich Mikola says:

    Anyone would be better than the character we have in the White House now. All he wants to do is close down the coal mines while the world is going down the toilet. How’s the ‘JV Team and ISIS is contained’ working out for you now? What allied coalition? Those 14 people are dead because Mr. ‘ know nothing’ doesn’t believe that Islamic terrorists exist.

  2. Fredrick says:

    If the current admin (I use the term loosely as it is a laughing stock) would do something, maybe it would not happen. If they would call it what it is, it would go a long way. Obama calling out on the Muslim community to “do more” is a path he needs to continue to push, louder and louder. When the Muslim community starts doing more, the fears of the ignorant will be quelled somewhat. (You will never quell the either far left or right). But if the Muslim community sits ideally buy, or is even perceived as doing so, we will end up with the Donald living in the peoples house.

  3. maggie says:

    Donald Trump is a fascist, con-artist bully and demagogue. Anyone who votes for this mess is a traitor to their fellow Americans. Period. The ONLY things that qualify him to run are that he’s over 35 and was born in America. If he actually wins the primary AND the general, we’re outta here. The man is DANGEROUS.

    Who in their right mind votes for someone like this? It’s insanity. Trump further is not one of “anyone” that would be better than the current POTUS, he’s an authoritarian blowhard who can’t keep it in his pants any more than Bill Clinton could. Stop letting the authorities scare you into voting against your best interests. We still have a Constitution and I am sick and tired of reading comments from people who clearly do not understand why we have it, what it is for and what we should and should not be doing with it.

    You really want to live in a country where one must “show their papers’ in order to prove their religious affiliation? That is disgusting..Ask one of your Jewish friends how disgusting it is, and sit back and listen what they tell you. Chances are good they will start with the words NEVER AGAIN.

  4. Anonymous says:

    If Trump gets elected we can thank in GREAT part 0bama and all those who blindly adore him. We would be trading a progressive D for a progressive R. All the things that Rs say they dislike about 0bamas way of leading we will see in Trump. executive orders distain for the Constitution vilifying his opposition. Not much would change in the way of leadership IMO

  5. Bc says:

    Americans were stupid when they voted for Barack Hussein Obama x2 this country needs someone like trump Cruze or Rubio. God forbid ms Clinton Gets in you think the world is in trouble now.

    We need to get a president with a spine this joker pretender has set the USA back 20 years. Many world leaders see him as a idiot as the world is on a course to WW3. Some commander and chief we got stuck with and worse yet I voted for this fool. Just the first time thank god.

  6. edith_campins@bellsouth.net says:

    You are not being fair. The President has been blocked at every turn by Republicans.

    We find ourselves in this situation because Republican presidents embroiled us in the middle east to protect our sources of oil. This country has learned nothing from the lessons of Korea, Cuba and Vietnam.

  7. Knightwatch says:

    I think Trump and his followers are much a domestic terrorist threat as any other we’ve encountered. Trump uses violent political rhetoric and blatant racial and ethnic fear as a drug to fuel the rage in his his followers. He encourages his followers to physically threaten non-believers. He has threatened to kill the families of those he alone deems to be ISIL supporters. He routinely uses lies, disinformation, demagoguery to create social turmoil and eventually effect a political takeover of this country.

    So, someone tell me why Trump is not on our terrorist watch list.

  8. Sasha Q says:

    What a crap load.

  9. Whattheheck? says:

    What? You must leave on the beachside……with your head in the sand.

  10. PCer says:

    President Obama is doing what he can under the constraints put upon him by Congress – a Republican Congress who has done everything in their power to stop any progress that Obama tries to make.

    Trump is an idiot with no experience but a great stump speech. He will put us and our children in a war that will be worse than anything we have seen since Vietnam. Vote for him and you vote for your sons and daughters to die.

    On another Trump note… in 1992 all we heard about was Bill Clintons affairs and how that made him unfit for the presidency. But no word of Trump’s laundry list of wives (and the green cards they gained by marrying him.)

  11. Veteran says:

    Americans were stupid enough to vote for Obama – twice!

  12. Scoobydoo says:

    GOOD

  13. Brad W says:

    Putting political games aside, the violence is scary. What is equally scary is Mr. Trump’s suggestions. There are a couple of people who have posted references to Hitler here and in all honesty anyone who knows the history of the rise of the Nazi Party (which is exactly what it was). The Nazi Party did not rise to power through force but rather used the political process. Much of which Mr. Trump is suggesting today and the messages are eerily similar to the strategies used by the Nazi Party in pre-WWII Germany to restore their country to greatness. Read Larson’s “In The Garden Of The Beast” which provides a first-person perspective of that time in Germany based upon journals and correspondence from the American Ambassador stationed there.

    http://www.amazon.com/In-Garden-Beasts…/dp/030740885X

  14. just me says:

    the rhetoric of the left is just as bad if not worse then trumps (see knightwatch comments)

  15. Dave says:

    We would have been better served with Micky Mouse in office than Obama. The whole world looks upon him as weak. The whole handling of Iran and ISIS where he continues to admit ISIS is contained and from 4 days ago “”ISIL will not pose an existential threat to us.” This just shows how out of touch this man is with terrorism.

  16. Sherry says:

    The horrific fear, hate and “divisiveness” represented in these comments show that those who wish to terrorize and defeat us are starting to do just that! Donald Trump is an extremely dangerous narcissistic megalomaniac who is heading up an “internal terrorist group” that is fracturing our entire country from within.

    The combination of Trump’s belief in conspiracy theories and his bigoted, hateful rhetoric, along with the proliferation of “legal” assault weapons in our country is creating a completely self-destructive culture!

    There will soon be no need for external terrorists to obliterate the “American” way of life. . . we are doing it ourselves . . . out of fear and hate of ALL our fellow human beings. Don’t you see the big picture here? We are being destroyed from within:

    1. If we act out of fear. . . by definition, The “terrorists” WIN
    2. If we Panic. . . The “terrorists” WIN
    3. If we turn against our neighbors. . . The “terrorists” WIN
    4. If we trust and act without credible FACTS. . . The “terrorists” WIN
    5. If we become politically polarized and radicalized. . . The “terrorists” WIN
    6. If we act out as religious zealots and bigots. . . The “terrorists” WIN
    7. If we lash out against those of different races/cultures/religions. . . The “terrorists” WIN

    We must garner the courage of our forefathers. The courage to challenge and stop anyone who attempts to divide Americans against ourselves. We must embrace the diversity that makes our country the greatest this world has ever seen. United We Stand. . . Divided We Fall!

    We must have the courage to come together as the UNITED STATES OF AMERICA! The UNITED PEOPLE OF AMERICA!

  17. yankee says:

    A trump presidency would be the ultimate act of terrorism by the christian right.

  18. yankee says:

    14 probably wont crack the top 3 dead from shooting for the year……..sadly

  19. yankee says:

    Do you expect the same of the christian community? One of theirs just shot up a planned parenthood facility.

  20. Igato Takalika says:

    To paraphrase Menken:Trump is very aware of the old saying that nobody ever went broke underestimating the intelligence of the American public.

  21. Get-R-Done says:

    Guns sales up again…….Thanks Barrack HUSSEIN Obama !!!!

  22. Knightwatch says:

    Allow me to double down on my above comment. Here’s Trump…

    1. Close down our southern border and build a 1,000 mile wall. (Get Mexico to pay for it even though Mexicans are a diminishing number of illegal immigrants.)
    2. Invade Iraq and take control of the oil fields now controlled by ISIL. (Iraq has said this would constitute an act of war.)
    3. Tag and track all Muslims in this country. (Requires a national religious test, against our very own constitution.)
    4. Close down mosques deemed to be suspicious. (Requires covert spying on Americans at prayer. Says Imams would agree. Right!)
    5. Carpet bomb ISIL towns and cities and kill their families. (Abrogation of all known international treaties and laws.)
    6. Use enhanced torture as a means of interrogation. (Again, those pesky treaties and laws.)
    7. Deny entrance to America of all Muslims. (Including, presumably, current NATO allies, business partners/investors, tourists, students and, obviously, any and all refugees.)

    O.k., I’m going to say this out loud … he is a fascist. His followers are fascists. Trump is more of a threat to America than ISIL. If Trump, by some bewildering, unfathomable, even tragic circumstance, were to be elected president, America would no longer be America and I, personally, would think seriously of leaving.

  23. Rick G says:

    Let me say this to those who have posted about how stupid Americans are for twice electing Barack Obama. They also elect G. W. Bush twice and his policies are a major reason for the mess we are in today. There is no cure all for fundamentalist believers. The whole world needs to reassess its dependency on cloud beings.

  24. m&m says:

    Trump is the only person with guts enough to say what he thinks but most others sit on the side lines wishing him well.

  25. Sherry says:

    Although some of our wonderful French friends do not speak English, they wrote the following (this is directly pasted from their email):

    goodnight AND SHERRY
    but why so many people attend the meeting of this heinous
    character donald trump what is a hate a cartoon ball and
    ridicule we hope for all of you that the country will recover and
    to silence forever the “horn”
    we embrace
    Francoise and Christian

    • Pierre Tristam says:

      Sherry, you know how I feel about Trump, and know that these days I’m happy to be more French (or Mozambiquian for that matter) than American, but I’m not so sure the French are in any position to be giving us lessons about “this heinous character donald trump” within 24 hours of making the neo-fascist National Front “without contest,” as its Marine Le Pen put it, “the first party of France.” Marine Le Pen may not have the crudity of Trump, and she can quote Ronsard with the best of them. But the National Front is a lot more dangerous and real than Trump: it’s in power, it has an agenda, and now it’s beginning to have the means to enact it while pushing the other parties right.

  26. Richard S. says:

    The next President will be a Democrat – either Hillary Clinton(barring an indictment) or Bernie Sanders.

    Donald Trump will not get the nomination and will form his own 3rd party thus splitting the Republican voters into two camps.

    I predict that to be the future of the 2016 race for the White House.

    God help us.

  27. Hammock says:

    Trump is threatening to be open the 3rd party just to back of the establishment Repub’s because it’s a smart move. He says things that a lot of people think but can’t say so to be PC. I can’t believe the majority of citizens believe the borders should be a revolving door to anybody which we would be happy to pay for in our welfare state, the Syrian/Iraq/ Libya migrants would be vetted as we are currently are and we would trusted to live next door, and climate change is the biggest threat to us.

  28. Lancer says:

    Long way to go until the election. What baffles everyone about Trump is that he OWNS the media. They report his every move, his every word. Then, when these heel biters think they’ve got him, he doubles down and destroys them. It’s been tremendously entertaining.

    The people of this country are sick and tired of the failed policies presented by the Democrats and Republicans. These people have no idea what they are doing. They are presumed as “experts”, they are not. They don’t understand budgets, they don’t understand foreign policy and they don’t understand the unintentional consequences of their beliefs. THEY ARE CLUELESS. This is the anger that Trump is tapping into. It is grass roots and it is growing every day.

    However, Trump’s attention has taken away from the failure that is 0bama and the, continuing, DoJ investigation of professional liar and corrupt Hillary.

    If it’s Trump versus Hillary…

    The alternative is HilLIARy??? Seriously?

    A failed Sec of State. A failed Senator, who voted for the war in Iraq. A failure of a first lady. A failure of a lawyer. The ultimate goal for the Clintons is to become billionaires through the selling out of this country.
    She’s got 999 classified emails on a non-secure, private server…she should be preparing for her legal defense. Her actions are completely indefensible. It’s hilarious for the left to tap “her experience”. Her experience is total failure.

    At least with Trump, we would know he cares about his country first. All Hillary cares about is the Clintons.

  29. Sherry says:

    Pierre. . . all due respect. . . yes, the dangerous extreme right wing is growing in France and also in the UK. . . but most certainly not among our dear friends. You’ve painted ALL the French with the same broad brush. That is most certainly not like you. :)

  30. just me says:

    As bad on some things Trump may be he by far better then any choice on the Ds

  31. Samuel L. Bronkowitz says:

    From now on I think we should call trump and his followers “vanilla ISIS”

  32. Sherry says:

    and this from our dear friends in Australia (copied and pasted from their email):

    We are all living in a very sad world at this moment.
    Sadder still is the way in which our so called leaders are misleading us by failing to address world issues without personal interests governing their decisions.

    Recently, in Aust., a young Muslim T V personality had a mini vent on his show saying;
    There is a reason ISIL still wants,to appear so powerful, why they don’t want to acknowledge that the land they control has been taken from weak enemies, that they are pinned down by air strikes or that just last weekend they lost a significant part of their territory…

    He further suggested this “evil organisation” believes if they can make Muslims the enemy of the West, then Muslims in France and England and America and here in Australia will have nowhere to turn but to ISIL.

    This is indeed scary stuff when you match up the facts that most of the terrorists are between 20 and 40 and that many of the extremists who have joined ISIS are second and third generation Nationals.

    Leaders, both political and religious, seem set on preaching hate at this time when what we actually need is more reason, compassion and tolerance. This of course brings me back to the black jack, Donald Trump, the wild card in US matters. Why such hate of Mexicans and Muslims.?

    Add to this the Putin push for greater world power and influence by exploiting the dire situation within Syria and we have more world instability.

    History, unfortunately, tells us the same tales.

    Empress Wu, The Crusades and Godfrey of Bouillon, The Charlemagne slaughters to force Christianity on Europe, The Inquisition and the so-called Holy Dominicans who murdered thousands, Basil The Bulgar Slayer, The Witch Hunts and the list goes on.

    How many millions have to die, century after century for us to get the message that bigotry and racism are evils of any time or world!

    If this ignorance is followed by Greed there is very little hope.
    Power becomes the next monster.

    Hitler was aided by intelligent propaganda and massive mainstream fear. This has to ring a bell to any thinking person. Yet, that bell appears to be silent and the masses have forgotten their ultimate power.

    Neo-nazi groups are coming out in Aust and spreading hate. They are increasing in numbers and becoming a threat. This is no different to other places in the world.

    Our leading radio broadcaster on talkback radio is credited with inflaming hatred.
    The NSW Civil and Administrative Tribunal said in its judgment against Alan Jones: “The assertion is made that these men simply rape, pillage and plunder a nation that’s taken them in. They are then described in sub-human terms as ‘vermin infest[ing] our shores’.

    This is in reference to statements made by him on morning radio about Lebanese Muslim men.
    He was fined $10000 which is a joke in present circumstances.

    A rhetoric boasting of cultural and religious superiority over other cultures and religions is unhelpful and divisive. It is important for us, including the multicultural societies of Australia and The world to keep our focus on efforts to creating a long-term solution to the common challenges of violent extremism that we face.

    We have to remember that violent extremism is a common challenge for all religions and is not a new element within Societies. Making comments about the superiority of western culture is designed to reinforce western domination and hegemony.

    When we were flying back to Australia in June we sat next to a young Belgium man who was coming out to do some PHD research. He lived in a place in which we had done a home exchange so we got talking. He said that there was a lot of unrest within Belgium over terrorist-cell inaction on the behalf of the Authorities. Citizens were uneasy and knew there was pockets within Brussels where terrorist actions were occurring and that the open boarders caused by EU membership was a political potato.
    Interesting in view of what happened in France!

  33. Anonymous says:

    Obama needs to acknowledge reality. Trump is cashing in on his reluctance, or seemingly inability, to do so. Islamic Extremism is every bit as dangerous as Jewish extremism, Christian extremism, Nazism, White Supremacy or any other ideology or religion that tries to make the mass killing of other groups of people appear to be noble cause or a holy calling. Nobody is more endangered by Islamic extremism than the majority of Muslims who are peaceful and law-abiding and they should join with our government in firmly and loudly condemning Islamic extremism for what it is–a death cult. And their actions should be clearly identified for what they are–the results of a religious ideology gone mad and allowed, for too long, to run amok across the globe. It should be made clear that that will no longer be the case.

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