Editor’s Note: Timothy Stanley is a historian and columnist for Britain’s Daily Telegraph. He is the author of “Citizen Hollywood: How the Collaboration Between L.A. and D.C. Revolutionized American Politics.” The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author.
Trump sounds like he understands the public's concerns. Clinton sounds bureaucratic
The context to this election is terror in every meaning of the word. Trump has understood that from the very beginning
There’s a tradition of not injecting political comment into terror incidents, out of deference to those affected. But let’s not be naïve. The wave of attacks that occurred over the weekend are the context to this presidential election. They are one of the reasons why Hillary Clinton’s politics seem out of date and Donald Trump’s seem more relevant.
We still don’t know who was behind the bombing in New York, explosion and abandoned devices in New Jersey, or the stabbings in Minnesota – but even if officials have been reluctant to speculate, Americans will be connecting dots and arriving at their own conclusions.
The attacks came just after the country marked the 15th anniversary of 9/11 and before a summit at the United Nations on the refugee crisis. An ISIS-linked news agency has already claimed that the man who stabbed nine people in Minnesota was one of theirs. In the murky world of Islamist terrorism, it’s hard to distinguish between trained operatives and lone wolves who act almost on impulse. But the intention is always the same: to create an atmosphere of tension in order to intimidate the West into withdrawal from the Middle East.
It’s precisely because the terrorists want to cause panic that many officials choose to react with calm and precision. Compare and contrast the reactions of Clinton and Trump. Trump told supporters that a bomb had gone off in New York hours before any details were confirmed by the police. He added: “We better get tough folks. We better get very, very tough.” Clinton also referred to a bombing, but urged patience and discouraged speculation, saying: “I think it’s important to know the facts about any incident like this.”
In a normal election, we might say that Trump failed a character test: he pre-empted expert analysis and riled the public up rather than calming them down. When he speaks off the cuff like this, he’s simply being negligent.
But 2016 isn’t a normal election. America isn’t living through ordinary times. Before 9/11, the country had some experience of domestic terrorism but seen few foreign attacks on its own soil. In the last two years they have become increasingly common.
And the tone of officialdom – once so reassuringly objective – now sounds anodyne. For instance, New York Mayor Bill de Blasio initially described the bombing in his city as “intentional” but was reluctant to go any further with regards to motive. The choice of words was odd. What kind of bomb isn’t “intentional”? And why, many Americans will be asking, be so reluctant to speculate that terrorists are involved when terrorists have been so active of late? It would be a little like the British government in the Second World War declaring that a bomb that fell on London appeared to have malicious intent but they were reluctant to link it to the German warplanes flying overhead.
In short, Trump sounds like he understands the public’s concerns. Clinton sounds bureaucratic. Worse, it’s the bureaucratic tone of a foreign policy establishment that has presided over the apparent decline in American security. Some voters feel that Clinton and her ilk put the US on the frontline of the terror conflict by voting for the Iraq War. That she helped expand that conflict with the bungled removal of Gaddafi from power in Libya. And that the US’s vacillating involvement in Syria both weakened dictator Bashar al-Assad yet failed to remove him, stoking a civil war that gave rise to ISIS. All of these readings of history are highly subjective and questionable. But they are believed verbatim by a significant rump of voters and have bled into wider public opinion. It can be summed up as: “Hillary’s been around ever since this trouble started. Trump wants to end it.”
Security is his strongest issue. His economic protectionism appeals mostly to those affected by foreign competition in the declining rustbelt and won’t be what he wins on if he wins. His pledge to build a wall along the Mexican border, however, might be couched as a defence of American jobs and sound like xenophobia – but it subconsciously taps into concerns about security. A nation that can’t control who comes in or out isn’t a nation at all. Nativist campaigns against immigration in the past have often accused arrivals of importing foreign conflicts. Italians were thought to bring the mafia, for instance. So by linking the threat of Islamism to open borders, Trump is articulating ancient fears of “the other”.
Liberals may condemn Trump for exploiting such worries, but they would be fools to dismiss the concern itself. It is real. It is justified by the Islamist campaign. And liberals might need to rethink how they articulate their own response to the situation. Technically, Clinton’s was correct – thoughtful, authoritative. But in the present circumstances, Trump’s was emotionally more apposite. The context to this election is terror in every meaning of the word. Trump has understood that from the very beginning.