Campaign 2016

The National Security Gap and the Myth of an ISIS-Busting Trump

By Jane Chong
Friday, October 7, 2016, 12:00 PM

A week ago, Ben posed the following question about what might be termed the national security gap:

How have we come to a place where at least partly in the name of national security, a huge swath of the electorate is about to vote for a man when a wide community of practitioners and scholars considers it obvious that his views, actions, words, and very psyche threaten national security?

His question is actually a variant of a more common one also flummoxing experts: why does Donald Trump, a consummate liar and a bully to boot, consistently rank equal to or better than Hillary Clinton in polls on the candidates’ honesty and trustworthiness? 

I want to suggest that the answers lie in two interrelated myths that are central to Trump’s rise and continued popularity with his supporters. The first is that he “tells it like it is.” The second is that he will “do what it takes.”

Let’s start with the more familiar first myth: that Trump tells it straight. Perversely, Trump’s inability to control his tongue or his tweets has helped foster the illusion that does not shrink from the truth, however inconvenient or politically incorrect that truth. Never mind that, according to every fact-checker out there, his dishonesty is off the charts. He is willing to say legally and morally unjustifiable things, the thinking goes, but that just attests to his honesty; only a candid candidate unafraid of prevailing social and political mores would give voice to such positions.

The second, lesser-memed myth, that Trump will do what it takes, works much the same way. His eagerness to blame America’s security problems on supposed outsiders, from Mexicans to Muslims, and to propose impracticable, unlawful, morally unconscionable security “solutions”—from rounding up the children of undocumented immigrants to doing “a hell of a lot worse than waterboarding”—appeals to voters who believe this behavior suggests not a chemical imbalance or blatant disregard for the Constitution but courage. The very extremity of these ideas ostensibly reflects his willingness to make the hard choices that must be made to protect America.

In short, Ben’s question answers itself. Trump has a sizeable base not despite his extremity; the extremity is what accounts for his hold over this chunk of the voting public. Rather than wondering why Trump is popular given his volatility and vitriol, we would do well to recognize that his popularity is largely attributable to his volatility and vitriol. This is also true, unfortunately, on national security issues.

That may seem counterintuitive, particularly given the proliferation of Trumpified memes based on LBJ’s famous “Daisy” campaign spot—who wants a tantrum-thrower with his hands on the nuclear codes?

Memo to the national security elite: the national nightmare has changed. This still-commonly-invoked trope no longer usefully captures how most of the American public thinks about security issues and security leaders. In fact, it’s been a quarter century since the collapse of the Soviet Union and over half a century since the Cuban Missile Crisis. Nuclear annihilation is simply no longer at the front and center of our collective consciousness, despite the efforts of commentators to get it there. Iran and North Korea keep it on our radar, sure, and if ever ISIS gets holds of a dirty bomb or nuclear weapon, our security paradigm will contort into a shape we cannot fully imagine today.

But here are the security events that condition the thinking of most Americans today:  September 11, the Boston bombing, the Paris attacks. And this shift in our conception of the most critical national security threats of our time—the shift, that is, from fear of state-orchestrated nuclear apocalypse to fear of radical terrorism—has had tremendous implications for what we look for in our leaders when assessing their ability to handle national security. Softness is disqualifying, but ignorance and recklessness are not.

Senator Kelly Ayotte (R-NH)'s embarrassing non-endorsement endorsement of Trump makes for an excellent case in point. Although the press is having a field day over the Senator’s description of Trump as a “role model” during her Monday debate with her Democratic opponent, far more disturbing are the remarks Ayotte made the very next day, unambiguously supporting Trump as the better candidate on security issues. These remarks are, curiously, getting almost no media play. It is one thing to disagree with former Secretary Clinton on the Iran nuclear deal and the “Iraq situation”; it’s another to insist that “Donald Trump will take us in a stronger direction” and “will be strong on national security.” Ayotte offers no support whatsoever for these characterizations, but that doesn't matter; the key word here is “strong.” A significant swath of the electorate is measuring national security prowess on a simple strong-weak continuum with respect to terrorism. And on that scale, Trump’s loose cannon behavior actually functions as an asset rather than—as it clearly would if we were thinking nuclear war—as a liability. 

Back in August, the Washington Post teed up some numbers capturing exactly this dynamic: voters prefer Trump when it comes to handling the ISIS threat, while Clinton is overwhelming the favorite on nuclear challenges. I see this as clear support for the proposition that the American public sees Trump as the “do what it takes” candidate—and more problematically, that it sees ISIS as the kind of problem that can be effectively dealt with by such a person. And the public isn’t just differentiating ISIS problem-solving from nuclear problem-solving; it emphasizes the former over the latter to the point where, in some polls, Clinton has come out almost twenty points ahead of Trump as the candidate more trusted to make the right decisions regarding nuclear weapons but is nonetheless only a few points from Trump in terms of overall popularity.

One inadvertently excellent feature of yesteryear’s world, in which the prevailing threat was mutually assured destruction, was that the public had little trouble accepting, as a conceptual matter, the complexity of national security issues; the interdependence of states; the contingencies and collateral effects of state action; and the urgent need for even-tempered, even-headed leaders at the helm. A world of diffuse terrorism threats hasn’t fostered nearly the same understanding but instead a cult of toughness. When we fear not a potential annihilating blast but instead an ongoing stream of street bombings, plane hijackings and cyberattacks on our critical infrastructure, we shouldn’t be surprised that a significant number of voters incline toward an extreme presidential candidate, one who promises to stop at literally nothing to root out the enemy.

I’m not saying a cool head is no longer a desired feature in our leaders—after all, in the thick of terror, we elected a president of legendary calm and restraint, twice. And remember that Trump’s constituency is not a majority of the population. Moreover, I suspect that Trump's bizarre claim to a presidential temperament in the first debate may have hurt him, insofar as the entire debate reminded the country just how much he lacks one. But at a minimum, it seems fair to say that Trump’s success has proven that an even temper, nuance, and the ability to formulate a coherent plan or policy platform are no longer quite the prize qualities sought by voters standing with plates at the leadership buffet. And Ben is clearly correct that the country’s national security elites have failed to persuasively communicate the need for those qualities in the fight against twenty-first-century terrorism. Trump is proof positive of that fact and that failure.

Hence the depressing answer to Ben’s question, about how we ended up in this sordid situation in which, in a competition to determine the next global standard-bearer for peace and security decision-making, Trump—the guy in favor of a national Muslim registry, a nuclear Japan and South Korea, and Putin—is one of two contestants left on the island. What we have on our hands is a public education crisis that has become its own national security threat.

Trump’s presidential candidacy is the ultimate PSA.

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