And how to take them both down.
- By Jessica AshoohJessica Ashooh holds a PhD in international relations from Oxford. She analyzes Middle East policy at the Atlantic Council. The views expressed here are personal and do not reflect those of the Atlantic Council.
Earlier this summer, cultural critic and noted provocateur Camile Paglia raised eyebrows when she equated Donald Trump with the Islamic State. In a freewheeling interview with Salon, Paglia recalled an episode in 1980 wherein Trump jackhammered an historic Art Deco sculpture to make way for Trump Tower. Despite offers from the Metropolitan Museum of Art to take the sculpture, which had previously adorned the entrance of the famous Bonwit Teller store on New York’s Fifth Avenue, “Trump got impatient and just had it destroyed,” Paglia recounted. “I still remember that vividly, and I’m never going to forget it! I regard Donald Trump as an art vandal, equivalent to ISIS destroying ancient Assyrian sculptures.”
Midtown isn’t exactly Palmyra, but the incident nonetheless displayed Trump’s Islamic State-like single-minded disdain for any vision other than his own. But the Islamic State and Trump may have more in common than a mutual hostility to historic preservation. In many ways, the two can be seen as equally giving voice to troubling narratives of marginalization and disenchantment with the status quo. Likewise, they have both benefited from a ferocious disregard for the conventional political wisdom, coupled with an elite class that dangerously — perhaps irresponsibly — underestimated them.
Having just passed the one-year anniversary of the start of the anti-Islamic State bombing campaign, it is instructive to recall the way that seasoned Middle East hands in Washington dismissed the group, insisting that their plan to hold — and therefore govern — territory would outstrip the organizational capabilities of what was perceived as a bunch of disaffected insurgents uninterested in the mundane tasks of civil administration. As State Department spokesman Philip Crowley put it in June 2014, the Islamic State “has as much chance of survival as an ice cream cone in the desert.” Nevertheless, despite the best efforts of an international coalition of more than 60 countries, the Islamic State has managed to generally hold on to the bulk of the land it has captured, and expand its governance within that territory, issuing marriage licenses, administering hospitals, roughly adjudicating citizen disputes, and imposing its own brutal justice.
Similarly, the self-anointed experts of Washington’s chattering class wrote off the potential durability of the Trump campaign. “Donald Trump will inevitably flame out,” declared Michael Gerson in the Washington Post following the first Republican debate. Lindsey Graham, himself echoing Trump’s rhetorical bombast, called him “a huckster billionaire whose political ideas are gibberish.” Yet despite the self-reassuring auguring of Trump’s demise, The Donald has only consolidated his lead. According to the most recent Des Moines Register/Bloomberg Politics Iowa Poll, he is viewed favorably by 61 percent of Iowa Republican caucus-goers — up from 27 percent in May.
Both the Islamic State and Trump have instrumentalized the ignore-them-and-they’ll-go-away strategy of their opponents, using the lack of serious challenge to raise funds, develop operational capabilities, and build their followings on social media. And rather than moderating as they grow in prominence, as many expected, both have strengthened their positions by breaking every rule in the political playbook.
Ever since Mitt Romney’s defeat in 2012, the Republican National Committee has accepted the demographic math that the party will simply be unable to win national elections unless it broadens its appeal to Latinos. It is demonstrative how much the party has taken this to heart to view the Koch Brothers’ LIBRE initiative, or note Jeb Bush’s compassionate message on immigration reform, delivered in confident Spanish. Trump, on the other hand, has denigrated Mexicans as “rapists” and drug traffickers, and when the predictable outcry came, rather than issue the trite politician’s apology, he doubled down on the statements, visiting the Mexican border and calling for a bigger, better wall. Even when his supporters urinated on and beat a homeless Latino man nearly to death, declaring that “Donald Trump was right,” the only response Trump had was to shrug his shoulders and note that his supporters are “passionate.”
The Islamic State, too, has been politically rewarded for a strategy of biting the hand that feeds. Scholars of al Qaeda note that Osama bin Laden admonished his followers to consider their treatment of Sunni Muslim communities, who make up their essential base. In a 2005 letter from then-al Qaeda No. 2 Ayman al-Zawahiri to Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the leader of al Qaeda in Iraq (the Islamic State’s predecessor), Zawahiri implored Zarqawi to stop publicizing hostage execution videos, fearful it would hurt the group’s public image among Muslims. “Among the things which the feelings of the Muslim populace who love and support you will never find palatable … are the scenes of slaughtering the hostages,” Zawahiri wrote. “You shouldn’t be deceived by the praise of some of the zealous young men.…They do not express the general view of the admirer and the supporter of the resistance in Iraq.”
Yet despite al Qaeda’s sensitivity to Muslim public opinion at large, the Islamic State has doubled down not only on violence, but on its usage of social media to advertise itself. As a result, those “zealous young men,” that Zawahiri dismissed have traveled to Syria and Iraq by the thousands to take up arms in support of the Caliphate. Consequently, al Qaeda has disowned the group, formalizing the split in February 2014. Indeed, Trump’s refusal at the first Republican debate to pledge support for the eventual Republican nominee suggested a similar schism could take place. (In the end, the candidate signed the pledge — though he’s also touted his notorious loophole-finding abilities, saying on Meet the Press, with regard to how he might get the United States out of the Iran deal, “I’m really good at looking at a contract…”)
Given that Trump and the Islamic State are similarly exploiting populist phenomena, it follows that the method to defeat them is also similar. While drone strikes on Trump Tower are probably not coming any time soon, the fact of the matter is that Trump has energized a disaffected constituency of angry, mostly white, lesser-educated people who feel a lack of opportunity and exude a sense that career politicians in Washington not only don’t represent them, but are actively conspiring against their interests. And while it is, of course, absurd to compare the disaffection of Trump’s base to the horrific oppression that Sunni Muslims face at the likes of Shiite militias, this group’s feelings of isolation are nonetheless real, and they matter at the ballot box.
Therefore, rather than sticking our heads in the sand and tut-tutting that Trump and the Islamic State will self-destruct, it is necessary to actively confront both — on the campaign battlefield in the case of Trump, and on the literal battlefield with the Islamic State. However, an essential complement to that open confrontation is engagement with the bases from which they both derive their support. There is no reason the notion of a “political solution” should be confined to the Middle East. Politicians need to engage with disgruntled Americans beyond just primary season, and find practical solutions to their unemployment, their lack of skills, and their feelings of exclusion from America’s broader successes.
Unless politicians become serious about materially addressing these challenges rather than strategically exploiting them for cheap election wins, then the Republican Convention in Cleveland next July might unexpectedly find itself helplessly nominating Caliph — I mean Candidate — Trump, nearly two years to the day after Baghdadi’s declaration of the Caliphate.
Image credit: Spencer Platt/Getty Images