Hillary Clinton Has Just Made It Harder for Trump to Control the Terrorism Narrative

Election '16

The banality of mass shootings in America is itself a scandal. Gun-related carnage is something we’ve learned to live with. We’re numb to it. But what happened in Orlando this weekend was uniquely grim. The figures are familiar by now: 49 dead, 53 wounded, countless more scarred.

The details are sketchy, but a picture is emerging. A 29-year-old man named Omar Mateen, inspired by ISIS and animated by homophobia, stormed a gay nightclub with his AR-15 and filled over 100 bodies with holes. The result was the deadliest mass shooting in the history of the United States, and the worst terrorist attack on American soil since September 11th.

Predictably, and before the mutilated corpses were cleared, Donald Trump sought to exploit the tragedy. “Appreciate the congrats for being right on radical Islamic terrorism,” Trump tweeted. “I don’t want congrats, I want toughness & vigilance. We must be smart!” He then chided President Obama for refusing to say the words ‘Radical Islam,” saying he “should step down” for that reason alone. “If Hillary Clinton still cannot say the two words Radical Islam,” he added, “she should get out of this race for the presidency.”

The gaudy, self-congratulatory tone aside, Trump’s statement makes little sense. The implication is that his proposal to ban Muslims would’ve prevented this tragedy. Mateen was an American citizen, however. Even if the ban was in place, it would do nothing to prevent lone-wolf attacks from American citizens. But the aim of this statement wasn’t to defend a policy position; it was an attempt to make the Democrats look weak. Fear is good for business, and while he doesn’t understand the world, Trump knows how to thrive in this climate. “If we do not get tough and smart real fast, we are not going to have a country anymore,” Trump said. “Because our leaders are weak, I said this was going to happen—and it is only going to get worse.”

It’s a mistake to discount how effective this sort of rhetoric is. It’s daft and bereft of positive content, but that’s beside the point. Plenty of voters aren’t discerning. They hear “tough” and “smart” and “real fast” and mistake that for a plan. Every word Trump has uttered about foreign policy illustrates how breathtakingly ignorant he is. But he sounds like a strongman, and that goes a long way in an election defined by fear.

Josh Marshall, who is reliably smart, pushed back against the Trump-benefits-from-terrorism narrative. “There appears to be a general consensus,” he writes, “that the atrocity in Orlando will be a boon to the campaign of Donald Trump… Put me down as skeptical about that assumption.” On Marshall’s account, Trump is “psychologically incapable” of effectively politicizing the terror threat because he appears “unsteady, erratic and self-obsessed.” By contrast, Clinton is viewed as temperamentally fit and experienced. Marshall may be right, but it’s not clear what price, if any, Trump will pay for his unsteadiness. After the terrorist attack in San Bernardino last year, pundits noted how immoral, unconstitutional and counterproductive Trump’s Muslim ban would be, but none of it mattered. His numbers skyrocketed. It’s true that a Republican primary electorate is very different from a general electorate, but every time an attack occurs, the fear and the hysteria ratchet up. This attack and the prospect of more could sway the election in unpredictable ways.

Hence Clinton and the Democrats need to think carefully about how they handle this issue, about the language they use. The massacre in Orlando is about homophobia, access to guns, mental illness and radical Islam. Focusing on any one of these at the expense of the other is dishonest and unhelpful. We have to find a way to talk about this problem with the complexity it deserves.Republicans will do everything possible to make this election a referendum on terror. Trump has already endorsed killing the family members of terrorists and expanding our illegal torture program. Moments like this breathe life into his strongman shtick. This presents a challenge for Clinton. She has to talk honestly about the threats without surrendering to the xenophobia of Trump.

It’s a purely rhetorical gripe, but Obama’s unwillingness to use the words “radical Islamic terrorism” has needlessly gifted a talking point to Republicans. Pirouetting around the religious component made diplomatic sense, but it was always bad domestic politics. Today, however, Clinton diverged from Obama and made a forceful statement:

“It matters what we do, not what we say. It matters that we got Bin Laden, not what we called him. But if he [Trump] is somehow suggesting I don’t call this for what it is, he hasn’t been listening. I have clearly said we face terrorist enemies who use Islam to justify slaughtering people. We have to stop them. We have to defeat radical Jihadist terrorism, and we will.”

It’s important to say this, both because it’s true and because not doing so feeds the Republican delusion that Democrats aren’t engaged with geopolitical realities. The irony is that the strength of the GOP’s anti-terror rhetoric is inversely proportional to their effectiveness in dealing with the problem. The last Republican administration did more to destabilize the planet than any in recent memory. ISIS exists only because George W. Bush’s plan for Iraq didn’t extend beyond a few weeks. The broken world we’re confronting has Republican fingerprints all over it. Obama (and Clinton) have had their share of blunders, but Bush’s failures stand alone. With her statement today, Clinton undercut Trump’s talking point and made a serious conversation about terrorism more likely.

This isn’t a war against a faith or a people or a culture, but Trump and the purveyors of fear want to make it such. Which is why they can’t be allowed to dictate the terms of the debate. One can—and must—draw a straight line between the attack on that nightclub in Orlando and the reality of gay Muslims being tossed from buildings by Jihadist thugs in Iraq. ISIS isn’t Islam and Islam isn’t ISIS. And terrorism, it can’t be said enough, isn’t reducible to a single variable—religion, politics, economics, foreign policy, and Western interventionism all matter a great deal. There’s no nuance-free conversation worth having on this subject.

Are terrorists weaponizing a largely peaceful faith? Absolutely. But there is no “true Islam” just as there is no true Christianity or Judaism. And not all religions are equally wise or equally peaceful or equally adaptable. A religion is the sum of its believers at any given moment, and Islam has an internal crisis without an analogue in today’s world. ISIS isn’t representative of the vast majority of Muslims in the world, but it’s untrue to say it has nothing to do with Islam. Republicans are happy to note this without offering anything like context. It falls to Clinton and the Democrats to do this, to talk honestly about the problem without veering into bigotry.

The attack in Orlando ensures terrorism will be front and center for the rest of this campaign. Trump’s bluster will win over a subset of the electorate, but there are millions of Americans who are concerned about the threat but reject Trump’s heavy-handed nativism. If Clinton can speak to these people reasonably and in unambiguous terms, she’ll win the election and provide a counter-narrative to the clash of civilization thesis, which is propounded by ISIS and affirmed by the right.

That’s good for the Democrats and, more importantly, for the country.

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