No one was talking about terrorism when President Donald Trump sought to remind Americans about it earlier this month, warning without evidence that a migrant caravan in Central America headed toward the U.S. border had been infiltrated by “unknown Middle Easterners.”
It was a short-lived attempt to revive fears about Islamic terrorism, one quickly turned upside-down by two major domestic attacks with no apparent links beyond America’s borders, and which Trump has struggled to address politically
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While the radicals of the Islamic State, also known as ISIS, were an ideal foil for Trump during his 2016 campaign — when he fired up supporters with talk of ruthless airstrikes, a Muslim ban and even torture — he now finds himself awkwardly confronting a home-grown threat for which critics say he bears some responsibility, and which defies the simple-sounding solutions he offered for fighting ISIS.
In political terms, Trump has been a victim of his own success: The multinational military campaign launched against ISIS in 2014 has succeeded in devastating the radical terrorist group’s infrastructure and has recaptured nearly all the territory ISIS once controlled in Syria and Iraq. The pace of the group’s attacks in Europe and the U.S. have dramatically slowed.
Americans have not witnessed a major foreign-directed terrorist attack on U.S. soil for more than a year, when an ISIS sympathizer drove a truck into pedestrians on a bike path along New York’s Hudson River on Halloween 2017, killing eight people.
“We haven’t had a major attack in a year,” said Seth Jones, a terrorism expert at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, who has advised U.S. government officials on counter-terrorism. “I don’t think foiled plots or arrests sell.”
But that has also deprived Trump of a political theme that he used to powerful effect in 2015 and 2016, when grisly ISIS-planned and inspired attacks — from a November 2015 massacre at the Bataclan nightclub in Paris to a mass shooting in San Bernardino, Calif., the next month— instilled fear across Europe and in the U.S., and Trump insisted that campaign rivals of both parties weren’t up to the task of protecting Americans from maniacal foreigners.
Trump himself has said that fear of ISIS was crucial to his political rise — as he explained to supporters after winning several major GOP primaries on March 15, 2016.
“Something happened called Paris. Paris happened,” Trump said, while explaining how he had come to dominate the GOP field. “And then we had a case in Los Angeles,” he added, in a reference to the ISIS-inspired San Bernardino shooting that left 14 people dead.
“And what happened with me was this whole run took on a whole new meaning… And the meaning was very simple: We need protection in our country, and that’s going to happen.”
“And all of a sudden,“ Trump added, “the poll numbers just shot up.”
Seeing a winning issue, candidate Trump talked about ISIS constantly, vowing to “knock the hell out of” the sadistic terror group, and attacking his rivals for alleged weakness in confronting them. Trump argued the ISIS threat warranted extreme measures that only Trump himself dared to propose. “They chop off heads and they drown people in cages with 50 in a cage in big steel heavy cages, drop them right into the water, drown people — and we can’t waterboard and we can’t do anything and we’re playing on different fields,” Trump said in a typical comment to Fox News in April 2016.
Fear of ISIS also formed the backdrop for one of Trump’s signature campaign promises: a ban on Muslims entering the U.S. “until we are able to determine and understand this problem and the dangerous threat it poses,” as he put it in a December 2015 statement.
The ISIS threat also offered a convenient way to change the subject. Trump mentioned ISIS five times during an October 2016 presidential debate in response to a question about a bombshell 2005 recording of Trump bragging about making unwanted advances on women.
The political effect of the recent package bombs mailed to several top Democrats and Saturday’s massacre at a synagogue in Pittsburgh remains hard to gauge. But with critics denouncing him for stoking political, racial and ethnic tensions within the U.S., it seems unlikely to bring Trump political gain.
And in contrast to his gleeful denunciations of ISIS and vows of punishing action in 2015 and 2016, over the past week Trump has recited careful statements about the recent attacks within the U.S., but has shown little interest in discussing them at length, although Trump is scheduled to visit to Pittsburgh on Tuesday. Nor has Trump offered any clear policy responses to the two episodes.
As for ISIS, experts agree that its threat has been diminished, but they warn not to totally dismiss the terrorist group.
“The Islamic State of today is a mere shadow of what it was in 2015 and 2016,” said Peter Vincent, a counter-terrorism expert and former Obama administration Department of Homeland Security official. “They may be relatively small in numbers, but they remain extraordinarily lethal and able to operate in small, cellular groups and continue to look for opportunities to engage in terrorism.”
Vincent also warned against declaring that ISIS is defeated, as both Trump and those close to him have done. Trump’s son, Eric, recently told Trump supporters at a rally in Texas that “ISIS is gone.”
“That is music to the ears of every ISIS leader, organizer, fighter and fundraiser because that takes the global emphasis off their proverbial efforts to rise like a phoenix from the ashes,” he said.
Analysts also say Trump deserves less of the credit for degrading ISIS than he has been claiming. Much as many economists say that he inherited positive economic momentum from the Obama administration, Trump also took office as U.S.-led forces were preparing for major assaults on key ISIS strongholds, including the major Iraq city of Mosul, which fell in July 2017 after a military offensive that Trump originally ridiculed.
Without ISIS, Trump has found new foils and re-emphasized old favorites —from the media, which he again called the “true enemy of the people” on Monday, to liberal billionaire George Soros. In the run-up to the midterms, Trump has focused much of his attention on a caravan of migrants traveling from central America to the U.S.-Mexico border.
The president has drawn on similar themes in highlighting both issues, warning of the influence of unknown others and playing on Americans’ fears.
Instead of continuing to warn about “Middle Easterners” in the caravan, Trump has doubled-down on his insistence that there are criminals in the group, including members of the gang MS-13, which the president has spotlighted in his immigration crusade.
“Many Gang Members and some very bad people are mixed into the Caravan heading to our Southern Border,” Trump wrote on Twitter on Monday. “Please go back, you will not be admitted into the United States unless you go through the legal process. This is an invasion of our Country and our Military is waiting for you!”
There’s evidence that the focus on immigrants is rallying Trump’s base. When asked to rank their anger about immigration on a scale of 1 to 10, Republicans 55 and older averaged a 7.9 in a recent poll.
“Trump is capable of exploiting just about any kind of fear that people might have and will do so at the drop of a hat,” said Daniel Benjamin, director of the John Sloan Dickey Center for International Understanding at Dartmouth College and the State Department’s former coordinator for counterterrorism. “He’s got elderly women in northern Minnesota worried that immigrants are going to go up there and invade their home. He’s doing just fine in scaring people.”
While the rhetoric has changed over time, people close to the president say the strategy is the same.
“He’s looking for any ways to instill fear and anxiety. That was the hallmarks of the 2016 rhetoric: we are a country that is anxious that has a whole variety of things to fear because of the failed rhetoric of the past,” a former White House official told POLITICO. “And he still believes that fear and anxiety are the best motivators in terms of voting in elections.”
The official continued, “All of the immigration stuff, there are policy reasons behind it, but the political reason behind it is the anxiety that people have about MS-13 and violence and crimes and immigrants disrupting society.”