Did 9/11 pave the way for Donald Trump?
That's a big question, and until I read Spencer Ackerman's new book, Reign of Terror: How 9/11 Destabilized America and Produce Trump, I didn't really think about it. Ackerman is a longtime national security journalist who has covered the "war on terror" since it was founded about two decades ago.
Ackerman's answer to the above question is yes, but his thesis is even clearer: the war on terror – and the multitude of excesses it unleashed – undermined the institutional armor of American democracy and left the country defenseless against its own pathologies. And these pathologies, which Ackerman interprets with meticulous care, prepared the ground for a figure like Trump.
Reading Ackerman's book was a whirlwind. I was 19 years old when the Twin Towers fell. I will never forget how the planes hit the wall. I will never forget how confused and angry I was. And I'll never forget the thoughts that went through my head when I realized that I was going to boot camp in just four months.
Even so, 9/11 seems so distant and trying to follow the thread of the last 20 years is daunting. But there is a common thread, and if you follow it closely enough, you can see how profoundly this event changed our politics and culture.
So I reached out to Ackerman for an upcoming episode of Vox Conversations to talk about how the war on terror turned American politics on its head and put us on a glide path to nativism and lawlessness. We also discuss the failure of Democrats like Barack Obama to correct course and why the end of the Afghanistan conflict does not mean the end of the war on terror as we know it.
What follows is a transcript which has been edited for length and clarity.
I want to start by looking back at 9/11, which seems like an eternity. They said, “I have to admit that after September 11th I swallowed this red pill myself. Even after I thought I spat it out on the slaughter in Iraq, it took me years to see its lasting effects. "
This is a response for me, because I left for the boot camp for four months almost on the day after 9/11. And I remember watching these towers fall out of my apartment and I remember the anger and confusion I felt. I remember how eager I was to go "over there" and … do something.
Since then, I've been seeing things very differently for all sorts of reasons, but first I just wanted to ask how that moment changed you, or at least temporarily disrupted your worldview.
I am a native of New York. I live in the same neighborhood in Brooklyn where I was born and raised. I wasn't in New York when the towers hit. I was in New Jersey at Rutgers University where I went to college through a strange series of events. And I remember that morning I was supposed to report on a little campaign freeze in New Brunswick by Jim McGreevey, who was running for governor that summer. And I lived in a group house and I went downstairs and my roommates just looked at a TV and sobbed. And the panic that went through me, the feeling of not coming home, was really overwhelming, to be honest.
I certainly didn't think in historical contexts or material grievances. I didn't really need to understand it yet, but everyone in a position of authority articulated a reaction that was just anger and turned trauma into something that could be used for violence. And I didn't question that at all.
I also felt that something that could have been the seeds of a much better 9/11 response didn't come from the political leadership, only from Americans getting in their cars from across the country and heading to Manhattan drove to try and help. People queue to donate blood. There was a lot of solidarity that people wanted to express in order to understand the trauma they were feeling.
And instead, the leadership of this country took advantage of it, took advantage of the very real pain of New Yorkers who watched nearly 3,000 of their neighbors die horrific deaths, and used it to make something that our other neighbors have their freedom would refuse. exclude them from so-called national unity and insisted on exploiting all this pain to make something useful from the perspective of American hegemonic interests worldwide.
“The Afghanistan war did not rebuild Afghanistan. The war in Afghanistan rebuilt Northern Virginia. "
I wrote it in the book to make it clear that I am no exception here and that I am not writing this out of some kind of self-righteous anger. I write it out of shame and knowing that this kind of barbarism resonated with me too. And I think it took me far too long to realize years and years and years later that every last soldier in Iraq had to be withdrawn and withdrawn quickly.
But I still haven't always recognized or understood how that feeling and the political, journalistic, intellectual explanations offered had subtly led me to interpret the world the way they did. Sometimes I didn't realize that was there, as an assumption, but it was definitely there. It was there in all of the journalistic work that I did not produce that did not relate to politics, but to the people whose lives were destroyed by these politics.
It is much easier, from now on, to think soberly about all the misfortunes and tragedies of the last 20 years. But that moment was intense and traumatic and chaotic. And I think a lot of us have been overwhelmed by some of these unhelpful emotions. And at least I wanted to acknowledge that before we dive into what has happened since then.
It is obviously very difficult to sum up our collective response to this national trauma, which has involved a wave of laws and the creation of various agencies and bureaucracies. But was there a common thread in all of these things that captured the country's reaction to this event?
Yes sir. It's called American exceptionalism. It was and is a kind of world order that states that America will construct what it calls the rule-based international order, that is, an international architecture through which it initially acts in a leading role. Second, results, which are not always and not guaranteed, are throttled to benefit the extent of the American political and economic order.
It also says that the United States need not feel bound by the architecture it creates. And perhaps most fundamentally, it says America is acting, America is not being acted. That was the hurt policy makers felt in interpreting the 9/11 trauma.
This also helps you understand that American exceptionalism is basically the geopolitical version of white innocence. America has never been immune to history. It tries to escape history and says it's not guilty for history, not for things it does to millions, tens of millions, hundreds of millions of people.
We fast forward a bit to the present, but I think we should. How did this reaction come about, how did this attitude, this idea that we are trapped in a civilization drama … how does that lead to Trump?
In this reaction, in pathologizing Muslims, Islam, especially the Arab world, to spread guilt and divert any discussion of how America's existing hegemonic, violent and exploitative policies in the Muslim world lead to a demand for the kind of psychotic political violence that Bin Laden offers. As this takes hold, very old, historically rooted nativist currents are also opening up in American history, openly expressed by experts who openly urge the American military to invade their country and bring them to Christianity to convert.
In fact, the name is a social compromise, not to say “war on radical Islamic terror”. But it is not a war on terror, because we see very quickly that not all terror is the subject of the war on terror. White terrorism, the oldest, most violent and resilient terrorism in American history, is specifically not one of them and, as an FBI veteran told me much later, is becoming the lowest priority for FBI counterterrorism.
Evangelical leaders, people of enormous following, enormous political and spiritual influence, agreed on this very explicitly as their declaration in 2002, preaching from the Southern Baptist Convention and other forums that this is the moment of the "mask off" of Islam, which is now it is not just coming for Israel, it is coming for America, which is also a deep and deliberate misunderstanding of the Israeli-Palestinian "conflict".
This begins to expand dramatically, especially when the first black president is elected. One of the things this electorate is fueled to is that he is an enemy of the United States, not just because he is black, but also by the birth certificate meme. The war on terror is right there because it calls Obama a secret foreign Muslim.
Of course, we should just pause to say that this is a lie. But it still caught on because it was so aggressively cultivated by the likes of Donald Trump, who, as every New Yorker, especially my age, knows, has played this casually violent nativism throughout his entire public career and also makes sure that it is present in these moments of outbreak.
That speaks in favor of another key theme in the book, namely that Trump understood something about the war on terror that many Liberals and Democrats did not understand. They write that "he realized that the 9/11 era was a grotesque subtext to the perception of non-whites as looters, even when it was driven by conquerors from hostile alien civilizations." And if he understood, he was in that Able to be hostile to the war on terror because of the contempt it displayed on it during the election campaign.
But what he complained about was not the war itself, but our unwillingness to be more brutal. Beyond his grotesque rhetoric, how did Trump escalate the brutality of the war on terror, or did he?
He did it in a variety of specific and concrete ways. To name a few, in 2018 I discovered that the first two years of Barack Obama's presidency were a high point in US drone strikes around the world. In 2010 they were a very narrow area of Pakistan, basically the size of Greater New York City, one every three days. Just imagine that. Imagine there was an air raid in the New York metropolitan area for a whole year, once every three days on average. We don't normally talk about it that journalistically, but I think it's important that we do that because it reveals the reality of this campaign.
Trump escalated that. Even before 2018 ended, Trump had launched more drone strikes than Obama at the height of the drone war. Before he asked the Taliban for peace, he escalated the war in Afghanistan. He agrees to H.R. McMaster and Jim Mattis who have been in the Trump administration to at least make sure he is keeping the war on terror going and not actually stopping it.
“America has never been immune to history. It tries to escape history and says that it is not responsible for things that it does to hundreds of millions of people. "
He keeps lying and saying he's pulling US troops out of Syria even though he doesn't. What he's doing is pulling them away from the Kurdish forces that the US and Syria have relied on to destroy the IS caliphate in Syria and let their Turkish enemies riot against them. Trump didn't even withdraw these troops from Syria. He just pulled them away from their allies on the battlefield.
Nobody in the United States is paying any political, congressional, or media attention to the US-sponsored war in Somalia. Many times we have called Iraq or Afghanistan, differently, "the forgotten war". But Somalia is a war old enough to have a bat mitzvah. Trump is escalating this war like no other. Just as Obama is synonymous with drone strikes, particularly in Pakistan and Yemen, Trump should be synonymous with drone strikes in Somalia. His presidency wages the war in Somalia like never before and then pulls the troops back amid great din.
For all of my criticism of Barack Obama's presidency that dragged the United States into the Syrian civil war, it is not Obama who ultimately takes over cruise missile attacks against Bashar al-Assad's forces, but Donald Trump. And, of course, the constant encouragement and instigating terrorism of white supremacy here in the United States.
And finally, on the streets of various American cities last summer, Trump is using the war on terror mechanisms against anti-fascist protesters, using an aerial drone to monitor 15 cities against protesters demanding the liberation of blacks, with Homeland Security stuffing protesters in Portland for arrest unmarked vans and so on. This is Trump waging the war on terror. I call it "allowing the war on terror to be its most authentic self" in the book.
Maybe we just answered that, but why couldn't the Democrats, why couldn't Obama escape the gravity of the war on terror? Why were they sucked into the same self-fulfilling vortex?
You're buying into American exceptionalism. I argue in the book that this is a downstream consequence of the Democratic Party's separation from its previous base in the labor movement. As the Democratic Party becomes less of a workers' party, it becomes less receptive to democratic interests and much more receptive to the interests of the upper middle class and the wealthy. It is looking for a justification after the Cold War, which it finds above all in humanitarian ideas, which it fundamentally tires and demands the responsibility to protect.
And this ideology doesn't go together. But it doesn't have to be in the context of the war on terror. It just needs to be interpreted in the war on terror. And that's where a lot of liberal journalists and intellectuals go. Policymakers themselves are in a far more reactive position, faced only with a deep, deep fear that if they stand against any aspect of the war on terror, they will never again enjoy power. And this is ultimately the glide path for the Democratic elites to invade Iraq.
But from the intellectual perspective of the liberal elites, the ideas that prevailed were that the war on terror could be a valiant struggle to keep people from the nightmares of those despotic rules of the Taliban or Saddam Hussein through the just use of American violence in your name. As what imperialism always justifies itself by delivering security and justice when in reality it only delivers gain, death and injustice.
Let me hold on to that for a second, because what you are saying now really underscores this tragic contradiction into which the Democrats marched directly. For all of these political reasons, they couldn't or could have let go of the war on terror, but they –
They decided against it. This is always a choice.
So they tried to manage and bureaucratize it, but the longer it went on, the more it failed, and the more it fueled the undercurrents that supported it in the first place. And here we are.
And what, in my opinion, is not always appreciated, is a crucial context in order to understand someone like Trump and how he was able to do so without drawing any conclusions within the Republican Party, which was so committed to the war on terror because she said "these" wars were stupid, “because nobody in the entire Obama administration wants to say they are lost wars, but it is obvious that they did not keep their promises. And they have only inflicted agony and suffering and aggravated terrorism, increased the ambition, scope and possibilities of what becomes the Islamic State, which would never have existed if the US had not invaded Iraq.
But with the Obama administration maintaining the war on terror, it doesn't get particularly noticeable to the political class, but very noticeable to Trump's coalition, that these catastrophic wars now look very much like Democratic wars.
As you say in the book, Obama has tried to put eternal war on a permanent basis. What does that mean in practice?
It meant putting together internal committees of lawyers, intelligence officials, senior military officials, and high-ranking political officials who came together in a bureaucratic process that mostly led the war on terror through drone and counterterrorism attacks. This was seen as a way of making the war on terrorism lawful.
But the thing is, the law was not obeyed. What happened was that lawyers in the Obama administration and intelligence and military found justifications for what Obama was already about to do, to the point that two lawyers, David Barron and Marty Lederman in the Justice Department (Barron was for it with federal judge), Barack Obama said that despite the Constitution's prohibition on killing someone without due process, an American citizen named Anwar al-Awlaki, who was an important and even operational figure in al-Qaeda, could simply be executed Yemen. Someone who has become a radicalizer of other people through the war on terror, including Detroit lingerie bomber Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab.
Probably not the last time we'll see (this) while the war on terror continues.
Perhaps we could appreciate better if we remember that in the summer of 2020 the Trump administration maneuvered many of the war on terrorist mechanisms against their domestic adversaries. There will be another right-wing government. It will likely look more like Trump than not. It can be more competent and courageous, and it will have a precedent blessed by Obama's Justice Department saying that if it's too hard to kill people, declare yourself a dangerous terrorist, just … Sorry.
Without euphemism, without self-image, that was Obama's war on terror.
I asked Ben Rhodes, who was one of his likely left-wing political advisors, why they weren't dismantling the war on terror, especially after they got the chance when they killed bin Laden. And his answer was, "Imagine doing what you wanted him to do and there is another terrorist attack and the world is going to end."
And what he really means is not the end of the world, but the end of Obama's presidency if he follows my advice. But that doesn't even have to happen if Obama were to argue thoroughly why the war on terrorism is a generator or a security threat of its own to Americans, as it has been on some occasions in his presidency.
The fact that maintaining the war on terror has been shown to have made Americans less secure has not allayed their security concerns. And although Obama would of course have been made demagogic for this, one can only oppose the demagoguery by actually opposing it and arguing in the affirmative why the war on terror is a failure of profound consequence.
It addresses the political logic that makes eternal war forever. But there is a bridge here between Obama and Biden. And of course we are speaking a week after the war in Afghanistan officially ended. What do you think of Biden's withdrawal from Afghanistan? And what do you think of the reaction to that?
So the withdrawal from Afghanistan is absolutely the right thing from a top-line perspective. Every year we were in Afghanistan Afghanistan got more chaotic. The Taliban grew stronger. So there is no better time to withdraw from Afghanistan than yesterday. And the second best time will always be today. The worst time will always be tomorrow.
"But it is not a war on terror, because we see very quickly that not all terror is the subject of the war on terror"
These stories, since 2020 and before, have been there constantly when you read the coverage of Afghanistan or do the coverage of Afghanistan. Fears of a return to Taliban rule were not dark things. They are predictable and predictable things. It was predictable things. And the Biden government, especially when it became clear that there would be no peace process, that the Taliban were just winning, even in the areas of northern Afghanistan that they had never occupied when they first came to power, the situation is getting really bad.
I think I described it as a moral floor that acted as a moral ceiling. The United States created millions of refugees in Afghanistan. And if you didn't serve the war effort, if you were just trying to endure it and survive, you wouldn't be on those planes. They would not be the people whose lives America wanted to save.
With all the reactions that have taken place, especially among journalists ripping their clothes off about the very real human catastrophe for which America is responsible, I see people expressing their anger that 20 years of war seemed to have ended suddenly and have brought nothing. In fact, these were the consequences of 20 years of war.
You closed the book by saying that it is difficult to see America more than its war on terror. And I don't know if I would put it that way, but I would say that Americans have so internalized the war on terror – its ethics, its excesses, its failures – that we can't even see beyond it. It is now only in the ether. And the whole thing works like a metaphor for the slow motion death of the American empire.
I think a proper ending is to emphasize what the war on terrorism is and why it needs to be abolished, why it cannot be reformed and what it ultimately means.
We record this on a day when Brown University's Costs of War Project released its latest estimate of the impact of the war on terror. This is a very conservative result. It finds well over 900,000 people killed by the war on terror and $ 8 trillion in money that, in my opinion, can best be described as looted.
The Afghanistan war did not rebuild Afghanistan. The war in Afghanistan rebuilt Northern Virginia. The war in Afghanistan, like the war on terror beyond that, has enriched a very small and politically extremely powerful private interest, namely the arms industry. The arms industry, in my opinion, functions as the American variant of state capitalism.
This is a company that acts as a tremendous force not only for the inertia in the American empire, but also for its growth. Of course we paid for the war on credit. … What would you rather have spent that on?
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