Donald Trump’s big speech on Afghanistan didn’t announce much change from the Obama policies he complained about, except in style. And the style was unmistakable: Trump blamed his predecessor for leaving him with no good options, promised to untie soldiers’ hands and to get tough with allies, boasted about his problem-solving powers, and promised that we would “win.” He managed to squeeze in a little quasi-fascist rhetoric, calling on Americans to “heal” by displaying the unity of soldiers—another confirmation that he has no sense at all of the rhythm or feeling of a free society. He warned that Pakistan would have to embrace “civilization,” giving a little neo-colonial nudge to what was otherwise a repudiation of “nation-building.” Bombast and wheedling aside, the speech confirmed that Trump and his generals see no way to redeem the Afghanistan adventure but would rather drag along than openly accept defeat—and the political responsibility for any major terror attack that followed. Even the switch in tone is becoming a set-piece: This is how Republican populists talk about the Forever War, while Democrats get to the same place by invoking prudence, humanitarianism, and a sheen of legality. No president escapes, but they decorate their failure with bunting of different colors and cuts.
So Trump, besides being a vulgarian, is a prisoner of the same situation that he attacked Barack Obama for mishandling. Now in Obama’s old office, Trump is mimicking the policy that Obama announced early in his own first term: more troops, on the pretext that they will bring a decisive end to the Forever War.
This war has a knack for thwarting promises to end it, or at least revealing their hollowness. Obama himself ran on a version of such promises, only to become the country’s longest-sitting wartime president. Trump, too, is a creature of the Forever War. He would not be where he is without the congeries of the costly and seemingly irresolvable humanitarian crises in Afghanistan and Iraq—the first a failed state that the United States has failed to repair, the second a failed state of our creation—and the in-and-out drone strikes, bombings, and special-forces raids around the region. The War on Terror, the surveillance state—they may have entrapped him, but never mind; what matters is that they brought him to power.
Trump, remember, broke out of the Republican primary pack by, among other things, savaging Jeb Bush for his brothers’ wars. Trump essentially went to South Carolina and said, “Bush lied, people died.” This isn’t to say that Trump had any integrity on the issue; but with a marketer’s eye and a bully’s nose, he saw the chance to attack the Republican elite where it had created, and sustained without apology, a disaster for servicepeople and for military families and communities. His treason-of-the-elites story got some of its hooks in via failed and awful wars.
But even more basic to Trump’s campaign, from the primaries to the final defeat of Hillary Clinton, were Islamophobia and the perennial warning that the world is unsafe: Muslims might be plotting to kill you; terrorists might be slipping into the country; Muslims stick together and defend each other with blood, and Christians need to do the same; you are in danger from foreign murderers, rapists, and other criminals, and if your leaders (Barack Obama especially) won’t admit that that to you, they are dissembling, and you need to elect someone who will tell you the truth.
All of this is racist and delusional; but that is not quite enough to explain its success. What lends it plausibility is that the United States is fighting in predominantly Muslim countries around the world, including Yemen, parts of Pakistan, and Somalia, not to mention our bombings in Syria and disastrous involvement in Libya. What lends it plausibility is the massive security-and-surveillance state that the government has built up since September 11, 2001. If you man the helm of these bloody and extravagantly expensive projects, as Obama did; if, like Obama, you maintain the post-9/11 state of emergency declared by George W. Bush and keep more than 16,000 national guard troops deployed under the power it gives you; how can you deny that we are in the kind of danger Trump describes? If we are not, the Forever War makes no sense. But the Forever War is our reality.
Of course, the Forever War has never made sense. But since George W. Bush made the fateful decision to launch it with bipartisan support, subsequent presidents have faced a trilemma: repudiate it and risk being called weak and, the next time a terrorist strikes, a de facto collaborator and traitor; maintain it while trying to check its excesses with legal procedure and cultural sensitivity, as Barack Obama did; or embrace the delusion and take credit for realism because you have brought a delusional rhetoric in line with a delusional policy. That was Trump’s move. And the Forever War is not neutral. It favors Trump’s move, because it establishes realities, which draw language and imagination toward them.
September 11, 2001, was a terrible day, and the dangers posed by terrorist ideologies rooted in versions of Islam are real. But none of this justifies what is done in the name of fighting terror: Cold-War levels of force abroad and the transformation of domestic life by surveillance and politicized fear. It does not warrant the creation of a world in which, if you assume that American military and security policy are rational, Donald Trump’s worldview makes sense, and everyone else must be trying to fool you.
George W. Bush created this world, powered by advisors with all kinds of geopolitical and institutional agendas, from remaking the military to remaking the Middle East, and intellectual cheerleaders like Thomas Friedman, who told Charlie Rose:
What they [Iraqis] needed to see was American boys and girls going house to house, from Basra to Baghdad, and basically saying, “Which part of this sentence don’t you understand? You don’t think, you know, we care about our open society, you think this bubble fantasy, we’re just gonna let it grow? Well, Suck. On. This.”
There was plenty of this kind of chest-beating, along with higher-toned treatises on the burdens of empire from liberals such as Michael Ignatieff. But the real motives of the Forever War were fear: politicians’ fear of doing too little and being blamed for the next attack; and Americans’ ever-stoked fear of that attack. Each amplified the other.
This is the only world in which Trump would have come to power in 2016. He might have ridden racism, populist anger at trade and elite indifference, and the perverse culture of the celebrity sadist some distance; but he is also a wartime president for the longest, most ambivalent war in American history. He ratifies the disproportionate fear that is its origin and linchpin.
It isn’t clear that there is a way out of this. Even Bernie Sanders, the most left-wing politician to rise to prominence in American life in decades, didn’t really offer an alternative vision of foreign policy. The dangers of repudiating the Forever War are vivid to politicians, and its material costs to American interests are manageable enough, so far. Repudiation will not come without widespread recognition of how acute its subtler costs are. Among them: it has brought us President Trump.
Jedediah Purdy teaches at Duke and is the author, most recently, of After Nature: A Politics for the Anthropocene (Harvard University Press, 2015). He is a member of the Dissent editorial board.