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Trump, ISIS, and the Tactics of the Weak

November 6, 2016

A prominent Trump supporter recently offered a view that seems to represent much of the nation. “When I’m looking for somebody who’s going to deal with ISIS,” said Pastor Robert Jeffress, an influential TV host, “I want the meanest, toughest, son of a you-know-what I can find.” Few would doubt that Donald Trump is mean, but what makes Pastor Jeffress thinks he’s tough? What makes millions of Americans think Trump is tough when, in fact, his behavior suggests he’s unusually sensitive? What, for that matter, makes us think ISIS is tough — so much so that “looking for somebody who’s going to deal with ISIS” becomes the top priority? The answer is that Americans have been fooled by bluster and the tactics of the weak.

President Theodore Roosevelt: "speak softly and carry a big stick"

President Theodore Roosevelt: “speak softly and carry a big stick”

Bluster means loud, boastful, and threatening talk. It’s meant to give an impression of power. Terrorism plays a similar role, and in fact you might call it geopolitical bluster. It is devastating for its individual victims, but it has no military impact. So on a geopolitical scale, between nations, a terrorist attack is a loud, threatening statement.

Terrorism and bluster are tactics of the weak. In the modern world, strong governments don’t use them much. Those governments have real power, so they don’t have to give the impression of power. That’s why Theodore Roosevelt recommended in 1901 that America, “speak softly and carry a big stick.” American presidents have followed his lead, warning off potential opponents with promises of “serious consequences” and “proportional response,” rather than death and destruction. Nor do America and other great powers resort to terrorism. Contrast that tradition with Saddam Hussein, dictator of a weak nation. “We will chase [Americans] to every corner at all times. No high tower of steel will protect them against the fire of truth.” Bluster. (Americans weren’t impressed, and a few weeks later, in February of 1991, Saddam’s armies surrendered to U.S. and coalition forces.)

Donald Trump is all about bluster. “I beat China all the time, all the time.” “Day one, my first hour in office, those people [illegal immigrants] are gone.” “[N]obody builds walls better than me … and I will have Mexico pay for that wall.” And, “[I have] a foolproof way of winning the war with ISIS.” And like most blusterers, Mr. Trump lacks actual, visible strength. In fact, it’s his extreme sensitivity and vulnerability to criticism that have repeatedly gotten him into trouble, leading to resentful 3:00 a.m. tweets that alienate voters, and leading to furious attacks on the media and the “rigged” system whenever he starts to lose a contest.

ISIS is all about tactics of the weak too: terrorism and bluster, the latter often through carefully choreographed videos. The loud threats and vicious murders of individuals cloak ISIS’s extreme weakness. It holds only a small, shifting, and constantly threatened territory, and it’s fighting governments with substantial armies, including some of the world’s greatest powers. Its days are numbered. Yet vast numbers of Americans — including Donald Trump and apparently Pastor Jeffress — consider ISIS so dangerous that they’re willing to compromise core values, like freedom of religion, to beat it.

America must return to the common sense of Theodore Roosevelt and to the calm, steady confidence of our last few generations. ISIS is not an existential threat to the United States; it’s a bee attacking a tiger. As for Donald Trump, he’s not our “toughest, son of a you-know-what.” He’s all bluster. Terrorism and bluster are tactics of the weak. The strong speak softly and carry a big stick.

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Painting: John Singer Sargent, Theodore Roosevelt, Presidential Portrait (1903) (cropped)

© 2016 by David W. Tollen. All rights reserved.

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