Why Donald Trump Makes America Less Safe

Specifically, Donald Trump’s position as the Republican nominee makes attacks like the one in Orlando more likely.

The argument for why this is true is simple. In this short post I’ll make an argument for why Trump makes terrorist attacks more likely to happen. I’ll then try and substantiate the claims of this argument with some political science research.

My argument is a simple one building from the following three claims:

  1. ISIS benefits from U.S. policy that is belligerent towards Muslims.
  2. Donald Trump is likely to implement policies that are belligerent towards Muslims.
  3. Terrorist attacks increase the chances that Donald Trump wins the presidency.

If you believe these claims, you should also believe that ISIS will increase the number of attacks it tries to carry out in the wake of Trump’s nomination. Should you believe these claims? Let’s go to the research.

ISIS benefits from U.S. policy that is belligerent towards Muslims

For those who study terrorist groups, this is pretty much the conventional wisdom. But it is probably counterintuitive for non-political scientists. Why would ISIS benefit from policies that are intended to counter them? There are two ways that this can happen.

First, anti-Muslim policy helps ISIS solidify their control over the territory they are trying to hold in the Middle East. This occurs because counterterrorist policies in the Middle East — like drone attacks or “boots on the ground” conflict — can make individuals more willing to support terrorist groups. Perversely, this is true even when the terrorists themselves are the ones provoking the counterterrorist policies.

Second, anti-Muslim policy helps to radicalize individuals like Omar Mateen. When countries like the United States create policies that discriminate against Muslims (or other groups), Muslims begin to identify more with their religious group. For instance, an important recent study found that the single best variable that explains where Sunni jihadism is whether or not an individual lives in a French-speaking country. The authors attribute this in part to French attempts to impose secularization — particlularly the “veil ban” — on its subjects. More generally, psychologists have identified a number of individual-level risk factors that raise the chances someone might be recruited by a terrorist organization:

Common risk factors that increase vulnerability to terrorist organization recruitment are feelings of anger, alienation and disenfranchisement; dissatisfaction with their current activity and political/social results; identification with perceived victims; belief that violence against the state is amoral; a sense of reward; kinship or other social ties with perceived victims.

You can believe that some individuals are pre-disposed to these feelings and that anti-Muslim policies can exacerbate them. In other words, policies that are hostile towards Muslims can fan the flame, even if you don’t believe they can light it.

Donald Trump is likely to implement policies that are belligerent towards Muslims.

If you don’t believe this one, I’m not sure (a) how you found this post or (b) why you’re reading it. Trump’s animus towards Muslims is well-documented, not to mention a central platform of his presidential campaign. He wants to ban all Muslim immigration to the United States. He has pledged to intentionally target the family members of terrorists’ families. He has promised to engage in torture — and while these promises have not been explicitly directed at Muslims, they have been brought up only in response to Islamist terrorism and not, for instance, the several episodes of white domestic terrorism since his campaign began. He has gleefully repeated multiple times a false and execrable story in which John Pershing is said to have executed Muslim prisoners using bullets dipped in pigs’ blood. I could go on, but frankly, wading into the fetid swamp of Trump news stories is ruining my morning. Whether or not you think Trump’s hatred of Muslims is a feature or a bug, we can all agree it exists.

Terrorist attacks increase the chances that Donald Trump wins the presidency.

I’ll be honest — of the three, this is the one of which I’m least certain. One thing is for sure: in the past twenty to thirty years, terrorist attacks and concerns about terrorist attacks have helped Republican politicians win office. For example, political scientists found that in 2004 George Bush benefited from voters’ concerns about their own mortality, especially when these concerns were combined with subtle reminders of the possibility of terrorism.

So if Republicans tend to benefit electorally from concerns over terrorism, why might Trump not see a similar bounce? Well, to put it in the jargon of the field, this year’s election has been crazy AF. Republicans generally benefit electorally from terrorist attacks; but Republicans also don’t generally nominate political neophytes whose primary method of communication falls somewhere between “undergraduate unduly impressed with his own voice” and “racist uncle who just learned how to use the computer.”

So it’s possible that Trump might not benefit from terror attacks in the same way George Bush did. But it’s also true that Trump began to truly solidify his lead in the Republican primaries around the time of the Paris and San Bernardino attacks in late November/early December. At least within the Republican electorate, Trump’s brand of counterterror policy seems to have connected.

As for the general election, there isn’t too much polling of Trump and Clinton head-to-head on terrorism (though there will be in a week). But so far Trump may have the advantage: Gallup found he had a four point lead on the issue in late May. At this point I’d rate it more likely than not that terrorist attacks will benefit Trump this year.

If all these things are true — or, to put it less restrictively, as long as ISIS believes these things are true — Trump’s nomination will increase the chances of terrorist attacks. In view of this, the fact that Trump has run his campaign the way he has tells me that he is either ignorant of the basic logic behind terrorism or that he would rather win office than lower the chances of terrorist attacks in the U.S. Or both. Neither bodes well for the next five months.

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