WASHINGTON – Of all the absurdities in Donald Trump’s rapid political rise, none is more puzzling than his reputation for toughness in the war against terrorism.
Trump is a real estate developer who takes any domestic terrorist attack – whatever the actual circumstances – as confirmation of his views on a lax immigration system, as evidence of a law enforcement system hobbled by political correctness and as cause for more aggressive profiling of Muslims, Arabs, or whomever he is currently defining as the threat. Some of his followers seem particularly pleased when he edges toward declaring Islam itself to be the enemy. “Frankly,” Trump has said, “we’re having problems with the Muslims.”
This is complete madness. No serious counterterrorism expert (Trump may have unearthed some unserious ones to provide cover) believes that the task of confronting domestic radicalization – of working with communities to identify threats and prevent attacks – is helped by declaring a war on Islam. Those who regard Trump’s use of the words “radical Islamic terrorism” as a counterterrorism victory are engaged in magical foreign policy thinking – the deployment of incantations in a global conflict.
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Trump has hardly distinguished himself in reacting to that conflict, fed by the radiating disorders of the Middle East. As the Islamic State (also known as ISIS) rose, the GOP nominee said, “That’s not our fight.” And: “Let Syria and ISIS fight. Why do we care?” And: “Let Russia fight ISIS, if they want to fight ‘em.” But also: “Bomb the oil and take the oil” – which would seem to require a choice between the two. Incantations are preferable to such gibberish.
Trump’s instinct is to lead from behind – the intensification, not repudiation, of Obama-era policy in the Middle East. But one of the leading critics of this policy is also Donald Trump. “If 1 / 8Obama 3 / 8 had gone in with tremendous force,” he has argued, “you wouldn’t have millions of people displaced all over the world.”
Those who believe that preening bluster makes up for willful ignorance and dangerously poor policy judgment have found their man. But this is not the worst of it. Anyone who has spent time working in the White House would attest that the single most important presidential attribute is leadership in times of crisis. We have no idea what challenges the next president may face – an outbreak of deadly pandemic flu, the collapse of order in nuclear Pakistan, a cyberattack on the U.S. electricity grid. All we know – or try our best to know – is the character, stability and credibility of the president himself (or herself).
On current and consistent evidence, Trump would jump to conclusions, entertain conspiracy theories and lash out in rhetoric that seems tough but actually complicates the task of leadership. Conservatives trying to justify a vote for Trump argue that the presidency itself will somehow mature him. Yet the Republican nominee has provided little reason to believe he is truly capable of learning or benefiting from good counsel. “My primary consultant is myself and I have a good instinct for this stuff,” Trump has said.
When I asked a former official of George W. Bush’s administration (who wanted to be unnamed in order to speak more freely) about the requirements of presidential leadership in a time of national testing, the list was not a match with the GOP nominee. “It is really important to project a sense of calm,” the official said. “A leader understands that people feed off his emotions in a moment of crisis. If he uses wild or frantic rhetoric, it will risk creating a psychological tsunami.”
The president may face simultaneous crises, the official went on, forcing him “to rely on others in the team to give good advice.” And: “If the ego is central to a leader and a crisis occurs, it could lead to rash decision-making.” And: “One cannot solve a crisis by blaming other people. This tone makes it harder to rally the whole nation.” A leader has to “articulate a credible strategy” and honor the “American values that unite us.”
By all of these measures, Trump represents an extraordinary risk to the nation. On foreign policy, he is the worst of all worlds – extreme and alienating in his rhetoric, confused, erratic and weak on matters of policy. When some of us talk about presidential temperament, this is what we mean. Trump has not shown the stability, prudence and judgment the presidency requires in moments of national testing. This is not only disturbing; it is disqualifying.
Michael Gerson’s email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.