What Can We Learn from the Trump and ISIS Eras?

Donald Trump and Abu Bakr Al-Baghdadi peddle similar fantasies to ordinary people living in diminished and stressed conditions.

It is a cliché but one worth remembering, nevertheless, that most people around the world seek similar things in life, and consequently they behave in similar and predictable ways. This applies to both good and bad behavior, as we witness rather dramatically today in the parallels between the sentiments and actions of people living in very different conditions across continents, but who respectively support Donald Trump or the “Islamic State” (ISIS).

A fascinating but predictable combination of three F’s—fanaticism, fear and fantasy—explains why otherwise ordinary men and women react in extreme and often inhumane ways to their predicament of navigating the stresses of their rattled modernity. I was struck by this during recent research into the increased support for Trump after his call to temporarily halt the entry of Muslims into the United States, and the string of terror attacks across the world that are linked to ISIS.

Then I read this wonderful passage by columnist Gary Younge in the Guardian newspaper on why Trump’s outrageous statements only increase his popular support: “This is a large part of his appeal. He articulates the frustration and bewilderment of that section of uneducated, unskilled, low-paid white America, whose wages have stagnated and social mobility has stalled that is nostalgic for its local privileges and global status. In recent times, they have lost wars, jobs, houses and confidence.”

This captures the multiple political, emotional, national, economic, cultural, and identity drivers that shape the sentiments of Trump supporters. The really noteworthy aspects of this, in my view, are the diversity, volatility, and universality of these many elements. ISIS supporters show the same combination of fanaticism, fear, and fantasy that drives Trump’s base. This is a function of our biological and psychological humanity, rather than a reflection of any national, religious, or cultural ideology. Fanaticism, fear, and fantasy also come and go, because collectively they are a politically seasonal phenomenon that reacts to specific conditions, rather than any fixed national traits among Americans, Arabs or anyone else (i.e., rightwing super-nationalist Europeans who make their mark less flamboyantly than Trump or ISIS).

The critical element here is the sudden uncertainty among individual men and women about their status in their own society and in the wider world. Citizens, families, and entire demographic groups that once could count on a continuously rising standard of living and greater privileged opportunities for their children—WASPS in the United States, Sunni Arabs in our region, to use easy generalizations—suddenly have to cope with the reality of no such certainty for them and their families. Complacency and predictability are replaced by a novel and uncomfortable sense of real vulnerability. The respected and powerful lose those attributes, and they do not know why this has happened or whom to blame.

This fear triggers fanaticism and fantasy responses, as people seek in extreme leaders and movements both solace today and the promise of a future return to a world of their unique empowerment. Fantasy kicks in as a driver of their political behavior. They start imagining a reconfigured world where their vulnerability disappears, their political dominance is reaffirmed, their cultural hegemony is protected, and the humiliations and indignities of their lives are forever banished.

Donald Trump and Abu Bakr Al-Baghdadi peddle similar fantasies to ordinary people living in diminished and stressed conditions. The fantasy of being born again into a perfect, orderly and triumphant world is hard to resist for ordinary men and women whose ordinary lives have suddenly taken a turn to vulnerability, uncertainty, weakness, humiliation, and even military and terror attacks by hostile foreigners they can neither understand nor neutralize. They are promised, and expect to enjoy, instant personal wellbeing, communal power, and national re-assertion, in Nevada and New Jersey as in Raqqa and Casablanca.

But because such magical transformation is also a fantasy world that never actually materializes, the dream usually dissipates and disappears after a short period of time. Other, more traditional, political and cultural forces step in and steer citizen discontent into different channels, including consumerism, sports, restrictive national laws, sectarianism, some inching into middle class comforts, or a new set of dreams of rebirth through migration, personal piety, or neighborhood solidarity.

The immediate crisis eventually passes, and with it the fears and frenzy that cause once normal Arabs and Americans to do abnormal things, like decapitate, launch wars against, or refuse entry to people they dislike or fear. For a brief period of time, crimes against humanity become both the security and salvation strategies of individuals and entire societies.

The most fascinating thing about these realms today is the universality of fanaticism, fear, and fantasy. Whether or not there exists a universal antidote to them, such as good governance, cultural and religious solidarity, or sustained and equitable economic growth, will become clear in the imminent post-ISIS and post-Trump eras—but only if we learn the lessons of these days, and courageously diagnose why and how millions of people in Arab and American societies reached this point simultaneously because of criminal actions we took, and lousy policies we pursued.

Rami G. Khouri is published twice weekly in the Daily Star. He was founding director and now senior policy fellow of the Issam Fares Institute for Public Policy and International Affairs at the American University of Beirut. On Twitter: @ramikhouri.

Copyright ©2015 Rami G. Khouri — distributed by Agence Global