This post is part one of a three part series detailing a series of events and circumstances that unfolded over the last 15 years, ultimately culminating in the election of the populist Donald J. Trump to the office of President of the United States. Each of these posts could be a novel, so many issues are mentioned without truly being dissected in the depth they may deserve. Equally, each event discussed has a historical significance and context that one could spend weeks exploring. These posts focus upon the actions in recent history (the last 15 years) that resulted in a lack of confidence in the federal government, a lack of certainty regarding the security of individuals and families, and actively strive to explain, at least in part, why the call of populism proved effective in the 2016 American election.
Pt. 1: A Post 9/11 World
A recent essay penned by former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani began with the phrase “We are all members of the 9/11 generation.” Despite his recent fall from political grace, few individuals remain better qualified to speak on how the September 11th terrorist attacks affected New York more than the Mayor of the time. The attacks showed how a nation removed from the shadow of the Cold War was vulnerable to new enemies, who did not bear the burden of a flag, but wore a cloak of ideology. When the reach of an individual or group exceeds that of a nation, the definition of vulnerability swiftly adapts. The enemies America faced were that day thrust into the light and recast not by national identity, but by the fanaticism that drove them. 9/11 saw the American public turn to face a new enemy: Extremism.
The aftermath of the 9/11 attacks saw shockwaves run through American and international soils. As President George W. Bush’s approval rating soared to 90%, the world wept. The following years saw the enactment of the Patriot Act and the creation of the federal Department of Homeland Security. The mandate of the NSA was broadened. The name ‘Osama Bin Laden’ became one used in households across the globe. At all points, citizens reacted in shows of kindness and solidarity in the aftermath of attacks, but with undercurrents of uncertainty. SCATANA was invoked to ground all flights from entering US airspace. Guantanamo Bay was created to house terror suspects. Hate crime rates on Muslims, South Asians and Sikhs skyrocketed, with later studies showing that prejudice was just as likely to be directed at individuals who were simply perceived as ‘Middle Eastern’. People looked for identifiers to allow them to see who their new enemy was. But extremism requires no passport or mold to travel or spread.
The fall out of these actions was enormous. Civil liberties groups stress that enacting the Patriot Act gave law enforcement the authority to invade the privacy of citizens and eliminated judicial oversight of domestic intelligence bodies. The expanded powers of the NSA lead to criticism regarding their apparent ability to investigate and operate domestically without the need for a warrant, with the scope of their activities only fully understood after the leak of thousands of documents to journalists in 2013. Studies conducted within the United States show that the cultural atmosphere following the attacks saw a focus upon heightening security, higher levels of anxiety and increased paranoia amongst American citizens. Anti-terrorism bills spread in legislatures across the globe, with nations everywhere decreeing that the actions of radical individuals presented a potentially grievous harm to their citizens.
Military enlistment rates surged in 2002 and 2003, with the average income and education levels of personnel rising as well. Military recruiters often credit the event for the rise in individuals joining the military for patriotic reasons – young men and women were now convinced they should take time out of their lives to serve their country. In those same years, gun ownership rates increased by 21%, with studies showing a greater still increase in ownership rates in New York City. These actions can in part be attributed to a weakened economy and directing increased funding to military recruiting agencies. But the vulnerability felt by individuals and the fervor of patriotism sweeping the nation has been given as reason by countless military personnel for explaining their decision to serve in the decades following the attacks.
Ultimately, the shockwaves dispersed through society sent a clear message: the federal government did not, and can not, protect it’s citizens from all instances of terrorism. Given that terrorism, by it’s very nature, is a fourth-generation warfare tactic that can be used by individuals, it is an act of war that does not require a formal declaration by a national body, but rather by any group with political aims. The lack of confidence in the government’s ability to eliminate all risk from terrorism fostered a lack of confidence within citizens that the expansion of powers truly made people safe. Later claims of abuse of power furthered the distrust already sown.
The “End of History” ended on September 11th, 2001 with the image of skyscrapers burning in the middle of the Manhattan skyline. The War on Terror that followed the actions taken domestically cost the United States an estimated $5T USD and while successes were had, no declaration of victory was found lasting. The impression on the minds of modern Americans was that the world was a dangerous place, filled with extremists eager to inflict damage simply due to disagreement over the legitimacy of the American way of life. The notion, cemented with the image of the attacks, spread across the Western world. The weight of that image and the impacts of decisions made in the years following the attacks still resonate across society today.
George W. Bush ended his tenure as the 43rd President of the United States with an approval rating of 22%, presiding over a nation that had grown to distrust its neighbours and view foreign ideologies as malignant and threatening. The cultural ground was ripe for demagoguery, sown with anger and fear – it only took the right individual to reap it.
Next – Pt. 2: Bursting a Bubble