In 1935, author Sinclair Lewis described the end of American liberalism in his book “It Can’t Happen Here,” an account of how populist Senator Buzz Windrip seizes power after being influenced by the Nazi dictatorship in Germany. It was fiction, but today, 80 years later, the boundaries between truth and fiction are becoming blurred.
Months ago, when Donald Trump all but ensured his spot as the Republican presidential candidate with deportation plans and the call for a ban on Muslims entering the country, a nervous debate erupted in the United States over the strength of its democracy. And now Orlando, the worst act of terror in the United States since September 11, 2001. 49 people are dead, after being shot in cold blood, and many others were wounded when a gay and lesbian nightclub became a deathtrap.
Even the United States, where killing sprees are happening with horrifying regularity, has never seen a massacre with so many victims.
June 12, 2016 will become burned into the collective memory of the nation. It was when a killer who reportedly pledged allegiance to the Islamic State and harbored a deep hatred of gays struck.
The bloodbath comes in the middle of a presidential election campaign with a cloud of fear hanging over it. This merely reinforces the impact of this act of terror, and further weakens resistance to the temptations of authoritarianism.
It is clear that Mr. Trump will benefit from the tragedy, and he knows it more than anyone else. Even as investigators are still reconstructing the course of events and trying to figure the attacker’s motivations, he has unleashed a storm on Twitter. “Appreciate the congrats for being right on radical Islamic terrorism,” he wrote in a self-congratulatory tweet, and warned: “What has happened in Orlando is just the beginning.”
Right-wing populism is sometimes described as an autoimmune disorder of liberal democracy. In medicine, an autoimmune disorder is when a person's immune system attacks and destroys his or her own body.
Mr. Trump was treated with derision for far too long. In a TV interview only a few days ago, President Barack Obama was unable to hide his amusement over the former reality TV star’s candidacy. Apparently the president is certain that his fellow Democrat, Hillary Clinton, will prevail – just as Republican leaders were convinced that they would defeat Mr. Trump.
They would probably have been right, if it hadn’t been for the killing spree committed by a couple of Islamist terrorists in San Bernardino, California, last December. The fear of terror bolstered Mr. Trump in the Republican primaries, and now it will bolster him in the presidential election. Populist Trump merely has to ask Americans: “Do you feel safer than you did eight years ago? Do you really want to see more of the same in the White House, Clinton after eight years of Obama?”
Right-wing populism is sometimes described as an autoimmune disorder of liberal democracy. In medicine, an autoimmune disorder is when a person’s immune system attacks and destroys his or her own body.
Right-wing populism works in a similar way. It infests the defenses of the political system, triggering short-circuit reactions, causing democracy to turn on its own institutions.
The best defense against fear is self-confidence. Contrary to the myth that Mr. Trump and other populists weave, a constitutional democracy is not powerless against terror but is in fact capable of defending itself. Its most important weapon is the participation of its citizens, and their trust in government institutions. Most attacks are thwarted when family members, neighbors and acquaintances notify the authorities when they witness someone becoming radicalized. It is precisely these protective mechanisms that right-wing populism destroys, in that it sees terrorists lurking everywhere and places entire segments of the population under sweeping suspicion.
They are many issues to discuss. For instance, how could a person known to the authorities as an Islamist easily obtain weapons and ammunition? Why are assault rifles readily obtainable in a country that bans Kinder chocolate eggs because of the risk of choking? But Mr. Trump obfuscates what needs to be done. His call for a ban on Muslims entering the country is meaningless, because the killers in the Orlando and San Bernardino attacks were born in the United States.
Populist Trump isn’t interested in solving problems. He only wants to create a mood, which is why he also continues to spread the lie that Muslims in New Jersey cheered when the Twin Towers of the World Trade Center collapsed on the opposite side of the Hudson River. He wants to feel important. He serves only himself, not his country.
Muslims are the West’s most important allies in the fight against Islamist terror. If this were not the case, we would have nothing but a battle of cultures, an abyss of isolation and exclusion, of violence breeding more violence.
The author is a correspondent in Washington. To contact him: email@example.com