More Brussels-type Terror Attacks Could Catapult Even Trump to Power

Clinton's experience will win out in the short term, but fear and intolerance will triumph if violence persists, as any Israeli can tell you.

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Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump speaks during an event in Florida, March 20, 2016.
Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump speaks during an event in Florida, March 20, 2016.Credit: AP
Chemi Shalev
Chemi Shalev

Ben Carson’s presidential aspirations fell victim to ISIS. Days before last year’s November 13 terror attacks in Paris, Carson was running neck and neck with GOP frontrunner Donald Trump, and even overtaking him in some of the polls. Days after the mass killings in San Bernardino, however, Carson was already free falling, losing over a third of his support to Trump and Ted Cruz. His indecipherable national security statements cost him dearly, and he never recovered. Trump, on the other hand, has led the race ever since.

The gap between Trump and Democratic frontrunner Hillary Clinton also seemed to be narrowing in the three weeks between the Paris and San Bernardino attacks, but the trend suddenly changed course and reversed itself. The reason is not only obvious, it inserts a note of caution into any analysis of the potential political fallout from this week’s terror bombings in Brussels: On December 7, a few days after San Bernardino, Trump called for total ban on the entry of non-American Muslims to the United States. His bold suggestion, which many saw as racist and reckless, enthused Trump’s admirers and probably gained him new fans in far away Israel. But it also confirmed preexisting suspicions that the inexperienced New York billionaire isn’t quite ready for prime time, that his rashness renders him unfit to navigate America’s complex fight against terror.

This clash between Clinton’s experience and moderation and Trump’s in-their-face belligerence is bound to take center stage in coming days, in the wake of the Brussels bombings and following “Western Super Tuesday” in Arizona, Utah and Idaho. Although both frontrunners were stung by their rivals - Sanders beat Clinton big time in Idaho as well as Utah, where Cruz also demolished Trump - Clinton and Trump were declared winners of the day by virtue of their crushing victories in the biggest enchilada, Arizona. Both frontrunners strengthened their positions as the inevitable unless-there’s-a-disaster candidates, in the November general elections.

Although voting day was overshadowed by the breaking news from Brussels, the terror attacks in the Belgian capital probably had very little influence on the results. In Arizona, a significant portion of the votes were cast over a month ago anyway, causing the recently departed Marco Rubio to embarrassingly get more votes than Ohio’s flash in the pan governor, John Kasich, who’s still in the race. And while the long lines of Arizonians coming out to vote were mainly comprised of people who were either pro or anti immigration, their concerns had more to do with Mexicans and very little with Muslims.

Nonetheless, the attacks in Belgium have dominated the news cycle and will probably continue to do so in the coming few days if not weeks. The immediate beneficiaries of the change of focus appear to be the frontrunners themselves. Terror invariably generates the kind of fear and thirst for a strong reaction that would bolster support for Trump’s brashness and expand the constituencies he’s already captured. On the Democratic side, the national security agenda is definitely a stronger point for Clinton than it is for Sanders, who has shied away from these issues and whose raison d’tre is to focus inwards on repairing America rather than outwards to protect it.

Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton at a campaign rally, March 2, 2016, in New York.Credit: AP

Campaign rhetoric quickly reflected the shifting political and media agenda. Trump repeated his call for a ban on entry of Muslims, trumpeted a return to torture of terror suspects and pushed to send troops on the ground to Syria, though he later clarified that it was Arab rather than American troops that he was referring to. Never one to be outflanked from his right, Cruz did Trump one better by advocating special police patrols to monitor Muslim neighborhoods in America itself, a call which generated widespread waves of revulsion across the political spectrum.

Clinton attacked both Trump and Cruz for inflaming the debate, alienating American Muslims and building barriers to the international community, whose support is vital to conducting a war on terror. How can you attack Muslims, she asked, and then try to enlist moderate Muslim countries? Even Sanders felt it necessary to get into the anti-terror act, advocating that the world unite in order to wipe out ISIS together.

In any normal political year, the outbreak of terror would automatically work in favor of Republicans rather than Democrats; but 2016 is anything but normal in American politics. Cruz’s extreme positions and Trump’s all over the place declarations - is this really the right time to withdraw from NATO? - deter not only the left, they also scare independents and even appall right wing stalwarts. Clinton, who is vastly more knowledgeable and experienced than Trump, may suffer for her own role in the Obama administration and could be criticized for her part in Libya, where ISIS have set up a forward base to threaten Europe. At the same time, however, Clinton is perceived as more hawkish than Obama and as someone who advocated a much stronger response than the president in Syria, the place where it mattered most.

Over time, however - and on the unsubstantiated assumption that Trump doesn’t go completely bonkers - Clinton’s advantages are bound to dissipate. The fear that ISIS will come to America, coupled with the widespread anger at what is perceived as American impotence in eradicating terror, will eventually damage Clinton more than Trump. More terror attacks will create greater general dread and generate increasing distrust of, and hostility towards, American Muslims. It would enhance support for more aggressive policies abroad and for a more hermetically sealed America at home.

If ISIS carries out more successful attacks, rational reliance on Clinton’s cool-headed decision-making will be tossed aside by a fear-blinded stampede towards the kind of radical solutions offered by Trump, even if they are unrealistic. Experts claim that this is precisely the ISIS strategy: To radicalize European and white majorities in Europe and the U.S., causing more right-wing nationalist parties to seize power, thus changing policies and attitudes towards local Muslims, in particular, and Muslims at large, in general, thus deepening support for ISIS in the Muslim world and expanding its reservoir for potential volunteers and suicide bombers in Western countries.

Israelis are the last people who need to be told of the efficacy of such plans. For the past quarter century, Israel has served as a test case that shows how terror breeds fear that gravitates towards militancy and intolerance, which spark in turn resistance and which then gives birth to even more extremism. It is a vicious circle and an almost foolproof formula, with guaranteed success. If terror and the terrorists are not defanged and destroyed in reasonable time, the radical right will rise as surely as the sun itself.