The Terror War Era
Historians would labor to explain the 1920s without reference to World War I, even if that era’s Americans preferred to forget it. Same with the 1980s and Vietnam: Ronald Reagan’s partisans somehow simultaneously disowned, denied, and defended Nixon-era excesses that no longer burdened them. Today, Trumpism is both the glib repudiation and the shameless vindication of Bushism.
Spencer Ackerman’s Reign of Terror, a refreshing if distressing account of contemporary continuities and fractures, brings war back to the center of politics. Its narrative of the modern right is textured and damning, its treatment of the national-security blob and liberal Democrats unsparing.
When pundits manage to avoid caricaturing the right, they often overemphasize former President Donald Trump’s alleged noninterventionism. Ackerman tells a more convincing story. Under George W. Bush, the neoconservatives united most of the right—including most of the future MAGA movement—in their enthusiasm for war and for shredding civil liberties. The nativists and neocons had “competing conceptions of American exceptionalism,” Ackerman argues, but shared “civilizational explanations for 9/11.” The neocons marginalized an isolationist fringe as “unpatriotic conservatives” while also condemning the State Department and CIA as insufficiently hawkish—a reminder that the GOP has long housed situational skeptics of the “deep state.” All the while, conservative elites tolerated and promoted the resentment that kept the Bush base on the war train. This group’s main motivation remained nationalist revenge, primarily against Muslims and Arabs. An early casualty of the neocon-populist alliance was immigrants, for whom Bush had initially planned a liberal approach.
Ackerman clarifies the function of bellicose nationalism, which the internationalist neocons’ outsized influence has obscured. Some anti-globalist critics of perpetual war had hope for Trump, overlooking the fact that major periods of warfare typically follow perceived threats to national interests. The USS Maine, the Zimmerman telegram, Pearl Harbor, and the Gulf of Tonkin did more to fuel intervention than all the abstract dreams of democracy combined. The nationalists do eventually tire of foreign commitments, but they seldom accept responsibility for their belligerence. This tendency is clear in the career of Tucker Carlson, whom Ackerman calls an “Iraq war cheerleader who styled himself an antiwar conservative after he came to see Iraqis as culturally unworthy.” Carlson once admitted to “zero sympathy” for the primary victims of the war he supported. Even if his anti-war conversion is permanent, another 9/11 would likely overcome his viewers’ isolationism and buy another decade of escalating war.
After seven years of Bush’s futile war on terror, the right-wing resentment it stoked became dire
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