The War on Terror Gave Us Donald Trump

In an interview, Reign of Terror author Spencer Ackerman explains how the brutal legacy of America’s post-9/11 wars has reshaped U.S. society and led to our era of authoritarian demagoguery.

Micah Uetricht


The September 11, 2001 attacks on the United States, carried out 20 years ago, also inaugurated the era of the War on Terror — a brutal, ill-defined war that has now lasted longer than World War II, the Korean War or the Vietnam War. The War on Terror isn’t discussed much these days. Even President Biden’s recent pullout from Afghanistan only dominated headlines for a few weeks (and mainstream coverage was often critical of the withdrawal). At a time of mass death from the Covid-19 crisis and record inequality across the United States, Americans’ immediate day-to-day concerns tend to overshadow whatever our military is doing abroad.

But in his new book Reign of Terror: How the 9/11 Era Destabilized America and Produced Trump (Viking, 2021), Spencer Ackerman argues that, while it’s fallen out of public focus, the War on Terror has reshaped American politics and society as we know it, at the same time as it has wrought havoc throughout the world. From the hundreds of thousands of innocent people killed throughout the Middle East, to the undemocratic nightmare of prisoners captured and held in institutions like Guantanamo Bay, to the virulently xenophobic and racist currents that took hold in domestic politics (most successfully and horrifically by Donald Trump), to the use of hand-me-down military weaponry by local police departments against peaceful American activists, we are living in a world remade by the War on Terror.

Ackerman is a longtime national security correspondent, now reporting for The Daily Beast. He shared the 2014 Pulitzer Prize for Public Service for his reporting on Edward Snowden’s leaked revelations about the National Security Administration. In These Times contributing editor Micah Uetricht spoke with Ackerman about Reign of Terror.

Micah Uetricht: Let’s start with the basics. I don’t think it’s intuitive for some people how the 9/11 attacks helped produce the Trump presidency. How did that happen?

Spencer Ackerman: I wrote the book because it seemed, at the start of the Trump administration, like this connection wasn’t intuitive to a lot of people. There were a lot of explanations for the rise of Trump and the Trump phenomenon — some compelling, some less than compelling — but all of them overlooked something that didn’t necessarily replace those explanations, but instead joined them together. And that’s the fact that we have been at war for an entire generation, a war that has gone terribly, a war that the great mass of Americans have understood as disastrous, while simultaneously watching their political and media elites either lie about it or obscure it.

The creation of the War on Terror after 9/11 and the maintenance of the War on Terror has torn at the truth itself. It has been so racialized from the start. Something like $6 trillion has been taken from public funds and redistributed upward to the defense sector.

All of these factors together unleashed the most barbarous currents in American history, putting them on the march against a racialized other” that’s never defined and is portrayed as a threat to civilization — something that doesn’t simply exist abroad, but is coming into the United States and undermining what we understand as, from an overclass perspective, traditional America.”

Before we get to Trump, we have the panic of the early 2010s over the idea that Sharia law was creeping throughout the country. A lot of that was not taken particularly seriously, because it was so outlandish. And yet in more than a dozen states, legislatures wrote bills outlawing Sharia law. What does that really mean in practice? It means constraining the civil rights of Muslims and reinforcing the idea that there are alien others inside the country who are threatening you.

Throughout American history, when such currents are unleashed, they don’t tend to stay focused on only their targets. They become a wildfire — a wildfire that has been legitimized for an entire generation.

This happened not only in the unrespectable” currents of American politics, but the deeply respectable ones. Those respectable currents not only helped create and nurture that bloodthirst and that sense of internal subversion, and not only crafted this broad atmosphere of untruth about everything from the Iraq War and weapons of mass destruction to the supposed al Qaeda connection, but also attacked the institutions of American democracy.

Inevitably, a figure would come along who would harness all of those currents.

Micah Uetricht: Trump was simultaneously harnessing the currents that you’re talking about, but was also reacting to the United States’ imperial overreach and hubris. He still insisted on American exceptionalism —that’s at the heart of the phrase make America great again” — but he’s uttering the phrase after the repeated demonstration of American failures in the War on Terror. That combination seems to have led to a particularly vitriolic, reactionary kind of right-wing politics.

Spencer Ackerman: In the book, I describe this phenomenon in which the American exceptionalist mindset has to feature a kind of cognitive dissonance, created by the fact that America has achieved neither peace nor victory — something that makes no sense when you grow up believing that American geopolitical power, particularly military power, is so dominant, so seemingly natural as to appear like the weather. America acts, it is not acted upon, so the thinking goes. A real feeling of aggrievement manifests after 9/11.

That is how American elites perceived 9/11 and located it in history. History starts on 9/11. You heard so often in mainstream media, on the Left as well as the Right, that America’s holiday from history had ended. That was a really deliberate decision that stops any consideration of the impact of America’s imperial actions in the Muslim world.

Instead, what we get is what contemporary left-wing analysis warned would happen: unwinnable, extractive, grueling, bloody conflicts that America makes worse through its interventions. But its presence in those military conflicts is predicated on this idea that the exercising of American might is what is necessary to stop another 9/11. This is an agonizing condition. And it’s one that shatters faith.

But if you’re not willing to give up on American exceptionalism, Trump has exactly what you need. He has ready-made explanations for how elites have not allowed America to do what needed to be done — to bomb the shit out of them, to torture them more, and on and on and on. This is not someone who was ever going to end the War on Terror. This is someone who was always going to be a manifestation of that war, a lagging indicator of what it made possible.

Micah Uetricht: Why has discussion about the War on Terror been so minimal in recent years? Why, 20 years out from the war’s beginning, does it feel like an anomaly that someone like you would write a book like this insisting that actually, the War on Terror completely shaped the world we’re living in today? With the exception of major events like Joe Biden’s recent withdrawal from Afghanistan, the war is not the stuff of day-to-day politics in America.

Spencer Ackerman: First, the media and American political figures have succeeded at obscuring the extent to which the War on Terror has persisted. No one really calls it that much, anymore. We’ve talked more about the particular manifestations of it divorced from the broader term of the War on Terror.”.

We talk about Guantanamo and indefinite detention. We don’t tend to talk about all of these things together, as part of the same phenomenon. That’s a symptom of normalization, and it’s something that should really give us pause considering how much barbaric activity that normalization enables.

Second, by the fact of not tying this all together as one enduring enterprise, politicians can say that they’re ending wars. During the War on Terror, every time there has been a retreat from the battlefield, it’s portrayed as an end to the war. But all of the various pull outs — of Iraq, of Afghanistan, everywhere — have had asterisks next to them. Trump takes troops out of Somalia, but leaves them next door in Kenya, or continues to authorize operations to bomb Somalia from Djibouti. All of this infrastructure of the War on Terror — with some exceptions, like CIA torture — still exist. Politicians can portray themselves as having ended this war, when in fact what they’ve done is ensure it continues, just at a lower level of operating.

There are other morbid symptoms, democratically speaking, of the War on Terror. The Department of Homeland Security gave a counter-terrorism mission, counter-terrorism money, and counter-terrorism tools to hunt people who immigrate to the United States. The NSA created a digital panopticon that rendered the Fourth Amendment non-operative and quaint, to the point of being something of a social fiction. And now that digital surveillance architecture is symbiotic with 21st century capitalism, what the Harvard business school professor emerita Shoshana Zuboff calls surveillance capitalism.”

The NSA, as we learned from the Snowden documents — and I was privileged to be one of the reporters that worked on them — is able to figure out that as the economic structures of this country undergo a shift toward Silicon Valley companies which are trying to get us to use data on their platforms, which is to say, to generate data for them to aggregate, commodify and monetize. Then the NSA just piggybacks on that. That’s a program known as PRISM, the program that the NSA uses to gain access, in some manner, to the servers of companies like Google, Microsoft, Facebook, Apple and other tremendously powerful data giants. 

The symbiosis of the economic infrastructure of the United States, which is hegemonic around the world, with surveillance that comes to exist and achieve escape velocity after 9/11, is something we have still really yet to reckon with. This is now the architecture of the country. And because we’ve yet to recognize it, that’s one more reason why the persistence of the 9/11 era sometimes seems so obscure. It’s just the backdrop for how we live.

Micah Uetricht: You take turns in the book assessing how the Right and center-left, respectively, approached the War on Terror. One point you continually return to when discussing the Democrats is that the party never became a full-throated opposition force to the war. In the lead-up to the Iraq War, politicians like Joe Biden tried to distinguish themselves from the unabashed bloodthirstiness of the Right, but the Democratic argument was always about competence rather than saying that the whole framework of the war itself was wrong. Why did, and why do, Democrats keep doing this?

Spencer Ackerman: I called the third chapter Liberal Complicity in the War on Terror.” The Democratic Party acquiesces to the framework of the War on Terror. This is the most consistent feature of the liberal response to the 9/11 era. But this acquiescence doesn’t prevent Democrats from being tarred by enraged, violent nativism. The Democratic Party retreats to a defensive crouch in the hopes of not being hit again.

There are many reasons for this. As the Democratic Party shed its commitments to the labor movement over the course of the Cold War and embraced anti-communism as an organizing principle and pillar of a respectable American liberalism — over time, its interest in foreign policy and in national security affairs grew technocratic rather than ideological. That is a much safer place to be. It better reflects the interests of the Democratic Party’s donors. It better reflects the interests of the classes that the Democratic Party comes to represent and that are ascendent within the party.

In Democratic circles during the War on Terror, the task is to save the enterprise from those on the Left who want to take critiques of these disasters — Vietnam, domestic anti-communism, counter-terrorism — to their logical conclusion, which is that these structures hollow out our democratic institutions at home. 

Micah Uetricht: Reading Reign of Terror is a stark reminder about a very basic fact: America wages this illegal war based on lies, slaughters enormous numbers of civilians, commits, astonishing human rights abuses including torture, destabilized an entire region of the world, produced all kinds of grotesqueries at home and abroad that we’ll be dealing with for generations to come, and no one who argued for that war or carried it out at the highest levels of American society paid any price. There was never any kind of reckoning with those crimes. In addition to this being morally wrong, it means that the animating features of the War on Terror were never identified and excised from the body politic, which means that they keep manifesting in newly grotesque ways.

Spencer Ackerman: The War on Terror is a story of broad elite complicity. One of the things we learned when Donald Rumsfeld died was the ease with which the narrative became not that he was the guy who launched the War on Terror based on a barbaric and inappropriate analysis, but rather that he didn’t invade and occupy Iraq with enough American troops.

I wrote a piece at the time that attempted, in a back-of-the-envelope calculation, to just ask: How many human beings is Donald Rumsfeld responsible for killing? I used extremely conservative figures, and I said at least 400,000 people are dead because of decisions Donald Rumsfeld made, supported and executed. I got some pushback on this from some elements within security circles. They were offended that I had tried to tally up this astronomical figure, of human beings with names and souls who were dead, and attribute that culpability to a recognizable human being. What they very often want to avoid, above all, is the suggestion that there are such horrific consequences to the actions that identifiable people carry out, and that these decisions occur inside these structures that share complicity with this act.

That includes journalistic structures as well. Once we view the war in those terms, on the one hand, we run the risk of over-assigning blame to a figure like Donald Rumsfeld — as if he is the only person complicit here. I don’t want to suggest that for a minute. Some may want to blame the whole thing on Rumsfeld, rather than reckoning with the fact that the enterprise itself was criminal. 

Micah Uetricht: There was the opportunity to have some kind of truth and reconciliation process over the war during the Obama presidency — which then squandered that opportunity. Don’t we have to lay some blame for where we ended up at the Obama administration’s feet?

Spencer Ackerman: Absolutely. That reckoning is the middle section of Reign of Terror. Obama is elected on an explicitly anti-Iraq War platform that a lot of us had been waiting desperately to hear from a potential president. And there was a lot of expectation that Obama would not just make that case, but then go beyond it. There’s a line from one of Obama’s early primary debates that captivated a lot of people on the foreign policy left at the time: he said that in contradistinction to Hillary Clinton, he didn’t just want to end the war — he wanted to end the mindset that got us into the war in the first place. From the perspective of critics of the War on Terror, that was an incredibly promising line.

But once it becomes clear that Obama is likely going to become president, he votes to make warrantless surveillance permanent and to immunize the companies that illegally took part in siphoning their customer data to the government without a warrant, ensuring they faced no legal consequences at all. Once Obama decides that the War on Terror needs to be edited instead of abolished, he is wedded to intelligence agencies that are deeply invested in that war — the CIA, the NSA. Then, when it comes to the Afghanistan War, he pledges to escalate militarily as well. And as long as that is the case, accountability for the crimes of the War on Terror will never occur.

Also, most importantly, this is going to create a situation in which the War on Terror itself can never be viewed as a crime. This matters first and foremost for the people who experienced what the war means in practice. The chapter that starts off the Obama presidency tells the story of a young man named Faheem Qureshi, whom I found with the aid of the human rights group Reprieve, and was a survivor of Obama’s first drone strike. I felt it was important to include in the book the story of what his life was like after that. There are many Qureshis out there, and we need to know their names, and we need to have real conversations about what America owes them.

I spent the whole Obama presidency covering its national security policy. I got to interview many of the people close to Obama’s foreign policymaking. What I kept coming away with was that they viewed Obama’s contributions to the War on Terror as an asterisk to their foreign policy legacy. Their legacy was the Paris climate deal, the Iran deal, the Cuba opening. But the War on Terror survived Obama’s presidency. So how can we possibly view Obama’s contributions to and maintenance of the war on terror as anything but the reality of his foreign policy legacy?

Micah Uetricht: You mentioned earlier the impact of the War on Terror at home. As anybody who was cognizant during the Bush years remembers, it had enormous repercussions for civil liberties. But similar to how little we think about the War on Terror at all, we also don’t think about it having a continuing and lasting impact on American society. You end the book talking about the militarized police on our streets in response to protests over the murder of George Floyd, and in other policy areas that we don’t normally connect to the War on Terror.

Spencer Ackerman: During the response of law enforcement to the Black Lives Matter movement, we saw in very concrete ways how the tools of the War on Terror were applied against American citizens in revolt, against people demanding racial justice, demanding economic justice, and demanding an end to American authoritarianism that reinforces both of those things. And the language and the tools that the Trump administration and police departments around the country reached for, as they had so often throughout this era, were the language and tools of counter-terrorism.

We saw the ways in which the War on Terror funneled that police militarization through the Pentagon’s 1033 program that provides military hardware to law enforcement around the country, as well as Department of Homeland Security grants to provide local law enforcement with what were previously national-level tools for surveillance, like drones. They provide them with a lot of money to purchase a lot of other stuff that doesn’t have to do at all with counter-terrorism. We started seeing that at Ferguson where the Department of Homeland Security and the Department of Justice abducted people off of the street, took them in vans for detention without booking them, shot supposedly less-lethal” rounds at people’s heads, opened fire on them — and declared all of this necessary in the name of stopping terrorism.

These factors show what the War on Terror looks like as it matures. It reaches beyond whatever minimal restraints were put on it, and it reaches for new frontiers.

Micah Uetricht: The conversation that we’ve had so far is about the continued salience of the War on Terror and its deformation of every part of American society. You’re a reporter, not an organizer, but what are the opportunities for an articulation of a politics that would argue for the abolition of the War on Terror framework? What would that look like?

Spencer Ackerman: As you said, I’m a reporter, not an organizer. But I think one of the ways we have already seen the constrained erosion of the War on Terror occur is through the heroic organizing that has attacked the war in Yemen from the start. That movement succeeded in getting both houses of Congress under Trump to vote to end U.S. support for the war. That’s a major victory. It’s not everything, but it shouldn’t be diminished.

Similarly, there is a debate right now in Congress about repealing the Authorization for Use of Military Force (AUMF) that authorized the Iraq War. Activists realized they could win on this, given enough time, if they kept it up.

Eventually that became unignorable to the point where a centrist like Tim Kaine, who was Hillary Clinton’s running mate, endorsed getting rid of the AUMF. There is an opening, I think, in Congress. Certainly members of Congress who I’ve interviewed, like the courageous Congresswoman Barbara Lee (D-Calif.) (the only member of Congress who voted against the AUMF) — she is seeking to rally support to abolish the AUMF. That would be a tremendous contribution.

Beyond that, if we really are serious about abolishing the War on Terror, what’s necessary is an understanding that this isn’t just about ending particular wars that the United States is involved in. It’s about breaking the tools that led to those wars and continue to threaten the lives and freedom of so many people around the globe. We have seen on the Left and increasingly the Right that the country does not support this war effort, that the country doesn’t want to kill people like this, that the country doesn’t actually want to dominate the world like this. Another way of doing business internationally — a solidaristic way — is possible.

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Micah Uetricht is an editor at Jacobin magazine. He is a con­tribut­ing edi­tor and former associate editor at In These Times, and the author of Strike for Amer­i­ca: Chica­go Teach­ers Against Aus­ter­i­ty and coauthor of Bigger Than Bernie: How We Go From the Sanders Campaign to Democratic Socialism, and is currently at work on a book on New Leftists who took jobs in industries like steel and auto to organize on the shop floor.

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