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 directed toward President Barack Obama, who ran against the Iraq war but sought to make the war on terror technocratic and sustainable. His administration harkened, Ackerman writes, to the "Cold War liberalism that had built an international order around American hegemony." In practice, this meant deferring to the security establishment, doubling down in Afghanistan, distorting war powers to overthrow Libya's dictator, and elevating Democrats like Joe Biden, John Kerry, and Hillary Clinton, whose approaches to perpetual war ranged from complicit to ambitious.
In light of such continuities, Ackerman believes that "only white supremacy can truly explain the depth of right-wing fury" at the first black president. Some might consider this debatable, given the similar hatred of Bill Clinton, but racism undeniably drove birtherism, the conspiracy theory that Obama was an African usurper and not an American citizen. At different registers, the right attacked Obama for acquiescing to or befriending terrorists—for failing, as Dick Cheney put it, to "believe in an exceptional America."
In 2016, Hillary Clinton and the "sustainable" model of forever war lost to Donald Trump, the model charlatan of birtherism. The base elements of Bush's coalition had defeated the neocons and security-state traditionalists. Trump, Ackerman writes, recognized the 9/11 "era's grotesque subtext—the perception of nonwhites as alien marauders, even as conquerors from a hostile foreign civilization—was its engine." The new president understood that such phrases as "'radical Islamist terror' extracted the precious nativist metal from the husk of the Forever War." Trump promised less regime change but also more torture, unrestrained bombing, and a sharp reversal of Obama's peaceful trajectory with Iran.
The security-state establishment resented Trump's disinterest in the mythos of American empire and his flagrant basking in its amoral brutalities. The resulting conflict warped politics, prompting the #Resistance to exaggerate Russia's importance in Trump's very American movement, and even to defend U.S. hyperdominance whenever he seemed to criticize it. The MAGA Republicans, in turn, decried FBI abuses against Trump's associates as unprecedented, even after decades of championing, in Ackerman's words, "the heaviest police, prosecutorial, and intelligence measures against Muslims, immigrants, and Black people." Despite the Republicans' condemnations of the deep state and the Democrats' condemnations of Trump, they cooperated to preserve the anti-terror authority of both. As Ackerman notes, the "very Democrats who called Trump a unique threat to the republic were willing to grant him the same extensive surveillance powers they had allowed Bush and Obama."
Reign of Terror skillfully addresses foreign venues—how strategic aims work at cross-purposes and how U.S. intervention has created even worse monsters than it sought to destroy—but the author most adeptly tracks the deformation of democracy. His book nicely pairs with the international scope of historian Adam Tooze's Crashed: How a Decade of Financial Crises Changed the World (Viking), which captures Trump as a legible chapter in geopolitical economy. (Tooze notes that we often separate the stories of the war on terror and the financial crisis, yet "the quagmire of Iraq haunted the Washington policy-making elite in the early 2000s.") Ackerman's effort also complements the few books that comprehensively assess the foreign sites of warfare, such as Andrew Bacevich's America's War for the Greater Middle East (Random House) and Scott Horton's Enough Already: Time to End the War on Terrorism (The Libertarian Institute).
In reaching back into the 20th century, those foreign policy tracts inspire even more pessimism than they intend. The 9/11 attacks followed decades of U.S. engagement in the Middle East. Would ending the war on terror end these interventionist antecedents too? Perhaps only a greedy reader seeks more than a wholesale rethinking of the war on terror in one book, but the problems Ackerman identifies predate the Bush years. Lawmakers responded to the Oklahoma City bombing of 1995 with legislation that anticipated the war on terror. This year's Capitol riot has revived left-liberal anxieties about right-wing extremism that in the 1990s sometimes excused federal abuse and misconduct and fueled the police state. Today's most left-wing Democrats in Congress have resisted a "sustainable" war on domestic right-wing terror, but they will unlikely prove the decisive factor.
This speaks to another source of pessimism. Ackerman finds few sympathetic characters among the right's nationalist or neocon camps, nor among the Clintonian liberals or the security state. A chapter called "The Left vs. Obama's War on Terror" is a tragicomedy in which civil libertarian lawyers hoped "Obama would finally make the War on Terror respect the law" and "watched in disbelief as Obama continued to make the law respect the War on Terror." The other protagonists are whistleblowers such as Chelsea Manning and Edward Snowden, whom Ackerman seems to concede are not entirely satisfactory stand-ins for the left. Once Obama was elected, many progressives began deprioritizing war and civil liberties. Democrats became as supportive as Republicans—and sometimes more so—of keeping Guantanamo open, of NSA wiretapping, and of the Libya war. (Unsurprisingly, most Republicans supported bombing Syria when their America First president did it.) Bernie Sanders was the left-wing antiwar figure to come closest to the presidency in recent years, but he rarely emphasized foreign policy.
There is an unsettling historical logic to the moderate progressive acquiescence to Cold War liberalism and the security state. The mobilization and cultural disruption of World War II and the Cold War helped make the modern welfare state and various civil rights victories possible. The war on terror might have spawned Trump, but it also unleashed unapologetic deficit spending and chaotic political realignments, overthrowing the era of neoliberal restraint and opening new opportunities for state building. Both liberals and reactionaries may disown the wreckage, but they all find their stakes in the empire.
After all, domestic issues rule our discourse. As frustrations with Iraq succumbed to frustrations with the 2008 financial crisis, attention turned inward. And after years of inadequate bipartisan answers to foreign and economic mishaps, the culture war became the starkest partisan battle line.
The war on terror will eventually end, but not because the principled few win the argument. After it goes, many of its underlying causes and terrible consequences will remain. As a prescriptive appeal, Reign of Terror offers little hope. As a description of America's condition, it can shape the way we remember this era.
Reign of Terror: How the 9/11 Era Destabilized America and Produced Trump, by Spencer Ackerman, Penguin Random House, 448 pages, $30