BY DANIEL PHANNENHOUR
News from a war-zone tends to be tainted with considerable self-promoting propaganda. We can be pardoned, then, for taking recent reports of success in the military action against the so-called Islamic State with a rather large grain of salt. The city of Mosul was retaken by allied forces, but in most other areas the “State” continues to exercise its firm grip on power. The State’s international influence, including its ability both to recruit foreign fighters to its cause and to inspire and organize terror actions abroad, continues unabated. Most analysts have already concluded that the State’s defeat and destruction would only make room for a resurgent Al Qaeda.
The underlying issues that give rise to the Islamic State, Al Qaeda, and their allies cannot be addressed through military action alone. No matter how many militants are killed, more arise to take their place. What mystifies many is the ability of these terror groups to recruit members, not only from disaffected populations in the Middle East, but also from relatively privileged backgrounds in many countries of Europe and North America. What attracts such people to participate in these desperate expressions of mayhem and destruction?
For the answer to that question we can look, not only to what is left of Syria and Iraq, but also, ironically, to the United States of America because the same laws of attraction are working to support the campaign of a candidate thought to be the one least likely to qualify for the Office of President. Donald Trump and the Islamic State appeal to similar people in similar circumstances using similar methods.
Donald Trump is the dark horse candidate who has pulled into the lead, at least for now, not because he offers well considered policies, nor because he is particularly skilled at communicating those policies.
He leads in the polls because he is promising drastic change in a nation desperate for change. He is the only candidate offering an alternative to the seemingly endless Bush-Clinton dynasty that has turned the American political system into an imperial aristocracy not seen since the glory days of Rome. The Bush and Clinton families merely offer different flavours of the same corporate capitalist agenda that is not only further impoverishing the poor, it is also strangling the middle-classes, and their hopes for achieving at least a modicum of prosperity. Donald Trump does not offer any policies that might appeal to these people struggling to retain what status and security they have left. He does not have to make such an offer. He simply represents a change for people who feel they have nothing left to lose.
Donald Trump is not a conservative. He is not obtaining his support from traditional conservative elites, but from the disenchanted and disenfranchised people who consider themselves to be holding on for dear life to the middle-class American dream. They are radicalized centrists who, in prosperous times would have been courted by the big tent parties with a combination of social programming and a levelling of economic opportunity. These people have now been victimized and bypassed on the road to prosperity to the point that heroin addiction has reached epidemic proportions, not only in urban centres, but in small towns and rural communities throughout the land.
Donald Trump, the most unlikely of candidates is gaining popularity among the most unlikely of people because he represents a change from this continuing saga of alienation, despair, and uncertainty. His supporters do not pay attention to the particular details of his policy pronouncements. They do not care what he intends to do. They only want to see him embody the change that will disrupt the system that has left them behind.
Similarly, the Islamic State draws its support from people hungry for any kind of effective change. Do they pay attention to the theological precepts expounded by the movement’s leaders? Are they particularly drawn to this or any other interpretation of Islam? I would doubt that they have given these underlying concepts much thought.
What attracts desperate people to the Islamic State, and other similar organizations, is the promise of drastic and disruptive change. The appeal of the Islamic State stems from its very ability to influence world events and decisions. Its violence and destruction offer the opportunity to make a difference and to imagine an outcome different from the disdain, dismissal, and insignificance that their supporters have always known. The Islamic State gives its supporters from many countries the opportunity to stand up and be counted.
Adolf Hitler attracted desperate people in the same way in Germany in the 1930’s. Very few people supported the racist and aggressive policies of the Nazi Party, but Hitler symbolized drastic and disruptive change for people who felt disenfranchised and alienated by the economic collapse of the country. A study of voting patterns in 1930’s Germany shows that Adolph Hitler received his support not from right wing conservatives, but from disaffected and disenchanted middle-class voters who saw very little hope for their future. They voted for Hitler, regardless of his policies, because he represented the change that would disrupt the current order and make room for new opportunities.
Both Donald Trump and the Islamic State also offer an effective – if chaotic – opportunity to disrupt the current political system. Will either of them achieve the regrettable success enjoyed briefly by Hitler? 2016 promises to be a fearfully interesting year indeed.
Daniel Phannenhour (Pastor Dan) is an unretired Lutheran pastor and father to three lovely young women. He currently lives with his wife in the Oakville parsonage, and is exploring new ways of embodying the Christian faith while celebrating the multicultural and multifaith diversity of our community and nation.