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How Radical Islam Explains the Appeal of Trump and Cruz

Both candidates are tapping into powerful forces that are unleashed when a great community perceives it’s in decline.

Jim Watson/Getty Images

It is the conundrum that lies at the heart of the 2016 presidential election, inspiring scores of different theories and interpretations: Why do people support Donald Trump and Ted Cruz?

Aristotle, for one, argued in the Rhetoric that there were three sources of persuasion: trust in the character of the speaker, the objective reasons of his arguments, and, finally, the passions of the audience. Let us assume, merely for the sake of argument, that Trump and Cruz do not score highly in the first two categories. What passions, then, what psychological or emotional forces, might explain their support? While no single answer will prove dispositive, a particular social psychology theory proves surprisingly illuminating—a theory, paradoxically enough, that I have developed in my research into radical Islamism.

Certain communities identify themselves as “chosen” for momentous greatness, as slated to play singular, imperative roles in world history. The umma (Muslim world) and contemporary America are two of many communities, broadly defined, that for historical reasons have forged identities with such high self-regard. In Islam there is a necessary link between religiosity and worldly power and success. Muhammad founded a religion and an empire, which lasted for a millennium. Jews and Christians, by comparison, experienced existential crises early on in their histories and, as a result, developed narratives whereby God regularly tests his people with hardship or exists in a realm separate from man’s tribulations—the Kingdom of Heaven. Less so in Islam.

The story, when you squint hard enough, is not all that dissimilar in America. Since the very beginning, America has conceived of itself as exceptional in its moral purity and possibility, as the “City on a Hill” in the Puritan leader John Winthrop’s grand vision. At least since World War II, though, after which its economy represented a full one-half of the world’s GDP, America has augmented this moral self-conception to incorporate the ideal that it is also destined for, and indeed entitled to, greatness and power on Earth, down in the valley below the Hill. Cruz agrees, citing the victories in the Revolutionary War and World War II, and the fall of the Berlin Wall, as proof that “from the dawn of this country, at every stage America has enjoyed God’s providential blessing.”

When such a “chosen” community declines, my theory continues, cognitive dissonance can emerge: How could we, the necessarily greatest community, be weak or even non-dominant? The umma has been living with this confusion for centuries. As Sayyid Abul A’la Mawdudi, one of radical Islamism’s mid-20th century founders, sermonized: “Your honor, which no one dared to touch, is now being trampled upon. … You are Muslims and yet are slaves! This situation is impossible as it is for an object to be white and black.” Many Americans similarly, if usually more subtly, worry about their nation’s descent from Cold War titan to post-recession “leader from behind.” In his book Time to Get Tough! Making America #1 Again, however, Trump is characteristically unsubtle: “The country I love is a total economic disaster right now. We have become a laughingstock, the world’s whipping boy, blamed for everything, credited for nothing, given no respect. You see and feel it all around you, and so do I.” 

When presented with such a dissonant reality, the theory concludes, at least two explanations can safeguard the community’s sense of “chosen-ness.” Trump embodies the first, and Cruz the second. Radical Islamists employ both.

The first is an appeal to conspiracy theories. Furtive, evil, abnormal, foreign forces have intervened to keep the community’s greatness at bay, goes the argument. The community is thereby not ultimately responsible for any of its failures, and thus there is no need to downgrade its identity, which has been suppressed unnaturally. Greatness will blossom again, almost as a matter of logical or scientific necessity, once the community sheds the conspiracies. This is the essence of Trump’s message. To “Make America Great Again,” we must kick and keep out those outsiders responsible for our malaise—Muslims and, especially, Hispanics. “They’re sending people that have lots of problems,” Trump said about Mexico. “And they’re bringing those problems to us. They’re bringing drugs. They’re bringing crime. They’re rapists.” Trump proposes few specific policies beyond deporting all eleven million undocumented Hispanics currently living in the U.S. (and then repatriating the “good ones”), building a wall on the Mexican border, and banning all Muslim visitors to the U.S.

The second explanation is an appeal to ideological purity. It responds to the worry that the period of decline has disproven the connection between the community’s identity and worldly greatness, between, say, American-ness and American supremacy. The explanation is that, to the contrary, the decline has demonstrated that the community has neglected its identity. And only when the community recommits itself to the values at the core of this identity will power and prosperity return. This is Cruz’s proposed solution. “What is the promise of America?” Cruz asked at the speech at Liberty University announcing his candidacy. “The revolutionary idea that this country was founded upon is that our rights don’t come from man. They come from God Almighty. And that the purpose of the Constitution, as Thomas Jefferson put it, is to serve as chains to bind the mischief of government.” If we revert to the core values of God and small government, Mr. Cruz argues, not only will we restore our moral purity, but our political problems will evaporate—for instance, “instead of economic stagnation, booming economic growth.” “The power of the American people when we rise up and stand for liberty knows no bounds,” Cruz concluded.

Radical Islamists, meanwhile, appeal to both narratives, blaming Muslim decline on the “Zionist-Crusader” conspiracy, and arguing that by returning to the perceived core of Islam, which they interpret wildly into a totalitarian ideology, Muslims can restore their relative political power. As much a map to Heaven, radical Islamism conceives of itself as a rulebook for social and political success on Earth. 

Now, the point here is not to draw a moral equivalence between Trump, Cruz, and radical Islamists. So far from it. Which “outsiders” are blamed, and what constitutes the community’s perceived ideological center, will vary dramatically. European right-wing parties, for instance, generally combine anti-immigrant sentiment with a commitment to a stronger welfare state (for non-immigrants only). 

The point is rather that these social psychological forces are influential in “chosen” communities, like contemporary America, when their power wanes. It is no surprise, accordingly, that the conservative voters hit hardest and longest by the recession, who have experienced American decline most vividly and personally, support Trump and Cruz disproportionally. For Trump and Cruz provide a method of processing this decline without giving up one inch of American exceptionalism. The problem is not with America, they each argue in their own way, but with a lack of American-ness.  

These candidates have tapped into powerful social psychological forces. To attempt to understand their support without recognizing this, or by primary reference to their substantive policy proposals, is to misunderstand the nature of political persuasion, as Aristotle explained. It is also to underestimate them, and thereby to court disaster.