But not since Richard Nixon has a major-party candidate so explicitly run on a law-and-order theme, or so determinedly argued that the world is spinning out of control. Polls suggest that many Americans agree with Trump: About 70 percent of them say ...
A backdrop of global instability, relentless terrorism and domestic upheaval frame a foundational question for Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton as the US political convention season begins. Is this just how we live now?
The year 2016 has the feel of an unravelling. Depending on whether the truck assault in Nice was an act of terrorism, France has experienced either nine or 10 terrorist attacks or attempts since January 2015. Mass-casualty terrorism, 15 years after 9/11, is becoming an another backdrop of modern life, from Baghdad to Brussels to Maiduguri to Lahore, as attacks come with sufficient frequency as to drown out the memories of the ones that were hashtags weeks before.
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The pin feels out of the grenade of international politics as well. Britain abandoned a decades-long European project, the impact of which has thrown its domestic politics into upheaval. In Turkey, a frightening military coup has failed thoroughly, and left the mercurial elected leader it sought to overthrow with a freer hand toward reprisal. The two cases are starkly different, but underpinning both Brexit and the coup attempt is incompetence.
The crises obscure glacial geopolitical developments. Five years of civil war in Syria has left hundreds of thousands dead without nearing a resolution. The most aggressive Russia in a generation has redrawn the borders of Ukraine, to the point where the west has accepted its occupation of Crimea as a fait accompli. Chinaâ€™s maritime irredentism has drawn international legal rebuke, yet Beijing continues to declare sovereignty over nearly all the South China Sea. The US continues to conduct two outright wars and an overlapping global counter-terrorism campaign that it cannot win but feels compelled to endlessly wage.
Domestically, nearly every day leaves word that more Americans have died needlessly, either from mass shootings or racialized police killings. In places like San Bernardino, Charleston and Orlando, an immediate question confronting law enforcement and spectators is whether a killing amounts to terrorism or is the work of another psycho with a legally obtained gun. The motivation, not the methodology, provides the only distinguishing factor in the litany of US gun deaths. In Dallas and Baton Rouge, police themselves are coming under gunfire.
Once, during the height of the Afghanistan and Iraq wars, senior military officers would describe their goal as achieving a locally acceptable level of violence. Lately, even while violent crime is at historic lows, Americans surveying their own neighborhoods can be forgiven for asking what theirs is.
On their highest-profile stages before the November election, Trump and Clinton will have to present their responses. Do they reject the overlapping, multifaceted and seemingly escalating instability at home and abroad as a passing phenomenon amenable to American solutions? Do they tell the country to reconcile itself to violent upheaval and consider the goal of US leadership to be mitigation? Or does their answer lie in between?
â€œI fear this is the new norm â€“ at least for now,â€ said Ali Soufan, a former FBI counterterrorism agent.
Terrorism has reached the maturation of a phase counterterrorism analysts and practitioners have long feared would come to pass. Malcolm Nance, a navy counter-terrorism veteran and the author of Defeating Isis, calls it â€œno-barrier-to-entry terrorismâ€. Unlike al-Qaida, with its relatively bureaucratic structure and franchises, Islamic State encourages any aggrieved person with Muslim heritage to conduct improvised, freelance terrorism under its banner. Nance likens it to â€œa flash mob called together by a text message to dance Thriller in some parkâ€, a phenomenon likely to get worse in a â€œghost caliphateâ€ as Isis loses its physical one in Iraq and Syria. Surveillance will not pre-emptively identify a truck driver who suddenly decides to mow people down.
â€œIsis has successfully crowdsourced terrorism,â€ Nance said. â€œThe future of this ghost caliphate is not going to be directed, trained operatives all the time. It will happen on occasion, at the periphery around where these fighters disperse to, like France, as Isis is squashed like a ball of mercury â€“ you push that pressure on it and it breaks up into little tiny balls.â€
Beyond terrorism, Sean McFate of the Atlantic Council argues that the world is moving toward a â€œdurable disorderâ€ more like the Middle Ages, â€œcharacterized by overlapping authorities and allegiancesâ€, than the state-centric balance of power familiar to the west in the post-second world war era.
â€œThat means we must endure more of the same: low-level but persistent violence. In some ways, the 21st century will be more like the 12th than the 20th,â€ McFate said.
Trump is unreconciled. As his political convention in Cleveland begins on Monday, he has predicated his campaign on restoring a longed-for status quo ante â€“ one with, as the New York Times recently observed, white people unmistakably at its center. Not only is domestic and global upheaval amenable to rollback, Trump contends, he is uniquely able to produce it, thanks to his boasted record of dealmaking. â€œI alone can solve,â€ he tweeted after a March terrorist attack in Pakistan.
Clintonâ€™s approach is more of a work in progress, defined in many cases impressionistically, through her decades of public life and particularly her recent four years as secretary of state. Her major argument for leadership on the world stage, delivered in June, is that, unlike Trump, she is a sane and experienced person. Itâ€™s an easy threshold to clear, obscuring both her place on the hawkish edge of Barack Obamaâ€™s foreign policy team and what turmoil she finds reversible or permanent on the world stage.
But the world is changing faster than US political culture. Obamaâ€™s tentative efforts to broach the subject of persistent terrorism â€“ he tends to stress â€œresilienceâ€ after attacks and warn that lone-wolf terrorism and mass shootings cannot truly be stopped â€“ yields the criticism that he is indifferent to it. Any opposition party has an easy incentive to lay the political costs for instability on the inhabitant of the White House, fairly or not. Even if instability is the new normal (a debatable proposition), conceding it, â€œfor a politician, would be lethalâ€, said Nance.
â€œI guess we are witnessing the birth-pains of a new world order,â€ said Soufan, the former FBI agent. â€œTo understand it, we need to view the world through the lenses of todayâ€™s new reality, not the nostalgic glasses of the past century.â€
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