Indeed, politics and world events were like quicksand beneath our feet. Abroad, the Syrian civil war raged, Iraq teetered, and the emergence of ISIS—the successor to the al-Qaeda affiliate that took root in Iraq after our invasion—drew the United States back into a new counterterrorism campaign. At home, Republicans fixated on a toxic stew of issues with loose, if not specious, national-security connections: an insistence on declaring war against “radical Islam,” ceaseless investigations into Benghazi that spilled over into investigations of Hillary Clinton’s email practices, and demagoguing of refugee admissions and illegal immigration into the United States.
Donald Trump drafted on these dark currents as he launched his presidential campaign in 2015, tapping into America’s post-9/11 fears of a faceless “other” and the frustrations of Americans who had been promised great victories in Iraq and Afghanistan but found only quagmires. Instead of reckoning with the ways that we might have gotten the response to 9/11 wrong, Trump scapegoated enemies within: a black president, brown-skinned immigrants, Muslim refugees. Social media mainlined these fears into tens of millions of American households, and made us an easy mark for a Russian influence campaign.
In retrospect, the clearest harbinger from the Obama years of the future we’re now living in came in the fall of 2014. At a time when the American people were in a full-blown panic about ISIS, in the aftermath of the tragic beheading of four American hostages, we were confronted with the outbreak of an infectious disease, Ebola, that threatened to kill millions of people. By deploying the U.S. military to West Africa, recruiting dozens of countries to contribute health-care workers and equipment, and integrating America’s public-health and national-security infrastructure under unified direction, Obama was able to lead a coalition that stamped out the Ebola outbreak close to its source. It was a high-water mark of Obama’s international leadership.
But the episode haunted Obama. He regularly told foreign visitors that fears of a pandemic kept him awake at night. By the time Obama’s presidency ended, he had established a directorate on global-health security at the National Security Council, developed a playbook for a future administration to use to combat pandemics, and used a Cabinet-level homeland-security exercise with incoming Trump officials to put them through the decision-making process of responding to an outbreak. But the president coming into office was intent not on building on Obama’s legacy, but on dismantling it.
In 2019, I taught a course at UCLA on presidential rhetoric and American foreign policy. One of the speeches I had my students read was Bush’s address to Congress after 9/11, which still stands out as an exceptional piece of speechwriting. Just a couple of years younger than I was when I found those words so stirring, my students read the text as if it came from a different planet. Had the United States really made its entire national purpose a war against a group of terrorists? I asked them to list what they believed were the most pressing issues facing the country. Climate change topped the list. Economic inequality, student debt, structural racism, and a host of other issues filled it out. Not a single student mentioned terrorism. The generational appeal of Bernie Sanders—so out of step with the Democratic establishment I’d been a part of—was obvious in that room.