Monday’s horrors—the attack on a Christmas market in Berlin and the assassination of a Russian diplomat in Ankara—offer a natural experiment. Since they occurred during the brief window every four or eight years in which America has both a president and a president-elect, they provoked two sets of statements, one from the outgoing administration and another from its soon-to-be successor. The differences are revealing.
The first difference, unsurprisingly, is that the Obama administration exercised caution. It said the Berlin atrocity “appears to have been a terrorist attack.” Team Trump, by contrast, simply called it a “horrifying terror attack.” The White House avoided speculation about the Turkish assassin’s motive. Team Trump, by contrast, called him a “radical Islamic terrorist.”
More significantly, the two administrations used the attacks to tell radically different stories about who was being attacked, and why. The Obama administration identified the victims as members of a nation. Its five-sentence statement about the Berlin attack used the words “Germany” or “German” four times. And the White House linked the United States and Germany strategically, declaring that, “Germany is one of our closest partners and strongest allies.”
Team Obama’s response to the Ankara assassination was also state-centric. It offered its “condolences to the Russian people and Government” and declared, “we stand united with Russia and Turkey in our determination to confront terrorism in all of its forms.”
Russia and Turkey are not “partners” and “allies” of the United States in the way Germany is. Still, the Obama administration implied a world in which even nations with sharply different interests cooperate against their common foe: “terrorism in all its forms.” Taken together, the Berlin and Ankara statements gesture toward a liberal internationalist order of the kind the United States helped build after World War II: an inner circle of cooperation linking the United States and its closest NATO allies surrounded by a broader circle represented by universal bodies like the UN, in which countries band together across ideological and geopolitical lines to battle the transnational scourges that threaten them all.
Team Trump’s statement was utterly different. It described the victims as members not of a nation but of a religion. Its statement about the Berlin attack didn’t refer to the victims as Germans. (It didn’t mention the words “German” or “Germany” once.) Instead, it defined them as people killed “as they prepared to celebrate the Christmas holiday.” The Obama team’s statement made no assumptions about the victims’ faith: It simply noted that the attack had occurred at “a Christmas Market.” The Trump statement, by contrast, implied that the victims all celebrated Christmas. And it linked those killed in Berlin to other “Christians” who “ISIS and other Islamist terrorists continually slaughter … in their communities and places of worship as part of their global jihad.”
The contrast grows even sharper when you add in Team Trump’s response to the Ankara attacks. Unlike Obama’s statement, which said nothing about the assassin’s faith, Trump’s called him “a radical Islamic terrorist.” The Trump statement also said nothing about working with either Russia or Turkey, let alone working with them against “terrorism in all its forms,” which implies that terrorism has forms other those rooted in Islam.
What do these statements tell us? That Team Obama defines the struggle against terrorism as a conflict pitting countries of all religious and ideological types against a common stateless foe, while Team Trump defines it as a conflict between Christendom and Islam. (That’s how ISIS defines it too. The Islamic State also views the world in terms of religious civilizations rather than nations). The natural implication of Obama’s worldview is that preventing terrorism requires cooperation between very different nations. The natural implication of Trump’s is that preventing terrorism requires keeping Muslims out. Neither of Trump’s statements acknowledges the possibility that Christians might perpetrate terrorism or Muslims might be victims of it. (Indeed, on the very same day as the attacks in Ankara and Berlin, a gunman opened fire at a mosque in Zurich, Switzerland, injuring three.) The message to Muslims in Germany and the United States is the same one Trump has peddled for more than a year now: You are the enemy within.