Trump Time Capsule #74: 'Founder of ISIS'

Editor’s Note: This article previously appeared in a different format as part of The Atlantic’s Notes section, retired in 2021.
Some say that the man on the left is the founder of ISIS. Donald Trump says it’s the man on the right. Who can really know? (DOD photo of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, via Wikimedia; Reuters photo of the other guy, yesterday on Martha’s Vineyard, by Jonathan Ernst.)

Yesterday Donald Trump said that Barack Obama is “the founder of ISIS. He’s the founder of ISIS. He’s the founder. He founded ISIS.”

This is not true.


Context point #1: If you would like to know the real background of ISIS—where it came from, who its actual founders were, what it does and why, etc.—you can make no better start than to follow the works of Graeme Wood. Here is his March 2015 Atlantic cover story “What ISIS Wants.”

Context point #2: You can imagine some non-lunatic context for what a comment like Trump’s could conceivably be meant to say. That would require assuming that “founder” meant “person who created the conditions that gave rise to.” For instance:

  • David Lloyd George, Woodrow Wilson, and Georges Clemenceau “were the founders of Nazism,” since the harsh terms they set at the Treaty of Versailles were part of the reason for the economic and political problems within Germany from which Hitler’s Nazis arose. Or
  • Ronald Reagan “was the founder of al-Qaeda,” since he supported the Afghan resistance fighters (including Osama bin Laden) who opposed the Soviet occupation and later turned their fury on the United States. Or
  • Abraham Lincoln “was the founder of the Ku Klux Klan,” because if he had never bothered to fight the Confederacy or sign the Emancipation Proclamation the conditions that led to the Klan’s formation would not have occurred. Or
  • George W. Bush and Dick Cheney “were the founders of ISIS,” because by invading Iraq ...

You get the idea. But if you wanted to make this kind of historical chain-of-causation argument, you would actually say something of that sort. For instance about Obama: “The irony of President Obama’s determination to get us out of Iraq is that, in his very haste to flee, he ensured that we’d be involved for years. That’s because …” and you would go on to say something about conditions in Iraq, and the continuation of the drone war, and the nightmare of Syria, and so on.
I wouldn’t buy the case—for me, if there are any American “founders” of ISIS, they’re more likely to be the people who began the U.S. military involvement in Iraq than the ones who tried to end it—but at least it would be a case. It would not be one more fantasy.

Unfortunately, Donald Trump has not made this kind of chain-of-reasoning argument about anything. People have stagnant incomes? Boom! It’s NAFTA and the Chinese. Crime in the cities? Boom! Let’s build that wall. ISIS is “chopping off heads,” as Trump most typically phrases it? Boom! Obama’s the founder. And as David Graham has pointed out, this morning on the radio Trump made clear that he intended the statement in its baldest, stupidest, and most obviously untrue sense: that Obama had literally founded ISIS.


Trump doesn’t care that this statement, like so many others, is flat-out false. Nor, to judge by their actions, do Mike Pence, Paul Ryan, Mitch McConnell, Marco Rubio, Rob Portman, John McCain, Pat Toomey, Chris Christie, Rudy Giuliani, or the other “responsible” Republicans who stand with Trump. It’s 88 days until the election; we have no tax returns or plausible medical report from Trump; and there is a chance that he could become commander in chief.