No, it’s not a joke question. Both actually do reflect a similar dynamic: a wave of disaffection and psychological alienation. Trump supporters and ISIS recruits both feel the world isn’t working for them or respecting them. They’re rebelling against the system and its elites which they see as soft and rotten. Standing against that imparts meaning to their lives.
Radical Islamists portray the West as dissolute; its freedom a lack of discipline; bereft of moral seriousness. Putinist Russian chauvinism similarly puffs its chest as morally strong as against an insipid West. And Trump (now endorsed by Putin) casts himself as a no-nonsense tough guy while our government is run by squishy fools and knaves. Comparable tropes boost similar populist movements in Europe, like France’s National Front.
All this is really a rejection of fundamental rationalist Enlightenment values – the classical liberalism (not big government “liberalism”) of democracy, personal autonomy, openness, tolerance, free commerce, free inquiry and expression, and the worth and dignity of every person. Liberalism, in that classical meaning, is under assault from both left and right, having become a dirty word even among lefties who inveigh against “neoliberalism” (as though some kind of Trojan horse for a rapacious capitalism). The word has particular opprobrium in Europe (Hungary’s leader Viktor Orban pugnaciously vaunts an “illiberal state”).
Such belittling of Enlightenment values is a well-worn theme of cynical disaffected intellectuals, making all kinds of ridiculous arguments – that those values somehow fail to embody more romanticist human proclivities, or that they’ve failed altogether, that misguided rationalism even “led us straight to Auschwitz.” What rubbish.
It’s all a myopic refusal to see how much those liberal Enlightenment values have changed the world, and the lives of human beings, for the better. All those disaffected fools would not have enjoyed feudal times. Nor would the Eighth Century “utopia” ISIS yearns to restore be good for Muslims; the Arab world’s problem is not modernity, but insufficient modernity with its Enlightenment values. And Trump supporters should think twice about the illiberal paranoid state their champion would introduce.
Both Trumpism and Islamic radicalism need to be opposed not just with name-calling (and, in the case of the latter, air strikes and a domestic gestapo), but with full-throated advocacy for the fundamental humanistic values those movements trash. We have to explain them, and promote them, and make them attractive, to show people why they are better than the opposing poisonous farrago of mean-eyed garbage. Humanist ideals are not mere lofty piffle. They are better, not just morally as premised on enabling as many people as possible to thrive – they are better pragmatically because they do in fact promote that goal. In the past couple of centuries, it is precisely the advance of those humanist, rationalist, liberal Enlightenment values that has made a far better world.
Is it a perfect one? Of course not. But, again, if you don’t think it’s better, get thee back to feudal times to see what a really crappy world is like. And the different world today’s anti-liberal movements seek would go in that direction.
This is the case that must be vigorously made. But, in particular, we have woefully failed to meet the propaganda of Islamic radicalism with an alternative narrative. Remember Radio Free Europe, during the cold war? Actively and eloquently spreading free world values, in answer to the other side’s lies. What a success that was in helping to win that war of ideas. Where, on our side, is today’s equivalent? In today’s new war of ideas, where are our verbal boots on the ground?