Ben Sasse: Americans are turning to demagogues like Trump because their current leadership is terrible on terror

Seventeen minutes from last night’s floor speech in the Senate. The parts about Trump, whom he doesn’t name, begin at 2:10 and 12:00, or you can read the transcript if you prefer. Some of this will be familiar as it includes passages from that video in San Bernardino that I posted on Monday. The Trump stuff, and the critique of Obama’s Oval Office speech, are obviously new. A taste:

I would humbly suggest that before another person in this body – or in the national media – stands up to scold the American people about how they could possibly entertain voting for candidate x or y, perhaps we should look in the mirror at why so many of our people are running to demagoguing leaders.

Do senators really not understand why this is happening? I think it’s obvious why: Because they get so little actual leadership out of this town – out of either end of Pennsylvania Avenue, or out of either political party.

Make no mistake: There were some genuinely dreadful things said on the national stage yesterday. But they were almost totally predictable. Did anyone here really not see this coming? And why is it that these words are attractive to some? Why do they find so many followers? Because they are comforting to people who are scared. They are food to a people who are starved for real leadership.

Sunday night was a drought. Monday night was a flood. Neither are what the people need – or what they, at their best, want. But don’t be surprised that a people who are being misled by a political class in denial about the nature of this fight comes then quickly to desire very different, much more muscular words and utopian pledges.

The last part about the “political class” is especially sharp. He sounds a lot like Ted Cruz, or rather what Ted Cruz would sound like if he could muster the balls to say something even a little bit critical of his new friend, the “megalomaniac strongman” as Sasse puts it.

Sasse’s first floor speech in the Senate was an indictment of that body. This one is mainly an indictment of Obama, which is fair enough. A guy who won’t say “radical Islam” and whose first impulse after every attack seems to be to worry about Muslims rather than the 98 percent of Americans who are tired of having to worry about Muslims is practically making an in-kind contribution to Trump. If Obama’s rise in 2008 was a reaction to Bush, Trump’s rise in 2015 is surely a reaction to Obama — in part. Emphasis: In part.

But Sasse is kidding himself if he thinks numbers like these would be wildly different if George W. Bush, or any other Republican, were president:


Public opinion isn’t what it is because Obama hasn’t articulated a plan for “a Middle Eastern map that isn’t generating more failed states that become terrorist training camps,” as Sasse puts it. Republican candidates haven’t done any better with that; apart from the McCain/Graham “ground troops everywhere” wing, most are offering variations of Obama’s approach — arm our proxies, especially the Kurds; bomb ISIS, albeit far more mercilessly than Obama is doing; and put a modest number of American boots on the ground if need be. (Ted Cruz, who’s worried about Rubio attacking him as weak on national security, has started talking about “carpet-bombing” ISIS and wondering aloud whether sand can be made to glow in the dark, which smells much more like desperate pandering to hawks than a workable regional strategy.) The truth is that Obama doesn’t sound vastly different from Bush when he talks about terror, especially second-term Bush after he’d shifted from wanting to export democracy to the region to managing the crisis in Iraq. Obama promises to go after the bad guys, he reminds Americans that most Muslims aren’t terrorists, and he cautions that the threat isn’t going anyway anytime soon. If and when George W. Bush wades into the current debate about American Muslims and the war on terror, I guarantee he’ll be much closer to Obama’s side than to Trump’s.

All of which is to say, while Sasse presents this speech as a truth bomb of sorts, he’s also guilty of dancing around a truth he’d rather not confront. The reason people keep coming up to him in the grocery store, as he says at one point here, and asking him how many Muslims believe in sharia law isn’t because Obama’s geopolitical vision for the Middle East is insufficiently formed. It’s because they read news stories about young Muslims leaving the west to fight for ISIS, they watch western media self-censor in fear of offending Muslims here, and they see polls showing that large numbers of Muslims in the Middle East support death for apostasy and stoning for adultery. Sasse himself draws a bright line between “militant Islam” and everyone else, but that’s the whole point — a lot of Americans, and not just Republicans, don’t see it as a bright line after 15 years of the war on terror. They see it more as a spectrum, with jihadis at the far end, fully westernized Muslims at the other, and various flavors of illiberalism in between. (Bill Maher may be the only figure in non-conservative American media willing to talk publicly about this.) That’s why the veil is such a sore point for many western non-Muslims: It’s not because they see it as a hallmark of jihadism, Tashfeen Malik notwithstanding, but because it’s an assertion of illiberalism that rebukes western values. That’s what people are asking Sasse about in the grocery store. Not “Why won’t Obama say ‘radical Islam’?” but “How do we get these people to modernize?” That problem doesn’t go away when Obama does.