Hard Knocks and Soft Power

In the first half of this essay we looked at our need to combat Trumpism and the violent threat it poses as a new phase in the Bush-era “Global War on Terror.” In part two we dive into aspects of that campaign that go beyond conventional law enforcement, military, and intelligence operations. 

Like fixing potholes. 


While the so-called Global War on Terror succeeded in neutralizing Al Qaeda as an urgent threat to the Western world, it failed (thus far anyway) in defeating Islamist extremism at large. Eradicating an ideology—religious fanaticism, fascism, communism, or any other—is a much taller order than beating any given army, terrorist organization, or paramilitary force. 

Indeed, “Al Qaeda”—the Base, in Arabic—is itself a Western term for a multipronged global movement of radical militants, with Bin Laden, Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, and a handful of others at its core, and a vast web of admirers, freelancers, lone wolves, and copycats spread all over the world. Its fluid nature meant that it was less defeated in the conventional military sense than merely dispersed, like mercury dropped on the floor, to reassemble spontaneously in new and sometimes even more lethal forms. In that regard, the successful destruction of Al Qaeda as a combat effective organization was a mirage, leading only to the rise of its successor, ISIS—or ISIL, or the Islamic State, or Daesh, or whatever you wish to call it. 

Which brings us to the limits of conventional “force” full stop. 

Certainly soldiers, spies, and law enforcement officers are the speartip of stopping the “violent” part of violent extremism, whether abroad or at home. But there is a hard limit to what force can accomplish. Ultimately a radicalist movement can only be fully defeated by the obliteration of its credibility and appeal to potential members…..and that is as true of Trumpism as it was (and is) of Islamist fundamentalism. 

It is the animating mentality behind the movement that needs to be conquered in order to put a permanent end to the violence, rather than just containing it. Only when no more recruits can be attracted in any appreciable number, leaving just an insignificant and manageable lunatic fringe, will the cause be dead. This is an effort that is in the realm of politics—force being only one aspect thereof—and diplomacy, and journalism, and yes, even entertainment: soft power, to use the term of art. 

In other words, it is in the realm of persuasion, which is not always or even primarily carried out with the barrel of a gun. 


Don’t get me wrong: I’m not suggesting we beat our truncheons into tambourines and strike up a chorus of “Free to Be You and Me.” (A great song, though, despite the banjo.) We are very much in a violent, low intensity conflict against Trumpist insurgents, and yes, there will be blood: let’s not fool ourselves to think otherwise. But victory will ultimately be won not just—or even primarily—with gunshots and handcuffs, but in the much-maligned battle for hearts and minds.

It begins with destroying the Trumpist narrative.  

Frank Figliuzzi, the former FBI assistant director for counterintelligence, writes: “An important component of counter-radicalization is depriving both the radicalizer and the radicalized the affirmation that comes from the delusion that they’re part of some greater good.” In this case, part of that is ending the delusion within MAGA Nation that they are somehow patriots, as they envision themselves. That means destroying Trump’s Big Lie that the election was stolen from him, and the hideous con that one is a democracy-defending hero for taking up arms against Joe Biden.

Last week FBI Director Christopher Wray testified that what happened on January 6th was no ordinary rally that got out of hand, let alone the jovial picnic Sen. Ron Johnson of Wisconsin risibly claimed. It was a deliberately planned attack with the overt goal of assassinating federal officials and overturning a fair election. Figliuzzi himself adds something he says Wray was too circumspect (or that was too politically incendiary) to say: that this attack was incited at the highest level. That is to say, the presidential level.

In other words, the Capitol insurrectionists screaming “1776, bitch!” weren’t patriots trying to overthrow a monarch for the cause of liberty: they were the royalists trying to subvert the express will of the people and install a despot through bloodshed and murder. 

MAGA Nation, of course, sees it the other way round, as they have been fed a toxic hoax by that very despot, one that they eagerly gobbled up: the myth that they were the ones from whom the election had been “stolen.” It will not be easy to disabuse these folks of that belief, especially when they get their news only from Fox and its ilk and are rarely exposed to the actual facts, only to relentless repetition of the right wing counternarrative. 

Here again we see the sinister impact of the balkanization of our media. Appeals to reason don’t work with people who are in denial of objective reality. Reason only comes into play once those folks have been dragged clear of Cloud Cuckooland. That process has to begin with something other than a PowerPoint presentation. 

The effort to break that chokehold and disseminate the truth will therefore be long and hard, and books will be written about its complexities. That is the nature of “information warfare”—if it weren’t so difficult, we wouldn’t be in this mess in the first place. But it’s central to starving the Trumpist forest fire of its oxygen, and discrediting the right wing demonization of Joe Biden as the second coming of Pol Pot.

That cause will be greatly aided by concrete achievements that rob the Big Liars of their cred.


As I wrote two weeks ago, our best hope for driving a stake through the dark heart of Trumpism and killing it once and for all is the success of the Biden administration: in fighting COVID, in reviving the economy, in creating a better and more equitable society for all Americans. (I am aware that that last objective will actually alienate some of our fellow citizens, the ones who are keen to maintain a deliberately inequitable society. They can fuck right off.) 

The more successful Biden is, the more life improves for ordinary Americans, the more the inherent decency, competence, and integrity of this administration is revealed, the less appealing the Big Lie will look. 

Republicans therefore will oppose Biden tooth and nail, even at the expense of public health, of improved infrastructure, of human lives, and of the welfare of the republic. It is already demonstrably underway. Witness the lockstep GOP opposition to the Biden administration’s COVID-19 relief package, a wildly popular bill (favored by 76% of all Americans by some accounts, including six out of ten rank-and-file Republicans) that brings desperately needed economic and public health aid to millions of suffering Americans.

And the GOP response? Every single Senate Republican voted against it, making laughable, height-of-hypocrisy claims about its cost, after they passed a tax cut for the 1% with an almost identical pricetag in 2017. And that unanimous “no” vote came only after the aforementioned Ron Johnson—who is giving Ted Cruz a run for his money as an American laughingstock—demanded that that Senate clerks read all 668 pages of the bill aloud to delay its inevitable passage. (Note: An estimated 880 Americans died of COVID while Johnson carried out his stunt.)

Heather Cox Richardson is among those who have sagely noted that Republicans are openly terrified that the COVID relief package and similar legislation will work, thereby destroying the central tenet of Republicanism going all the way back to the New Deal, the idea that Government Is Bad. In that sense, the prospect of Biden’s success presents an existential crisis for the GOP. No wonder they are willing do everything they can to stop him, no matter how many Americans their efforts harm or even kill. 

But let’s not get too optimistic too fast. 

If COVID is eradicated and some semblance of normal life resumes, if the economy rebounds, if jobs come back, if the social safety net is strengthened, if there’s equality of opportunity and peace and prosperity, will that make mainstream American conservatives say, “Hey, these Democrats really know what they’re doing. I guess Donald was full of shit after all”?

Some will. But many will not.

As we well know, tribalism is not about reason or logic or policy. If it was, millions of working class and middle class Americans would not vote for a reverse Robin Hood Republican ticket that insults their intelligence with lies while it shamelessly robs them blind in order to line the pockets of plutocrats. 

It’s a bitter irony then, as the WaPo’s Greg Sargent notes, that the GOP might not be punished for its shameless opposition to anything that helps the American people. Red-hatted Americans will get the benefits of this Democratic legislation anyway—as well they should—and, distracted by Fox News hysteria over Dr. Seuss and Mr. Potato Head, may well forget or ignore the fact that Republicans did nothing to help them, while lapping up the GOP’s white grievance rhetoric. That is the irrational nature of tribalism, circling us back to the imperative of breaking the right wing media bubble that we just discussed. 

Republicans will of course play this to the hilt: they are natural-bomb throwers who relish being on the outside looking in, as their idiotic, adolescent anti-governmentalist gainsaying works much better when they are out of power and criticizing from the bleachers than in power and actually forced to govern. Already we have seen Mississippi Senator Roger Wicker crowing about the jobs that will be brought to his state by the COVID bill—a bill he voted against. 

So I hope Sargent is wrong. If not, at a certain point we have to stop blaming the con men and start blaming the marks.


A few weeks ago this blog featured an interview with the filmmaker Peter Hutchison regarding his new documentary Healing from Hate, about former White nationalists who turned on the neo-Nazi movement and are helping others do likewise. Quick synopsis: Getting the swastika tattoo removed from one’s neck is actually the easiest part. 

But what these “formers” (as they call themselves) are doing one-on-one with their erstwhile comrades holds lessons that can be writ large for all of America as we deal with the aftermath of Trumpism. 

Whoa whoa whoa, I hear you saying. “Aftermath” of Trumpism? Far from it. 

As a million pundits have been screaming since well before the election (this one included), Trumpism did not end with Donald’s exile from Twitter and dispatch to pathetic retirement in what Keith Olbermann calls Elba-Lago. (Let’s hope its more like St. Helena.) In the same way that we have long known that Trump is the symptom and not the cause of what ails America, his demise didn’t end this nightmare, only signaled the beginning of a new phase in it. 

But that phase is very much the one that Healing from Hate is dealing with: the process of getting people out of the cult and re-integrated into sane society, and repairing the damage that that cult has done. 

So while even concrete successes by the Biden administration may not be enough to break the irrational grip of Trumpism, there are techniques that can be used to slowly, methodically peel (some) people away from their blind allegiance to a dangerous and ultimately self-destructive way of thinking. There are lessons from deprogramming people from cults, in building one-on-one empathy, in the value of testimony from former members of the group itself, so-called “trusted messengers.” 

I know Trumpists are insulted by the very idea that they need to be “de-programmed” at all, finding it emblematic of the condescension that drove them into Trump’s greasy little arms in the first place. I get it. I know that’s not necessarily the verbiage one wants to use in the process of trying to woo people out of that movement. But at the end of the day, that’s the painful reality and we do no one any favors, least of all the republic, by pretending otherwise and maintaining the charade of a Krugmanesque “parties differ on shape of planet” false equivalence. 

As Stephen Colbert famously said at the 2006 White House Correspondents Dinner (in his now-retired O’Reillyesque persona), reality has a well-known liberal bias.

In The Atlantic, Anne Applebaum cites a program that re-integrated former members of Colombia’s Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) back into society, offering “the hope of a positive future, and providing training and counseling designed to help them assimilate.” She notes that “true believers” who are “deep down the conspiracy-theory rabbit hole, are part of an intense, deeply connected, and, to them, profoundly satisfying community. In order to be pried away from it, they will have to be offered some appealing alternative”—the same approach favored by “psychologists who specialize in exit counseling for people who have left religious cults.”

It is the same approach the “formers” in Hutchison’s documentary take with people whose whole identity and the community that supports it is often intertwined with their far right hate movement.


Remember, the people in the Capitol really believed that they were on a mission to save America, that it was patriotic to smash windows and kill and injure police. Before they can be convinced otherwise, they will have to see some kind of future for themselves in an America run by Joe Biden, Kamala Harris, and a Democratic Congress.


This process is slow and painstaking. Not for nothing do counterinsurgency experts within the Pentagon and the national security community refer to the GWOT as “the Long War.” Phase II will be long as well. 

Moreover, from the progressive point of view, there is always one big, nagging worry about this strategy. 

In the same way that there is no reasoning with Trumpists, meeting fascists halfway is a game for suckers. It’s appeasement, it’s morally wrong, and it never works. 

So let me be very clear that I am not advocating that.

This is not be about making nice with racists and autocrats, or normalizing their behavior, or finding some sort of “compromise.” Understanding and empathy must be steps toward breaking the appeal of neo-fascism, not accommodating it. As Elizabeth Warren acidly replied when asked about Republican cries for “unity”: “How about if we’re unified against insurrection? How about if we’re unified for accountability?”

In that same piece in The Atlantic, Applebaum offers a different approach: 

Here’s another idea: Drop the argument and change the subject. That’s the counterintuitive advice you will hear from people who have studied Northern Ireland before the 1998 peace deal, or Liberia, or South Africa, or Timor-Leste—countries where political opponents have seen each other as not just wrong, but evil; countries where people are  genuinely frightened when the other side takes power; countries where not all arguments can be solved and not all differences can be bridged. 

In the years before and after the peace settlement in Northern Ireland, for example, many “peacebuilding” projects did not try to make Catholics and Protestants hold civilized debates about politics, or talk about politics at all. Instead, they built community centers, put up Christmas lights, and organized job training for young people.

Ms. Applebaum notes, “’Who won the 2020 election?’ is, for these purposes, a bad topic. ‘How do we fix the potholes in our roads?’ is, in contrast, superb.”

The literature in the fields of peacebuilding and conflict prevention overflows with words such as local and community-based and economic regeneration. It’s built on the idea that people should do something constructive—something that benefits everybody, lessens inequality, and makes people work alongside people they hate. That doesn’t mean they will then get to like one another, just that they are less likely to kill one another on the following day.

(T)the Biden administration, or indeed a state government, could act on this principle and, for example, reinvigorate AmeriCorps, the national-service program, offering proper salaries to young people willing to serve as cleaners or aides at overburdened hospitals, food banks, and addiction clinics; sending them deliberately to states with different politics from their own. This might not build eternal friendships, but seditionists and progressives who worked together at a vaccination center could conceivably be less likely to use pepper spray on each other at a demonstration afterward.


All these approaches are worth considering and incorporating as part of the broader campaign to break the psychological back of Trumpist sedition in America. The idea that we can beat Trumpism without that element, with just arrest warrants and criminal prosecutions, is a non-starter. 

But there remains an elephant in the room (so to speak) when it comes to what animates the modern Republican Party in the post-Voting Rights Act era.

In the years since it defined itself in opposition to the New Deal, the GOP has seized on something even stronger and more visceral than the libertarian mythology of Horatio Algerism, and that force has metastasized since the days of Nixon (and the Southern strategy), and Reagan (and his welfare queens), and Bush (and Willie Horton). 

Millions of Trump supporters were inflamed by insidious, dishonest appeals to White grievance and resentment…..by demagoguery and divisive, racist claims that they are being robbed by an “Other.” That is vile, to say the least, on the part of the politicians doing the pandering. But like the man said, you can’t con somebody who doesn’t wanna be conned, so I don’t put all the blame on the grifters. The Republicans’ racist political approach only works because there’s already a receptive audience for it. 

We will not be able to defeat the violent insurrectionist movement that is Trumpism without dealing with the systemic, institutionalized racism that is marrow deep in these United States. 

If it was easy to obliterate racism, it would have happened already. But there are powerful pragmatic factors propping racism up—most of them economic. As we have seen all too painfully, it is a damned useful tool for dividing people and allowing the powers that be to maintain control through the sowing of hate and divisiveness. Trumpism is but the latest manifestation of the Lost Cause, of the Confederate and neo-Confederate strain in our history, even—appropriately—waving its hateful battle flag…..one whose origin goes back to the very pre-colonial founding of this nation on the backs of enslaved people of color. 

This is the John Birch “paranoid style” that is threaded throughout American life. But once it was a lunatic fringe of American conservatism; now it’s the dominant strain. It would go a long way toward healing this nation if we could drive it back onto the distant frontier where it belongs. 

For the threat to the republic is not merely from violence, but from an immoral idea that undermines the very foundation of American democracy, and that’s not something that riot cops, National Guardsmen, or even undercover detectives are best equipped to fight. 

We will not be rid of Trumpism and this violent threat until we reckon with the vile ideology that is at its core. 


Photo: American soldier with Afghan children.

3 thoughts on “Hard Knocks and Soft Power

  1. Yes, yes, yes! On all counts! It’s going to take a long time, but we have to do this work if we want a decent life and real power in choosing our government.
    So important to help the followers who thought they were being patriots that their actions damaged the republic rather than saving it.


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