by Emile Nakhleh
Of the many critical factors that contributed to President-elect Trump’s victory none is more central than his messaging. His words, descriptions of his opponents, and pithy calls for political “jihad” among his army of believers are not unlike what Osama bin Laden did to spread al-Qaeda’s message and call to action. This article does not purport to equate the American presidential democratic exercise with bin Laden’s or al-Qaeda’s advocacy of terrorism and violence. The intent is to show the power of messaging and how both aspirants to power attained their goals.
After 9/11. the U.S. Government underestimated bin Laden’s uncanny messaging acumen, which inadvertently undermined the government’s counterterrorism policies and led to a phenomenal rise in “jihadism” among disgruntled Muslim youth. Similarly, Trump’s political opponents ignored his message, refused to take him seriously, belittled his two- or three-word messages on issues and people, and kept repeating the mantra that he would not win the Republican nomination or the general election. By the time Trump’s opponents pulled their heads out of the proverbial sand, Trump was elected president and is on his way to assume the presidency.
Bin Laden’s message was simple, repetitive, easy to understand and memorize, and to the point. He told susceptible Muslim youth that Islam and Muslim territories were under attack. The attackers were the “far” enemy—including the Christian/“Crusader”/”infidel” forces headed by the United States and Zionism headed by Israel—and the “near” enemy including Muslim regimes in Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Pakistan, and elsewhere that behaved in an “un-Islamic” manner.
Bin Laden also preached that “jihad” is a duty on all Muslims to fight these “enemies” and that the battle between his brand of Islam and the “infidels” will last until the “end of days.” He repeated this message in every speech, interview, or media statement he ever sent. His adherents parroted this message from rote memory and with absolute conviction regardless of the facts. Although highly educated Muslims debated bin Laden’s credentials to issue religious decrees or fatwas in the name of Islam, his followers proceeded to accept his message, precisely because of its simplicity.
Presidential candidate Trump’s message during the campaign and since the election has been equally simple, precise, and compelling. “Make America Great Again,” “Mexico Will Pay for the Wall,” “Lying Ted,” ”Low Energy Jeb,” “Little Marco,” “Crooked Hillary,” “Lock Her Up,” and “Radical Islam” are but a few from Trump’s messaging repertoire. He also railed against free trade by accusing corporations of shipping jobs overseas and denounced China for “raping” the American economy. In reaction to Meryl Streep’s remarks at the Golden Globe Awards, he described her as a “Hillary lover” and an “over-rated” actress.
Trump’s rants against the Affordable Care Act or Obamacare (“repeal and replace”), the Iran nuclear deal (“shred it to pieces”), and the US Intelligence Agencies’ investigation of the Russian hacking (“political witch hunt”) added to his messaging prowess. Many of his voters regurgitated these messages, also from rote memory, in a populist chant that swelled his support. When a reporter asked a Trump supporter about Trump’s unsubstantiated messages against Hillary Clinton, the voter replied that she didn’t need facts. She believed his message. Period. In fact, many of his supporters have not even questioned his equating US intelligence agencies with Nazi Germany.
Osama bin Laden used the Internet, YouTube, and television outlets, mostly Al-Jazeera, to disseminate his message. Trump primarily relies on Twitter, shooting out nightly tweets in under 140 characters. Both excelled at their messaging and succeeded in converting thousands, if not millions, to their cause. One of my jobs at the CIA was to prepare a short analysis of every new Bin Laden message and send it to the White House with the president’s Daily Briefing. A common theme in most of those messages was not what he said but how he said it—in short, the messaging rather than whether the content had anything new in it.
During my government service, I participated in myriad interagency meetings discussing the resonance of the bin Laden messaging, its impact on Muslim youth, and how to counter his effective strategy. From all those meetings, we learned that the US government should not engage in theological debates with Muslims, rebut bin Laden’s specific “religious” messages, or question his credentials. Instead, we should focus on the damage that his violence and extremism wrought on Muslim communities and the deaths his terrorism inflicted on fellow Muslims.
We advised the US government to use available social media to disseminate its counter messaging to Muslim youth focusing on tangible aspects of their lives. US government agencies began to finance specific activities in education, entrepreneurship, and small-scale agricultural and job-creation projects. The goal was not to focus on Islam but to improve peoples’ lives. We sought to undercut the extremist message through tangible projects that benefit communities, not by selling them hot air.
Although the bin Laden message continued to resonate among Muslim youth, majorities of mainstream Muslims worldwide began to reject the radical paradigm, which in the end led to his marginalization and al-Qaeda’s decline. Muslims from Indonesia to Turkey realized that bin Laden’s messages, no matter how catchy, lacked substance, were divorced from their daily realities of unemployment, poverty, repression, and denial of human rights, and did not offer them a hopeful future. When Navy Seals killed bin Laden in 2011 during a raid on his hideout in Pakistan, no protests erupted on his behalf anywhere in the Arab Islamic world.
How Re-messaging Could Be a Viable Answer to Trump’s Tweets
The millions who were dismayed by Trump’s victory should not engage him in a war of tweets. Instead, they should focus on the damage that his tweet-driven policy positions could inflict on American citizens and on America’s national security. Patriotic Americans, regardless of color, race, creed, religion, or national origin, should more forcefully than ever embrace the American creed, deeply rooted in cultural and political diversity, of equal opportunity, respect, dignity, and the rule of law.
President Trump’s thoughtful advisers must impress on him the idea that plutocracy should be rejected as an American trait and that the preponderant combination of wealth and power in his administration should be accountable to the same legal standards that govern the rest of America. A successful Trump administration is one that helps provide employment to the millions who flocked to Trump’s side during the campaign in the hope that he would provide them with jobs and basic dignity.
Where Trump can’t live up to campaign promises, he should have the courage to look the American people in the eye and tell them the truth. His administration must work hard to provide the millions of Americans living outside the glitzy environment of big cities with a hopeful future of economic wellbeing and dignity. President Trump will soon discover that millions of his supporters, like those who followed bin Laden, are more interested in finding ways to live decently, educate their children, pay their bills, enjoy affordable healthcare, and have enough to save for their old age.
On the national security front, disparaging government institutions, especially the intelligence agencies, will harm American interests overseas and put American personnel in other countries in harm’s way. Running the world’s only superpower requires much reflection, deep understanding of the global forces at play, a sincere willingness to listen to people of knowledge and expertise, and a commitment to strengthen citizens’ trust in their government institutions. The Twitter world just doesn’t cut it. Re-messaging based on substance, tangible benefits, facts, and hope is the only way to reject divisiveness and bring the country together.