A review of Spencer Ackerman’s “Reign of Terror”

I have a new review of Ackerman’s Reign of Terror in the New Republic. Here’s the beginning:

On September 5, 2016, two months before the Electoral College victory of Donald Trump, an essay published under the pseudonym “Publius Decius Mus” appeared in the conservative intellectual journal the Claremont Review of Books. Aimed squarely at never-Trump conservatives, its author—later identified as Michael Anton—insisted that there was no choice but to support Trump. “A Hillary presidency will be pedal-to-the-metal on the entire Progressive-left agenda,” he wrote. To his fellow conservatives, he pleaded: “If you genuinely think things can go on with no fundamental change needed, then you have implicitly admitted that conservatism is wrong.” Like Trump, Anton saw before him a sick country. He diagnosed the disease as a political left busy dismantling everything that he thought made the country great, and a conservative intellectual apparatus that has accepted losing in a system stacked against it. The most fundamental problem, according to Anton, was that “the ceaseless importation of Third World foreigners with no tradition of, taste for, or experience in liberty means that the electorate grows more left, more Democratic, less Republican, less republican, and less traditionally American with every cycle.” Failing to support Trump courted national suicide. “2016 is the Flight 93 election,” wrote Anton, “charge the cockpit or you die.”

Anton’s essay demonstrates the combination of projection and paranoia that characterized the administration he would soon join. While it is consumed with fear of immigrants as the threat to the body politic and the American way of life, its title, “The Flight 93 Election,” calls back to a different threat. The attacks of September 11, 2001, are otherwise unmentioned in the essay. But the implication of the title is clear: Just as the passengers of Flight 93, realizing their hijacked plane was a part of a coordinated attack on America, tried to storm the cockpit, causing the plane to crash into a field rather than reach its intended target, so, too, was sacrifice now required to confront a civilizational threat. “You may die anyway,” writes Anton, encouragingly. “You—or the leader of your party—may make it into the cockpit and not know how to fly or land the plane. There are no guarantees. Except one: if you don’t try, death is certain.”

As it happens, it is believed that the intended target for Flight 93 was the U.S. Capitol Building. That attack on the Capitol was foiled by the passengers on the doomed plane. Some 20 years later, on January 6, 2021, the Capitol did come under attack. But it was neither the left, nor recent immigrants, nor Al Qaeda who carried it out. It was the group that Anton thought of as “traditional Americans”—a mob of private-plane passengers, white supremacists, and conspiracy theorists for Trump—who sought, with the approval of the president, to overturn the results of a democratic election.

These two attacks on the Capitol, separated by approximately two decades, bookend Spencer Ackerman’s Reign of Terror. But what connects them? In the wake of Trump’s election, two principal explanations for his victory emerged: one centered on the divisions and wounds of race, another on the divisions and wounds of economic inequality. Ackerman offers a third explanation—or perhaps, more precisely, a way of tying various threads together. “The War on Terror,” he writes, “was by no means the only factor enabling Trump’s rise.” But it created ways for the other factors, such as racism, to find powerful forms of expression: “It revitalized the most barbarous currents in American history, gave them renewed purpose, and set them on the march, an army in search of its general.” It has also misled us. The threat to democracy comes not from terrorism but the apparatus of counterterrorism, at the level of the state and at the level of politics. The book argues powerfully that the open-ended War on Terror has been an exceptionalist fantasy, a bipartisan failure, and a profound risk to American democracy. Whether ending the War on Terror would be enough to diminish that threat now is another matter.

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