Friday, August 19, 2016

Beware Terrorists (or Russia or Wikileaks) Giving Trump His October Surprise

Those who follow politics, and presidential politics in particular, are familiar with the idea of an “October Surprise”. Put simply, an October Surprise is an event that occurs very late in a political campaign (i.e., in October immediately prior to the November election) that will sway votes, usually without an opportunity for the candidate hurt by the event to respond. An October Surprise can be a neutral event to which each candidate’s reaction can be judged (think Hurricane Sandy in 2012) or it can be intentional, targeted to hurt or help a particular candidate. Often, candidates and their campaigns worry about any sort of October Surprise that the other side (or those supporting the other side) might be planning.

While I don’t really intend to drive conspiracies (you know what I think of conspiracy theories…) or fear-monger, I want to offer three possibilities of an October Surprise that would, sadly, not come as a great surprise but which could have a profound effect on the outcome of the election and the future of our nation and the world.

First, I think that we need to be seriously concerned about a significant terrorist attack by ISIS in America or against American interests in the days leading up to the election. Now, I’m sure many of you are saying, “But wouldn’t a terrorist attack help Trump”? Yes, it probably would. And that is likely precisely what ISIS wants. You see, while many people may be arguing that Trump will be “tougher” on terrorists than Clinton, I think that in the part of the Muslim world that is either sympathetic to ISIS or susceptible to the ISIS message, a Trump victory would be a good thing … for ISIS.

Yes, really.

Sure, we might drop more bombs on parts of Syria, Iraq, and Libya. And we might kill more jihadi fighters. But one of my biggest fears of a Trump presidency is that he would give ISIS precisely what it wants: A clash of civilizations and religions, pitting the wealthy, decadent, Christian West against the poor, pious, Islamic world. Think of it this way: When the US drops a bomb on a village in Syria, does that tend to dissuade more young Muslims from joining ISIS or does it serve as a recruiting tool to radicalize even more people to the call of radical Islam? If America tortures Muslims it accuses of terrorism, does the torture act as a deterrent or a clarion call to other Muslims susceptible to radicalization? If you read what experts on the subject have been saying ever since Trump first suggested that we ban Muslims from coming to America (or resume the use of torture or kill the families of terrorists), you’ll see just this fear being one of the core concerns being raised. We know that ISIS (like al-Qaeda, Hamas, and other terrorist groups) is not afraid to sacrifice “martyrs” for the larger “good” that their deaths may bring. If ISIS can goad Trump into a much broader war in which more and more Muslims will die at the hands of “infidels”, then ISIS may be even closer to the realization of their basic goals. And sadly Donald Trump doesn’t seem to understand that we can’t fight a war against a a few million Muslims by alienating or fighting against a billion Muslims who haven’t yet taken up arms.

Thus, a terrorist attack that would put fear into the American populace, bring about the election of Donald Trump, and from there the alienation and radicalization of more of the Muslim world, might be a perfect game plan for ISIS.

Yet if there is a terrorist attack that seems to benefit Trump, we can’t presume that ISIS is responsible. In any normal and sane universe, it would be difficult to imagine an violent October Surprise in which a candidate was complicit or that was conducted by a state actor. But this is not a normal year and I have my doubts as to whether Donald Trump is sane (at least in the classic sense of the word of being able to understand the difference between right and wrong).

What am I talking about? Russia.

We’ve already seen the apparent warm relations (bromance?) between Trump and Vladimir Putin. We’ve seen Trump praise Putin’s leadership (and by “leadership” I mean the killing of opposition journalists). We’ve seen Trump talk about abandoning our NATO allies and essentially ceding the Baltic countries to Russia. We’ve seen Trump talk about reversing the US (and global) position on Russia’s annexation of Crimea. And we’ve seen Trump ask Russia for help in hacking into Clinton’s computers (oh, wait, that was just sarcasm, right?). Earlier this week we heard Trump tell the world that he doesn’t trust American’s intelligence agencies. Seriously. Moreover, I suspect that from the Russian perspective, the internal chaos, dissension, and isolationism that a Trump presidency would cause in the US would be an enormous boon to Russia’s efforts to reassert its own global influence.

If Russia’s spy agencies are willing to try to subvert American democracy via hacking and disclosure of information, what else might they be willing to do? Might the Russians be willing to aid ISIS, especially if in doing so, they were able to keep the focus of ISIS directed westward instead of northward into the Muslim republics of Russia? Or might the Russians even be willing to risk a direct action if it could be plausibly blamed on ISIS (a so-called “false flag” attack)? Again, while I would usually scoff at such a notion in normal times … these are not normal times.

Finally, recall the release by WikiLeaks of documents stolen from the Democratic National Committee, most likely by the Russian spy agencies. So what happens if WikiLeaks releases other damaging (or potentially damaging) documents closer to the election? How would that play out? At least one of Trump’s supporters and occasional advisors, Roger Stone, seems to think that is precisely what is going to happen. Just imagine a WikiLeaks document dump in the days immediately prior to the election that confirms any of a host of conspiracies about Clinton. Just imagine the results. And if such a release is timed properly, Clinton might have no time to respond.

Now, given the likely involvement of the Russian spy agencies in the theft of information, why should we presume that any damaging information is accurate? For example, imagine a document dump two or three days before the election that supposedly demonstrates that Clinton accepted bribes from Wall Street or foreign leaders or that she had been diagnosed with some ailment or that she was actually Saul Alinsky’s love child. Can you imagine the last minute swing such news might play in the election? But think for a minute how simple it would be for anyone to create a fake document. We’ve seen it before with the fake military records of George W. Bush. Now, imagine for a moment what would happen if, after Trump was elected because of fraudulent documents, it could be conclusively proven that the documents were, indeed, fraudulent. The results of the election and our entire electoral process might be thrown into a state of turmoil. And who would benefit from an America paralyzed by internal turmoil or a constitutional crisis? Russia. And China. And maybe ISIS. But definitely not the American people.

Just to muddy these particular waters a bit more, don’t forget that veteran political observers have been puzzled by the Trump campaign’s failure to do those things that are ordinarily required for a successful electoral strategy. The lack of a “ground game” (and associated get out the vote efforts), the failure to engage in major fundraising efforts (at least until recently), and the failure (until yesterday, apparently) to spend money on television ads could all be put down to Trump being Trump and simply bucking tradition and political wisdom. Or, if you’d like to climb down the conspiracy rabbit hole, it could be because Trump knows that he’s got something to shake things up before votes are actually cast.

Yeah, I know. I probably sound a bit like Alex Jones. Sigh. That’s not my intent. Maybe I’ve just read too many well-written thrillers. I’m not sitting here telling you that any of these things are going to happen. Rather, I’m simply suggesting that we be prepared for the unexpected, the October Surprise. And I’m suggesting that given the stakes, given the people and countries involved, given what we’ve already seen, and given the ramifications of the possible outcomes of the election, that we be careful in jumping to any conclusions should any sort of unexpected event occur.

I fear what could happen if Donald Trump is elected President. I fear for our country and for our world. And I fear that Donald Trump, a man seemingly without any moral convictions whatsoever, will do quite literally anything to get what he wants. And what he wants is to win.

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