On November 15, 2015, as the world grappled with the horrors of a multipronged ISIS attack in Paris, Donald Trump, who was then an improbable but officially declared candidate for the presidency, tweeted, “When will President Obama issue the words RADICAL ISLAMIC TERRORISM? He can’t say it, and unless he will, the problem will not be solved!”
I raise the subject of this tweet, and the sentiment that motivated it, in light of President Trump’s remarkable reaction to the violence in Charlottesville, Virginia, this weekend. “We condemn in the strongest possible terms this egregious display of hatred, bigotry and violence on many sides, on many sides,” he said. Trump, when presented with the chance to denounce, in plain, direct language, individuals who could fairly be described as “white supremacist terrorists,” or with some other equivalent formulation, instead resorted to euphemism and moral equivalence.
Trump’s position on the matter of President Obama’s anti-terrorism rhetoric did not place him outside the Republican mainstream. Obama’s critics argued throughout his presidency that his unwillingness to embrace the incantatory rhetoric of civilizational struggle—his reluctance to cast such groups as al-Qaeda and ISIS as vanguards of an all-encompassing ideological and theological challenge to the West—meant that, at the very least, he misunderstood the nature of the threat, or, more malignantly, that he understood the nature of the threat but was, through omission, declaring a kind of neutrality in the conflict between the United States and its principal adversary.
It is true that Obama calibrated his rhetoric on the subject of terrorism to a degree even his closest advisers sometimes found frustrating. They hoped that, on occasion, he would at least acknowledge the legitimacy of Americans’ fears about Islamist terrorism before proceeding to explain those fears away. But Obama had a plausible rationale for…