As President Joe Biden withdrew U.S. forces from the Afghanistan War, studies and appraisals of the devastating human costs of the American-led war on terror were once again trotted out, laying bare the failures, scandals, and atrocities of multiple Republican and Democratic administrations. In the last two decades, so-called war on terror has run up a bill upwards of $8 trillion—and, according to some of the more conservative estimates out there, has a body count of almost 1 million dead.
The sprawling, brutal conflicts, first waged by the George W. Bush administration, also had other, insanely dumb side effects (blowback, if you will). Among these other consequences, the wars coarsened so much of American political and popular culture, perhaps irrevocably, and made the country’s conspiracy theories and paranoia dramatically worse.
Look no further than the most influential far-right conspiracy theories that flourished throughout the Trump era and continue to flourish during the Biden years.
“Among the things that I think really stands out about QAnon is its relationship to Guantanamo Bay, and how it is openly fantasizing about sending its political opponents to Guantanamo Bay,” The Daily Beast’s contributing editor Spencer Ackerman told hosts Will Sommer and Asawin Suebsaeng on this week’s episode of the podcast Fever Dreams. “That’s QAnon today. It’s going to be the Republican Party on Capitol Hill in however many years.”
Ackerman, an award-winning national security reporter who produces the Substack newsletter “Forever Wars,” is out now with a provocative new book, Reign of Terror: How the 9/11 Era Destabilized America and Produced Trump. Suebsaeng describes it as “a maddening and richly reported ride through the last two decades of both Republican and Democratic complicity in shaping our current domestic political derangements, while also waging horror and bloodbaths abroad.”
Ackerman painstakingly details how the U.S. government’s prosecution of the war on terror laid the groundwork that was fundamental to Donald Trump’s rise to the most powerful position on the planet—even while “Trump had been posturing as an opponent of the war on terror,” in some superficial ways.
“[During the Trump presidency], the accelerated civilizational contempt matched with the intensification of the war on terror in operations, as well as in culture together, kind of locked in for me that there had been lots of really important, particularly historically rooted, explanations for Trump’s rise to power,” Ackerman says on the pod. “But all of them had neglected something important. And I wanted to write about what that important aspect was: How basically we have been at war for so long, inciting so much nativism and so much violence, that it’s been functionally background noise. And we notice it pretty much like we notice—at best—the weather.”
Elsewhere on the episode, Suebsaeng and Sommer investigate just how much Trump loves torturing the Republican Georgia officials who failed to kill democracy for Trump—and the scope of the death threats and intimidation that Trump enjoyed causing.
Also, have you heard of the MAGA “general strike,” spearheaded by far-right luminaries Lin Wood and Sidney Powell, that’s supposed to take place on 9/11 this year? Sommer breaks it down.
“Starting on Saturday… Lin Wood has this idea that basically Trump supporters should withdraw from society,” Sommer reports, “as a protest over ‘election fraud,’ and generally kind of, like, the dismal state of the world. So I’m certainly watching closely to see how many people get into this.”