Both George W. Bush and Barack Obama faced domestic terrorist attacks that could have, and sometimes did, drive the country into hysteria. For Bush, of course, it was 9/11 — the deadliest attack on the homeland in history. But 9/11-level attacks are difficult to pull off.
The attacks on Obama's watch were smaller — they featured radicalized individuals firing guns, or setting off homemade bombs, in crowds. These attacks aren't as deadly as a 9/11-like strike, but they are hard to prevent in a big country that offers easy access to firearms and combustible materials.
The Obama administration struggled to maintain calm in the aftermath of those events. The gunmen could kill, the bombmakers could murder, but neither could threaten the United States of America in any serious way. The threat to America, Obama believed, was the terror itself — the way we could be provoked into overreaction, into blunder, into panic. The war in Iraq did us far more damage than 9/11, and intelligence analysts believe that both al-Qaeda and ISIS think it helps their recruiting to lure America into attacking Muslim countries.
The Trump administration would face no such dilemma. Rather than managing post-attack hysteria, Trump would amplify it, feed off it. His reaction after the shooting at the Pulse nightclub in Orlando, Florida, offers a sense of his instincts:
Now imagine if Trump had been president on the day of the nightclub shooting and, with Steve Bannon's help, had managed to give a tightly honed speech presenting his warnings as prescient, focusing the country's rage on Muslims, and channeling the backlash toward his policy ends.
"My great fear," says Larry Diamond, a Stanford University political scientist who studies democracies, "is that if we have a major terrorist attack on the United States, that the psychology of fear that sets in in these circumstances naturally gives a leader like Trump enormous scope to abridge civil liberties, amend constitutional guarantees, and move in a more authoritarian direction."
Some analysts even suggest Trump wants this kind of attack and is laying the rhetorical groundwork for it. Jack Goldsmith, a top Justice Department official under Bush, has arguedthat Trump wants his travel ban overturned, because he is "setting the scene to blame judges after an attack that has any conceivable connection to immigration." In a chilling New Yorker article, Ryan Lizza quotes Todd Breasseale, a former Department of Homeland Security official, saying, "I am fully confident that an attack is exactly what he wants and needs."
Imagine Trump spends the next year furious at the media and the courts and the leaks within his own bureaucracy — warning that they are making us less safe and that they are the people's enemies — and then there is a terrorist attack that pushes the country to rally around its leader.
What does Trump's rhetoric sound like in the aftermath? How likely would he be to offer tacit, indirect support to violence against mosques — particularly given how resistant he's been to condemning the rise in anti-Semitic threats in recent weeks?
What does Trump's version of the Patriot Act look like? How would he expand the government's powers of surveillance after a terror attack — and would he use them against the media and recalcitrant elements of his own bureaucracy? How much would he expand his travel ban in the aftermath of an event that he thought could be used to justify it?
Nor would it end there. "As for other options in a post-attack scenario, just look back to 9/11," Matt Olsen, the former head of the National Counterterrorism Center, told the New Yorker. "C.I.A. black sites, enhanced interrogations, Gitmo, and warrantless surveillance will all be on the table. In addition, regardless of nationality, there will be changes to immigration and refugee policies."
And would would stop Trump? Congressional Republicans? They are falling in line behind him now, when he is unpopular. It is difficult to believe they would try to constrain him when he is popular when the country is scared, and when an election is nearing.
None of this is inevitable, or even probable. I'd put the chances against a scenario like this at 70 or 80 percent, at least. But those were roughly Clinton's chances of winning the presidential election. If there's been a lesson of the past year, it's that outcomes with a mere 20 to 30 percent probability really can happen.