In a charming scene from a recent mini-documentary, “The Campaign of Miner Bo,” the eponymous candidate tries to post his electioneering sign outside a political rally in West Virginia. As he steps back to admire it, a gust of wind comes up and undoes his careful arrangement. Giving vent to his annoyance, the normally soft-spoken Bo spits out the strongest expletive he can muster: “Osama bin Laden!” For Mr. Copley, a 43-year-old former mining employee whose campaign to unseat one-term Democratic Senator Joe Manchin began in a confrontation with Hillary Clinton over the future of coal, there is no worse imprecation. As the film shows, Bo went on to a humbling defeat in the Republican primary and never got the chance to implement his evangelical, “just tell the truth” message in office. He claimed the “endorsement of God,” but God had other plans. Bo’s political instincts were lamentable; his example in cursing, however, is worthy of emulation.
According to news accounts published after his death, Osama bin Laden was surprised by the impact of the airborne suicide attack on New York; he did not think the Twin Towers would collapse. But by any measure, the terrorist strike on 9/11 succeeded beyond expectations. In fact, it has nearly ruined 21st-century America. Thanks to the deep reservoir of decency in our national spirit, anti-Muslim reaction in the moment was kept to a minimum. Within weeks, however, plans were laid for a military response, and by 2003, this had blossomed into a misdirected war. That conflict continues to this day, without producing either the end of Islamic militancy or a lasting peace. In the process, old divisions were reopened. Bin Laden’s malevolent genius struck at the weak point of democracy: suspicion of one’s own government. As the legitimate fear of terror waned, we were consumed by a renewed distrust of our fellow citizens and neighbors.
There are obvious differences between this period of domestic conflict and the tragedy of the foreign war that was winding down 50 years ago. The most important is that the armed forces engaged now are volunteers. Indeed, many of the rising generation enlisted in the aftermath of 9/11 in order to defend the country from a palpable threat. Yet because they comprise a tiny minority of the population, their sacrifices have been slow to claim our attention, and their dedication to the forlorn task of ‘nation-building’ has been overlooked. Some are alienated by the experience, others have embraced public service. In some ways, they represent the best hope for the future; it’s almost too bad there aren’t more of them. For its part, our government has seemingly ignored the lessons about the pitfalls of limited warfare in the belief that it would be acceptable this time. Concerned not to arouse the domestic opposition that marked the Vietnam era, every administration has cultivated the idea that “low-level” support for global anti-insurgency is the necessary new normal. Perhaps it is, but the way we got here, from WMD to the evacuation from Syria, has involved deception and patent half-truths. This sort of behavior arouses bad memories.
Osama could not have done better if he’d actually understood America. After a Presidential contest that offered the loser far better grounds for appeal than will exist in 2020, George W. Bush entered office with a promise to exercise “compassionate conservatism.” NAFTA had not yet become a grievance throughout the industrial Midwest—Grassley and McConnell voted for it—and the mission to “make American great again” was arguably a done deal, not least because of the prosperity of the Clinton years. But the claim that the West was pursuing an anti-Islamic crusade found just enough willing listeners to ignite a debate about “patriotism,” which quickly merged with the anxiety about cultural and religious issues that talk-radio had nurtured. The wounds created by the Vietnam War never completely healed, and for various reasons, some people don’t want them to. Black POW/MIA banners still dot the landscape, as do Confederate flags, which plenty of Yankees embrace as symbols of righteous resistance to authority. Motorcycle clubs composed of veterans and their would-be allies proliferate. No gesture of remembrance goes uncontested, by one party or the other. Time will steadily shut down the Vietnam generation, but their sense of betrayal will persist, perversely mirrored in the demands of a diverse young cohort of activists. The one thing everyone agrees on is that the government lies.
Bo Copley got to ride that wave, too, however briefly. After hearing Hillary say “we’re going to put a lot of coal miners and coal companies out of business”—only later did he learn the larger context—he leapt to the defense of his impoverished community. Portraying himself as an honest “outsider,” he eschewed local office and aimed for the big time. His campaign was about making a statement. He simply wanted politicians to listen to “ordinary people,” a pure populist message devoid of any specific policy. Donald Trump, running in the same year with a lot more media coverage and a lot more money, made good use of the same approach. This time, the alternative is an “insider” par excellence, old enough to recognize lingering division when he sees it yet still appealing to trust and compromise: “there’s a lot more that unites us than divides us.” Maybe so, but that’s not enough to get people to vote anymore. “Osama bin Laden!”