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Why Is This Happening? Breaking down the War on Terror with Spencer Ackerman: podcast and transcript

Chris Hayes speaks with Pulitizer Prize-winning journalist Spencer Ackerman about how the weaponized bigotry that fueled the War on Terror after 9/11 created the conditions for Trumpism.

Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Spencer Ackerman joins to discuss catalysts for the War on Terror, inflection points, recent developments in Kabul, and the role of U.S. hegemony in continued global combat. Ackerman also talks about his new book, “Reign of Terror: How the 9/11 Era Destabilized America and Produced Trump,” which tells the story of how the weaponized bigotry that fueled the War on Terror after 9/11 created the conditions for Trumpism and increased threats to American democracy.

Note: This is a rough transcript — please excuse any typos.

Spencer Ackerman: The War on Terror is a sprawling project that occurs inside the United States and outside the United States, unbound by time, space, or a fixed enemy. Its operations vary over its lifespan. Accordingly, however inconspicuous it seems presently, we should not assume that it has reached its final form.

Chris Hayes: Hello, and welcome to "Why is This Happening" with me, your host, Chris Hayes. If you'll permit me a weird, personal (LAUGH) moment here, I was thinking about how to intro today's conversation. And, you know, the thing that I think about most is just where I was on September 11th, which was driving on Lake Shore Drive with my then partner, now wife, Kate, as we were going to work in the South Loop and we heard about the planes.

This is, of course, like, a totally banal, you know, generational experience, people that were there. And the fact of the matter is, I was 22 on September 11th, 2001. And started writing soon thereafter. And spent the 20 years since then as a journalist in different forms.

And the constant through those 20 years of my time being a journalist has been the war in Afghanistan specifically, and the War on Terror more broadly. And we're now at this moment. When you're hearing this, I don't know what's going to be happening in Afghanistan, but the day that I'm talking to you, just a few hours ago there was a catastrophic series of suicide bombs outside the airport.

As of now, we know of 11 or 12 U.S. service members who've been killed, dozens of Afghan civilians have been killed. It's amidst this airlift to try to get people that worked for the U.S. and others out of Afghanistan before total Taliban takeover.

And it feels like this awful, bloody, chaotic end to a ignominious chapter. And yet, the chapter's not closed. And what's striking about this is people keep pointing out that, like, you know, the amount of nightly network news devoted to Afghan has been minuscule, right?

That this war has been grinding out in the background, Afghans have been bleeding and dying and American service members have been dying, although nowhere near the same number. And this far off place has receded and has been sort of in the recesses of American political conversation for years.

Joe Biden is finally withdrawing, you know, U.S. forces there. And it's now occasioned a lot of the same voices who sort of cheerleaded for the war to begin with to say, "We need to stay and we need to strike back." And all at the same time, there's a strange, bifurcated feeling I have of, like, the War on Terror, which felt so present and so overwhelming and ubiquitous and all the stuff that was written after 9/11 about how this changes everything and this is epochal change in history.

And the U.S. has a civilizational duty to take on violent Islam and this will be the defining struggle of the century, all that seems preposterous and overblown and overheated now. And yet, at the same time, the legacy of what that war did to us seems present.

In some ways, that's the thesis of this incredible new book, this masterful history that has just been published by Spencer Ackerman. It's called The Reign of Terror: How the 9/11 Era Destabilized America and Produced Trump. And he now writes The Forever Wars newsletter on Substack, which I suggest you subscribe to.

I've known Spencer for a very long time. He and I are very similar ages and came up in the exact same period of time. In some ways, he's the perfect chronicler for this because he's been reporting on the War on Terror for 20 years and as that same generational perspective on it.

The book is incredible and illuminating. It's just a great history. First and foremost, more than a polemic, it is a great history. And I can't think of someone I'd rather talk to on this day, on this very, very sad and awful day, than Spencer Ackerman. Great to have you on the program, Spencer.

Spencer Ackerman: Thanks for having me, Chris.

Chris Hayes: You know, right now, obviously, we don't do breaking news on a podcast, but I feel like we've got to sort of start there. We're digesting this news of the multiple suicide bomber attacks outside the Kabul airport. Huge Afghan civilian casualties and U.S. service members.

It appears the attack was carried out, not by the Taliban, but by ISIS of Khorosan, which is the Afghanistan version of ISIS. I don't know, I've been watching the news unspool in Afghanistan for the last few weeks and have felt so conflicted in a million different directions. And find myself almost, like, I don't have a take 'cause I just find it all so wrenching. And I'm just curious where you're at.

Spencer Ackerman: I hate that the business we're in encourages us to have takes, rather than simply recognizing the human catastrophe that not only this incident represents, but 20 years of such incidents represent. Twenty years of human destruction, of wealth theft, of forced migration and displacement, of civilizational contempt and disrespect that culminates in a circumstance where masses of desperate people seek access to a small airport where the United States has taken it upon itself to throttle who gets to escape.

And the people that it decides to prioritize aren't Afghans. They're Americans. They're westerners. They're Afghans who served western interests in some way. And then, the Afghan people are once again an afterthought and not a priority for the United States of America, as much as every war monger that you have heard over the past several weeks wraps themselves in the supposed need that the Afghans have for an America savior.

I don't know. I don't really know what to say except, like, I'm just, you know, out of a lot of patience. We are not, again, considering that the people who are actually suffering here are innocent Afghans. And they are suffering in a way that might make Americans feel conflicted because America is not exclusively, but so directly, responsible for their continued suffering and will never materially offer anything to make that right.

Chris Hayes: Yeah, that's the part of it, right? And I think we can get into this, but the sense in which so much of the rhetoric surrounding U.S. intervention post-9/11 was wrapped in this kind of humanitarian packaging, that this was something we were doing for the places we were invading.

You know, the girls of Afghanistan, the dissidents of the brutal regime of Saddam's Baathist Iraq, et cetera, et cetera. And, like, to me, the thing that's always been really maddening about that is, like, it's both true and also insidious.

Like, it is true that being a dissident in Saddam's Baathist Iraq was a horror show. It is true that, like, the girls who were kicked out of school and terrorized and shot at or had acid thrown in their face by the Taliban, they exist and the Taliban was horrible to them.

It is also true that the U.S. military intervention, the bombing and the killing that we did, was never motivated by (LAUGH) those things. And it's very hard to say that it made those things better. And yet, you're always fighting this battle with people who are invoking these humanitarian tropes because the core reality at the heart of it is that the humanitarian trope being invoked is true. There's a real human there. And there is real suffering. And yet, it has been so cynically manipulated for so long.

Spencer Ackerman: Let's put a finer point on it. They are exploiting the continuing suffering of the Afghan people, and will prolong it in the name of alleviating it. That's exploitation. That's manipulation. That's not humanitarianism. Samuel Moyn of Yale University has an excellent background coming out called Humane, which talks about the ways in which human rights has become, particularly since the end of the Cold War, a justification persuasive to liberals in particular, but believers in American exceptionalism far more broadly, as a rationale.

And look, there is a term for this. That term is "mission civilisatrice." That is a term about bringing, you know, let's just say it as ugly as it is, bringing civilization to these benighted places that westerners only can accomplish on behalf of the Natives of these countries.

And it's always an argument for exploitation. It's always a justification for barbarism. And it's no different today than it was when, you know, I don't know, France invaded Algeria, when the United States, you know, settled the west, et cetera.

Chris Hayes: The book is a history, first and foremost, which is one of the things I love about it. And it's really incredibly good, historical writing. I'm friends with you on social media and I was watching you, you know, screenshotting Hobsbawm, the famous British historian, Marxist British historian who, above all else, is just an incredible narrative storyteller of history. And, you know, that book is in the tradition of that kind of work. And I thought maybe the first place to start is at a conceptual level, which is a deceptively simple question, which is, "What is the War on Terror?"

Spencer Ackerman: The War on Terror, let's talk about it first in its operations, then let's talk about it in its name, then let's talk about it in its culture. Its operations, the War on Terror, is a sprawling project that occurs inside the United States and outside the United States, unbound by time, space, or a fixed enemy.

Its operations vary over its lifespan. Accordingly, however inconspicuous it seems presently, we should not assume that it has reached its final form. Those operations have included indefinite detention; surveillance on a scale unimaginable to a previous generation; indefinite detention of a sort that continues to this day at Guantanamo (and once it continues at Guantanamo, has the option of expanding outward again); the transformation of immigration from a process of making more Americans, into a process of threatening Americans who are already here; and providing a counterterrorism framework to address undocumented immigration.

That was not, of course, created by the War on Terror. That was an opportunity presented by the War on Terror: outright torture, kidnapping, sexual degradation and outright abuse. That is something that happens both at Guantanamo Bay and in CIA secret prisons know as black sites.

The militarization of the border; the transference of surveillance tools tested in war and as national level national security assets ever downward from the programs run by both the Defense Department and the Department of Homeland Security, to equip police around the country.

Outright counterterrorism funding to any police shop that wanted it despite, you know, the negligible if, you know, not outright nonexistent threats of terrorism that those departments actually faced; the collection of biometric data on tens of thousands of Muslims stored in a program called NSEERS (Barack Obama turned that program off, but didn't delete the data. Anyone can turn that switch back on and have a Muslim registry ready to go).

The creation of second-class citizenship, not by law, but de facto for American Muslims, an outright atmosphere of fear because law enforcement was able to place informants in their houses of worship, the FBI was permitted to create maps not of suspected terrorist activity inside Muslim communities, but of Muslim communities themselves.

The creation of opaque, Byzantine systems of watchlisting that serve to keep Muslims essentially both in a position of second-class citizenship and, you know, in positions where you could, in some manifestations of these watchlists, not be permitted on an airplane for reasons you would not be able to, like, get a, by any definition, fair hearing to remove yourself from.

And outright war, which is to say the invasion, occupation of two countries, the insertion of Special Operations Forces, and the consistent application of air strikes on many more countries, all of which continued expanding outward over a period of 20 years. That was the War on Terror. That is the War on Terror.

Now, we see what the War on Terror continues to be. And we saw it as it was during the Trump administration, as something that would sort of shed the carbonized husk of the wars that people on the left and the right can recognize are failures with extremely brittle public support, and outwardly mine the precious, nativist mettle concealed within that carbonized husk.

That permits the expansion of the War on Terror to areas, to frontiers where aspects of it had not been before. And that's what we saw during the summer of 2020, when the mechanisms of the War on Terror, the Department of Homeland Security, the Joint Terrorism Task Forces, essentially a posse assembled with minimal insignia by the Attorney General of the United States out of law enforcement functions spread across various Justice Department agencies for use against protesters against fascism and calling for Black liberation.

That too is the War on Terror. That too is the direction of the War on Terror. It's a logical extension. It is not a departure. The War on Terror, therefore, is a series of authoritarian possibilities and nativist opportunities. Let's turn now to the culture of the War on Terror.

The culture of the War on Terror can perhaps best be summed up by one of perhaps the signature cultural offerings of the War on Terror, which is a television show that debuted on Fox shortly after 9/11 called 24. Chris, do you remember 24?

Chris Hayes: Dude, as soon as you talked about this, I knew where this was going. And yes, it's a remarkable text. (LAUGH)

Spencer Ackerman: So 24 is the story of a valiant counterterrorism agent played by Kiefer Sutherland known as Jack Bauer. You know, over the course of the hour of television, which is supposed to represent a kind of real-time hour, and it had that kind of thrilling verisimilitude, Jack Bauer, Kiefer Sutherland's character, has to stop another bombing from going off.

In order to do this, because the terrorists he confronts are both so ubiquitous and so hardened, Jack Bauer has no choice but, every week on 24, to torture some folks, as Barack Obama will go on to put it. And the torture is uniformly depicted occurring against evil people determined to wreak mass casualty events for reasons that have nothing to do with any material, circumstance, or historical grievance, but because of a simple civilizational barbarism. You can already tell that the people being portrayed overwhelmingly are not white. And, unless Jack Bauer can get his man, so many will die. But that's only one enemy of 24. The other enemy of 24 is anyone--

Chris Hayes: The lawyers.

Spencer Ackerman: --who seeks (LAUGH) to stop Jack Bauer, using the law. The law is the enemy of 24. Anything from the attorneys that dare to say that Jack Bauer's evil targets have rights, to the bureaucrats within the counterterrorism unit that Jack Bauer works for.

You know notice on 24 they never actually say the word "law." What they say instead, and this instructive, is "protocol." "Jack Bauer needed to follow protocols, but he didn't." Never, "Jack Bauer needed to obey the law, because he doesn't."

And this show really framed in important ways how the War on Terror would see itself and would be outwardly portrayed, not just in pop culture, but in critical warrens of American politics for the next 20 years, to the point that one time the guiding legal light of the conservative movement, Antonin Scalia, (LAUGH) gave a speech referencing Jack Bauer.

And this was at a time when, like, people had, you know, learned a fair amount, although nowhere near everything, about CIA and military torture. And Scalia just kind of shrugs and goes, like, "What are you gonna do? You gonna arrest Jack Bauer?"

And that's exactly what the culture of the War on Terror wanted you to think. "How dare you persecute those who defend you. How dare you stop them from doing what's necessary for them to defend you. How dare you care about anything else than what they tell you they need to do."

Chris Hayes: And it was so punishing. And I'm feeling this way, a little bit way now, like, watching some of the rhetoric around Afghanistan now, of, like, a familiar feeling of this, like, seething, punishing, demagogic bullying that happened after 9/11.

And I remember having arguments with people. I remember having a Christmas Eve dinner essentially ruined by an argument over whether we should go to war in Afghanistan. And, you know, me arguing that we shouldn't and, with people that I love. It wasn't like they were doing, like, bullying.

It was just an argument about a impassioned topic, you know, two months after the towers fell. But in the broader rhetoric, it was like this, like, "Oh, you're gonna let people die?" Just this, like, constant bludgeoning rhetoric to just beat any, like, complexity or nuance or discussion of any kind of materialist (LAUGH) view of what the situation might be, all of it.

And the thing that always epitomized it to me, and I was just tweeting about this, is the term "bad guys," which was, like, this term you saw everywhere after 9/11 being invoked by serious adults, or supposedly serious adults, which is a child's term.

Like, the point of the "bad guys" is that that's what kids say because kids aren't adults and they don't understand the world is a complicated place. And that's not to say that, like, I'm a moral relativist and there aren't, like, evil actions and there aren't, like, institutions or armies or groups that are engaged in horrific crimes and murder. It's just to say that, like, "bad guys" is the thinking of a child. And, like, child thinking was what, like, (LAUGH) dominated the discourse for years.

Spencer Ackerman: Well, the point of "bad guy" is to redefine and frame what "bad" is. "Bad" here is not a thing you do, it's a thing you are.

Chris Hayes: Correct.

Spencer Ackerman: And so accordingly, this is a term that cannot apply--

Chris Hayes: That's right.

Spencer Ackerman: --to the United States.

Chris Hayes: Correct.

Spencer Ackerman: That no matter how much brutality the United States inflicts on people at home and abroad, it's on bad guys, or at least we're not the bad guys. There's a term for this. That term is called American exceptionalism. American exceptionalism is, at bottom, a proposition broadly shared throughout political elites and certainly economic elites, that holds, often without really realizing it (though, you know, as well deliberately), that America, by virtue of its national destiny and by virtue of its virtue, gets to set the terms for the world that the United States is not itself bound by.

This is one of the things that drives the reaction to 9/11. 9/11 is something that shows the United States has been acted upon, rather than is the actor of history. And that is an intolerable condition for those who believe in American exceptionalism.

You know, think about how over the last 20 years, more than that certainly (I don't want to suggest ahistorically that the War on Terror is a qualitative change from American history, rather than an inflection point in it with distinct characteristics) but, you know, just think about how normal it has been over the last 20 years for the United States to drop bombs from aircraft whenever it feels like it.

And then you think in response to the only domestic airstrike the United States has experienced basically since Pearl Harbor. So one air strike experienced by the United States licenses the United States to engage in a sprawling campaign that devastates millions and millions of people, both by taking their lives, forcing their migration, taking their prosperity (that is to say, taking their wealth), and taking their freedom.

This is not for a moment to suggest that 9/11 was not an atrocity. I am a native New Yorker. You are a native New Yorker. 9/11 was a catastrophe that has shaped my neighbors, that has shaped people around me. And, I mean, frankly, like, it changed the course of my entire life.

And I have nothing but contempt and disgust for those who have first, exploited the trauma of real New Yorkers who watched their neighbors burn to death for their sick fantasies of empire and war. And I have similar disgust and contempt for those who today say that the problem with the War on Terror and the problem that we're seeing manifest in Afghanistan right now is one of insufficient barbarism committed by those who are cravenly unprepared to do that which must be done.

Bin Laden knew what he was doing. This didn't happen by accident. And it also didn't pick targets at random. Like, he is striking at symbols of American power, like, deliberately. And it also points to how he considers symbols of American power, toward what American power is.

And that's economic power. That's why the World Trade Center had be knocked down in his sick vision. Yes, this trauma is extremely real. What happened after that trauma was a whole lot of intellectual territory got occupied by the voices that said, "Because of that trauma, there is only one response."

Chris Hayes: Correct.

Spencer Ackerman: That was always a choice. It was not a democratically taken choice, it was a choice imposed from above, where everyone else was dared to defy it.

Chris Hayes: Correct.

Spencer Ackerman: This was a manipulation of very real trauma in order to enact further trauma out upon the world of the sort that drove that initial trauma. Bin Laden is not subtle about telling you why he does what he does. He tells you it is because of the rampages that the United States commits in the Muslim world, and in particular the Arab world.

And his viewpoint for that is reflected in his extremely sick understanding of his religion, but also because he's something that we don't often talk about when we talk about Osama bin Laden. He's a billionaire. This was a billionaire doing an extreme version of what billionaires always do, which is play with people's lives, which is treat other people's lives casually and treat them as expendable.

And he was able to exploit something real that a lot of people felt because they saw the United States starving countries through sanctions. They saw the United States aiding Israel in its apartheid system against the Palestinian people, and saw what they perceived as the occupation of Saudi Arabia, which they translate as to a Christian response pushing into, you know, ever closer the, you know, main, holiest cities in Islam.

Now, look, Bin Laden's critique is psychotic. It is psychotic by design. To quote the dril tweet, (LAUGH) you absolutely do not have to hand it to him. But you also have to recognize, if your goal is to stop Americans from dying from terrorism, that United States policy leads the way to creating the conditions, which is to say the market for people to sign up for fantasies like Bin Laden.

Not because of any true, enduring, necessary security interest, but because the United States takes it upon itself to police the world. It takes it upon itself to do that because it's economically advantageous. It builds the structures internationally to work through in the course of doing so. And then it justifies it all and legitimizes. And if you want to stop terrorism, that is the target: the United States' imperial position, its global hegemony.

Chris Hayes: The other weird thing when you talk about the U.S. global hegemony is that, like, there's a parallel sense in which post-Cold War, the U.S. is looking for a purpose and an enemy. I actually wrote a essay about this, about sort of weird, pre-9/11 World War II nostalgia, which I think was about, like, "Well, the Cold War's over so, like, what's our animated global purpose?"

And then 9/11 happens and it becomes the War on Terror. And I think, as time has worn on it's, like, right. Like, the big story of the next century is essentially the rise of China. And it's sort of ridiculous to ever think (LAUGH) anything otherwise.

In a sort of global, historical sense, that's part of what is so wild about the rhetoric of that time, the culture of that time is, like, in some ways, the sort of War on Terror hysterics and hawks had to give Bin Laden the kind of place in history he wanted, in order to create the response and the architecture of the response that they wanted.

Spencer Ackerman: So I think, you know, what we also have to remember is there's a lot of zombie anti-communism that the War on Terror emerges from. Some of this is really rather direct. Like, CIA torture techniques used after 9/11 were used amongst the CIA's tender mentees in the Central American Dirty Wars of the 1980s.

But also, these techniques are very familiar throughout human history. We see them in native genocide. We see them in chattel slavery. We see them used against labor militants. As well, we see them used in prior American wars. But also, the political roles that occur after 9/11 are kind of left on a still dressed theater set from the Cold War.

And various both Democratic, Republican, and security state actors kind of dress themselves in that clothing, particularly in, on one level, the rhetoric of a existential struggle occurring all throughout the world that is, as one acting CIA director would eventually make the title of his memoir, The Great War of Our Time.

You know, it's also easy to forget, but very conspicuous when you go back to reading your elite journalism of that time, how thrilling the War on Terror was for certain intellectuals and certain reporters. Well, for certain intellectuals and certain journalists, and certainly certain editors. The War on Terror was a grand mission that ennobled the United States, that proved the United States was still capable of great things. Did you see Boogie Nights?

Chris Hayes: Yes.

Spencer Ackerman: You know that scene where Dirk Diggler is coked up and he's crying in the mirror because he's trying to get erect?

Chris Hayes: Yes.

Spencer Ackerman: Yeah. That's the culture after 9/11 for a whole lot of intellectuals. That they're getting off on how powerful the United States can be because they know how powerful the United States was, and they don't recognize how powerful, which is to say how determinative of so many millions of people's lives the United States remains in that moment.

And all they want is that chance once again to tell the world the way it's going to operate from now on. You have respected New York Times columnists go on television shows to justify the necessity of an unprovoked war of aggression by saying the swamps of the Middle East needed to be drained.

Obviously, I don't buy this analysis at all, this description of the problem, let alone where he goes with it, but those presumed to be enemies of modernity, who inhabit those swamps and benefit from those swamps need to, and I quote, "suck on this." And that's just an incredibly pathological response--

Chris Hayes: Totally pathological.

Spencer Ackerman: --to trauma that occurs at a time when mainstream intellectuals, respected political figures, are very casually diagnosing the Arab and Muslim worlds with (LAUGH) vast pathologies that they cannot overcome unless American violence comes to assist.

Chris Hayes: Correct. The subtitle of the book mentions Donald Trump. And you talk a lot about the sort of trajectory of the War on Terror. And I think there's a certain level in which it's a somewhat counterintuitive argument. So I want to get into that argument right after we take this quick break.

Chris Hayes: One way that Donald Trump has been portrayed, and it's I think strange or misleading is, like, you know, the deep state, which are the people most invested in this war, are his biggest enemies. And if you look at the people in the Republican party circles who've turned against him, you know, Liz Cheney, Adam Kinzinger, Bill Kristol, like, these are the big neocons.

That the neocons are on one side, the neocons and the Bushies and the people that promoted the War on Terror, and that Trump represents a rival faction in Republican party politics. That rival faction essentially wrenched power from the neocons.

It's why the neocons hate them and became Never-Trumpers. And that there's a radical discontinuity between the Bush people and the Trump people. And in many ways, your book is an incredibly, I think, persuasive argument against that reading. So talk about that part.

Spencer Ackerman: So certainly, they are a rival faction. And Trump knows what to do with rival factions for control. But there would be no Trump without them. There would be no Trump without the War on Terror. Liz Cheney in particular is an, you know, interesting case, not just because she's the daughter of Dick Cheney, but because when Obama is elected, Liz Cheney and Bill Kristol form an organization called Keep America Safe.

Why do they form an organization called Keep America Safe? Because they are exploiting the extant fear that the first Black president is not interested in keeping America safe. And the way to challenge the first Black president is to say that he is not interested in keeping America safe.

How do they do that? Well, one of the signature ads of the War on Terror is an ad by this organization, Keep America Safe, which, in addition to Liz Cheney and Bill Kristol, had along with it one of the most vocally Islamophobic 9/11 relatives, a woman named Debra Burlingame.

And they ran an ad called the Al Qaeda Seven. Who are the Al Qaeda Seven? Those seven people were Obama administration Justice Department appointees who had, during the Bush administration, represented terrorism defendants, defendants in terrorism cases, to include Guantanamo detainees.

The act of defending unpopular clients, and in particular, quote-unquote "enemies" of the United States is a tradition that literally goes back to John Adams and is viewed as one of the remaining arguments for John Adams' greatness. Instead, this was, in the view of Keep America Safe, allowing Al Qaeda into the Justice Department.

This is what neoconservatism really doesn't like. Even after we get past their responsibility for the Iraq invasion and for helping shape the War on Terror generally, what kind of doesn't really get remembered so well is the ways in which neoconservatives both inside the Bush administration and out in the public discourse lept so readily, so fervently, and so consistently towards a civilizational explanation for 9/11, which is to say the pathologies of the Arab and Muslim world.

That is exactly what Trump offers, starting not certainly in 2015, but long before. This is also the Islamophobic bridge that allows figures allied with neoconservatism to cross easily over into MAGA: John Bolton, Frank Gaffney. We could go on, but it's not worth it.

Neoconservatism and that, you know, Bush-era Republican nativism were not in opposition to one another. They were in symbiosis. The neoconservatives recognized who their audiences were and how to use them. Eventually, the wages of their disaster became so un-ignorable, that even inside the Republican party, in a way that still uses an engine that, in many ways, they revved into the red, they decided to take that out of the junker car and, you know, put it in a different chassis.

And that is what we have as the difference between, you know, the neoconservatives/Never-Trumpers, and Trump. We don't have a binary opposition at all. Only in political faction is that the case. But certainly not in agenda and certainly not in their works.

Chris Hayes: I sort of buy the continuity argument. The sort of notion of places of actual fights on policy, you know, the withdrawal from Syria, the planned withdrawal from Afghanistan, the deal that they sort of made with the Taliban and almost made. Like, there are places where those two factions come to tension in more specific ways than just, you know, a factional fight about not liking Donald Trump.

Spencer Ackerman: Oh, certainly. What I'm saying is that these differences themselves are not alternatives to Trump. They're the precursor conditions for Trump. They want the continuity of those precursor conditions. They will fight heavily to permit them to remain.

And they will resist elements to roll them back, whether they come from the left, the center, or the right. But we know where this goes, is what I'm saying. We know very directly how the conditions that the neoconservative both create and seek to create lead directly to Trump, play on the extant forces that Trumpism plays on, and ultimately are separated in that sense, yes, by policy.

But, you know, more I think fundamentally, they're separated by respectability. That the people who operate in neoconservative and Never-Trump circles enjoy tremendous respectability, cultural, economic, and political power that, while the Trump people certainly also enjoy that a lot, theirs is considered uncouth by typically the upper middle class, which prefers its racism structural rather than rude.

Chris Hayes: I mean, the other aspect, and this is in the book, is that, like, the War on Terror accelerates during Trump in many way in a way that is essentially never really reckoned with. I mean, we covered this a little bit on the show. But again, there are so many fires to put out during those years, that I don't think we've covered it a ton. But, like, the idea that there was any kind of abatement or titration of the War on Terror or pullback is just the opposite of the truth.

Spencer Ackerman: In 2019, according to one study, Trump increased civilian casualties in Afghanistan by 330%. Trump dropped the largest bomb in the American non-nuclear arsenal on Afghanistan. Trump waged the war in Somalia more intensely than any president before him.

Trump, before he realized there was no alternative but to sue for peace with the Taliban, escalated the Afghanistan war, a war that amongst all the theaters of the War on Terror, he considered the stupidest. I could go on, and on, and on.

In Obama's first two years, we saw the heights of his use of drone strikes. Trump eclipsed even those. The idea that Donald Trump was an alternative to the War on Terror relies entirely on what Trump says and entirely on ignoring what Trump did.

Chris Hayes: Can the War on Terror end?

Spencer Ackerman: Yes.

Chris Hayes: How?

Spencer Ackerman: Force politicians into a binary choice by the way the continuation of the War on Terror and their loss of power. That only if politicians feel that their support for the War on Terror is as offensive and as disgusting as, I don't know, as any disgusting thing (LAUGH) in American public life. I don't wanna get into any kind of comparisons that may go off the rails.

But basically, I don't think you can rely on elites in either party, and certainly the security state, and certainly not in mainstream media circles, to end the War on Terror. You will only expect them to continue it and justify it and allow for rescission on the margins, rather than wholesale.

Instead, the hard work of organizing from below, cross-ideologically in cases (there is a lot of right-wing anger against the War on Terror. There's a lot of left-wing anger against the War on Terror). There's an opportunity for a real coalition in politics that we can see has worked.

For instance, Congress is, you know, on the verge of repealing the 2002 authorization to use military force in Iraq. And on one level, you can say, you know, that's not the heart of the matter. And that's true. But on another level, getting Congress to repeal any war authorization is exceptionally difficult.

The politics, particularly because national security and foreign policy are some of the least democratic aspects of American politics, which I would contend to you is no true democracy at all, it is exceptionally non-responsive. It is something that will kind of expand by inertia.

And nevertheless, dedicated work by dedicated activists over the years providing both coalition building and pressure against their opponents on this issue, brought us to this moment. It is not, you know, gifts imposed from a presidential agenda.

To the degree that Biden so far in office has said things like, "It's important to end endless wars and it's important to end the war on Yemen," and so forth, first of all, neither of those things have happened. There's more continuity than departure even with the withdrawal from Afghanistan.

But secondly, the degree to which he has to both provide rhetoric that operates in that space and be attentive to those concerns is a testament to the hard work of anti-war activists that is very rarely seen, that is covered very rarely. I certainly do not exempt myself from this category.

But nevertheless, point to the power of people taking what their country does back into their own hands and forcing the politicians to listen to them in a way that has very often felt throughout the War on Terror that politicians are openly contemptuous of doing.

Chris Hayes: Yeah. And it's also always felt like the longer the War on Terror's gone, the more it's felt like an elite project, or at least a expert security state project / a project of the men and women in the U.S. Armed Forces, as opposed to, like, a mass project.

And in the beginning, because of the trauma of 9/11, the way that was marshaled, it was, like, "We are all enlisted in the great civilizational struggle." And famously, George Bush telling people to go shopping, et cetera. The longer it's gone on, the more it's, like, "Well, it's just this thing the government's doing there in the background to these other people. You know, it's not front and center." You know, there are so many layers of opacity and distance between the daily life of an American and the War on Terror as time has gone on that, like, prioritizing it then becomes difficult.

Spencer Ackerman: And I think that is in a very important way that we have not very often dealt with. A central aspect of the legacy of Barack Obama is, you know, similar to how Bill Clinton ratified Reaganism and neoliberalism, Barack Obama ratified the War on Terror.

He treated the War on Terror as an aircraft that was unsafe at 30,000 feet, which is to say, the disastrous occupation of Iraq and the widespread CIA use of torture. But if you just brought the plane down to 10,000, it could fly acceptably steadily in perpetuity.

In the book, I refer to this as the sustainable War on Terror. It's the way the War on Terror becomes, I think perhaps a different way of saying what you said, technocratic. The War on Terror becomes both, you know, as a matter of culture and as a matter of real terrifying literalism, the result of an accumulation of data. And smart people, dedicated people, career civil servants can be trusted to make the decisions crunching that data. Which is to say, throttling who lives and dies, throttling whose freedom is respected and whose is conditional.

Chris Hayes: What do you think happens next? You know, predictions are hard. It feels to me like, I don't know, this moment, I don't know what to make of this moment in Afghanistan 'cause I feel like so many of the most wretched, awful impulses are on display. And I'm watching them get trotted out. It also seems like they don't quite have the power they once had. I don't know. I find myself very worried. (LAUGH)

Spencer Ackerman: I mean, look, if you want me to give you a real answer, don't turn your coverage away. I'm afraid that I have to kinda do that. That, like, you know, we're journalists. We're reporters. If we turn our gaze away, why shouldn't everyone else think that it's over?

You know, I'm not saying any of this, you know, with any kind of self-righteousness. I was an absolute barbarian. You know, I put it in the book that the War on Terror is sort of like an early red pill, opening your mind to accepting all of this barbarism.

I swallowed that pill. It took me way too long not only to spit it out after the carnage of the Iraq War became evident, but also to recognize, like, its looming effects on how I saw the world, including how I covered the war in a way that I thought was challenging it and its premises.

But, you know, often was, you know, reaffirming it or wasn't sufficiently insightful enough to see that it ought to have occurred from a different angle. So I don't say this like I'm, you know, some kind of great exception here. In fact, like, you know, I'm, like, very sadly typical.

But once you recognize that this is the way the thing operates, we can't cover it like business as usual. I say all this to mean that media responsibility for the War on Terror is profound. And we should operate as if we do have this responsibility.

And I'm not, you know, very confident that in, you know, news rooms around the country, that we are, you know, doing the kind of job that we owe the public. I would just sort of wrap up by saying that, if the War on Terror is allowed to persist, this thing that hopefully I've persuaded you is much broader than just a war in Afghanistan, then it is going to be a persistent danger to American democracy.

It is going to be an instrument of hollowing out that democracy in the hands of people who consider their real enemies to not be people overseas, but people very close to them at home, their neighbors. And we have been through 20 years of accelerated barbarism. Why not try something else?

Chris Hayes: My huge thanks to Spencer Ackerman. Pulitzer Prize winning journalist, author of Reign of Terror: How the 9/11 Era Destabilized America and Produced Trump, and writer of The Forever Wars newsletter on Substack. Why is this happening? It's presented by MSNBC and NBC News, produced by the "All In" team and features music by Eddie Cooper. You can see more of our work, including links to things we mentioned here, by going to

Tweet us with the hashtag #WITHpod, email “Why Is This Happening?” is presented by MSNBC and NBC News, produced by the “All In” team and features music by Eddie Cooper. You can see more of our work, including links to things we mentioned here, by going to