In an interview with Don Lemon of CNN broadcast on December 10, 2015, Donald Trump defended his call for banning Muslims from entering the U.S., saying at the end of that statement he had said, "…until we can find out what the hell is going on." He added that figuring it out "could go quickly," but "it is a subject that has to be discussed." He explained that we need to find out "why there is so much hatred and such viciousness.…Where does the hatred come from?" He asked, "Why are people willing to fly planes into the World Trade Center." He said, "We have to figure it out because we have problems."
This is, of course, the ignorant ranting of someone who had not paid any attention to the Middle East until Muslim radical terrorism came to the United States and was reported in graphic detail on the 24/7 news media. It is, however, a kind of challenge to those of us who have studied the Middle East, to find a way to explain to Trump and his many followers "what the hell is going on." President Obama has tried to do this by talking about the unacceptable and brutal worldview held by ISIS supporters. But Obama has not given a full explanation or addressed the grievances that help motivate terrorists and that lie behind their violent acts. One of the Arab grievances against the United States is the complaint that Washington is complicit in Israeli behavior toward Palestinians. But there are other grievances that drive terrorism against America, and these include the perception that Washington supports authoritarian regimes against the interests of their own people. This negative perception is reinforced by the widespread assumption that the United States, as the world's only superpower, can do whatever it wants, and if we don't live up to their expectations about what we should do, they criticize us and look for hidden agendas. For example, President Obama in 2011 called for Bashar al-Assad to step down, and they fault Obama because he "has not made that happen" when he could do so.
President Obama did criticize Bashar's brutality, but he normally does not directly talk about the behavior of some Arab leaders who have failed to provide adequate channels for redressing legitimate grievances. They have instead chosen to respond to protests against them with repression, which only fuels the sense of alienation. It is of course beyond the capability of the United States to bring good governance to authoritarian Arab leaders, who resent outside interference in their internal affairs and believe they know what is in their best interests. The United States can only to try to encourage them to move in the direction of a more democratic society that would allow the means to let some of the steam out of legitimate complaints and perhaps diminish the inclination to resort to violence. The problem is that using public diplomacy in a strong push for democracy runs the risk of alienating regimes with which we have other interests, for example in Egypt. Advocating for democracy in such places must, therefore, be done essentially through diplomatic channels, and one hopes the Obama administration is instructing its ambassadors in the Middle East to do that.
It is probably too much to expect Donald Trump to understand the complexities of either the Middle East or terrorism. It is easier for him to channel the simplistic outbursts of uninformed people and pander to their fears in order to get applause. As long as they continue to applaud, he will keep on doing that. It might be useful if someone took up his challenge and tried to explain to him and his followers, in simple terms, "what the hell is going on." Maybe Obama can't do that because it requires a degree of candor that would expose him to predictable GOP sniping. But can someone else do it?