When news first broke of the attack at London Bridge Saturday night, the president of the United States retweeted an unsubstantiated report from Matt Drudge; reiterated his call for banning immigration from several Muslim countries; and suggested that a low-casualty attack committed by men with knives somehow validated his opposition to gun control.
He also, briefly, expressed solidarity with the people of London.
The morning after the attack, London mayor Sadiq Khan told his constituents that they shouldn’t “be alarmed” if they see an “increased police presence” in the city, as the mobilization of law enforcement was strictly precautionary.
Shortly thereafter, Trump ostensibly decided that the best way for him to “help out” would be to take Khan’s words out of context, and suggest that London’s first Muslim mayor views terrorist attacks with blithe indifference.
Trump’s tweet angered and embarrassed officials at the State Department. Downing Street, the U.S. Conference of Mayors, and America’s acting ambassador to the United Kingdom all bucked the president, and praised Khan’s leadership.
Khan’s spokesperson told reporters that the mayor had “more important things to do” than “respond to Donald Trump’s ill-informed tweet that deliberately takes out of context his remarks urging Londoners not to be alarmed when they saw more police — including armed officers — on the streets.”
Trump’s surrogates, for their part, found his tweet impossible to defend on the merits. Asked whether the president’s tweet had been a mistake, Kellyanne Conway derided the Today show’s “obsession with covering everything he says on Twitter and very little of what he does as president.”
Nevertheless, Trump persisted. On Monday morning, the president doubled down on his attack, suggesting that any reference to the context of Khan’s remarks is a “pathetic excuse.”
This blatantly dishonest, demagogic insult of the mayor of a grieving city may be the ugliest tweet of Trump’s presidency. Granted, the competition for that title is formidable. But Trump’s skewering of Khan feels exceptional for how it combines so many of the president’s worst impulses into a single, 140-character message.
Trump has said things so patently dishonest, they undermine the very concept of objective reality. He has made dog-whistle appeals to anti-Muslim animus that validate the worldviews of white supremacists and ISIS militants alike. And he has crassly exploited public tragedies to stoke fears of vulnerable minority groups.
But in his tweet about Khan, Trump manages to do all three.
Trump’s characterization of Khan’s remarks is demonstrably mendacious. But there would have been no justification for Trump’s criticism, even if Khan had instructed his constituents not to be alarmed by the attack, itself.
Three weeks after 9/11, Mayor Rudy Giuliani implored New Yorkers to heed the phrase, “Be not afraid” — and suggested that by resisting fear, his city would “not give in to terrorism.”
That basic sentiment is a commonplace in post-attack political rhetoric. And it is a sentiment with deep roots in the United Kingdom (imagine an old-timey Trump raving through his Teletype, At least 40,000 civilians dead and 139,000 wounded in blitz and Ministry of Information says “Keep calm and carry on!”).
Trump’s ostensible implication — that Khan should have reacted to the murder of seven people by encouraging Londoners to go about their lives in perpetual alarm — is far more odd and outrageous than the sentiment he (dishonestly) imputes to the London mayor.
But the president’s own conduct in the wake of the attack suggests he genuinely believes that fearmongering is the only appropriate response to terrorism.
Finally, the astounding unfairness of Trump’s attack on Khan — less than 24 hours after he pledged solidarity with the people of Britain — makes it impossible to dismiss the relevance of the mayor’s skin color and religion. For the far right’s sniveling snowflakes — who interpret every crime committed by a Muslim as the destruction of Western civilization — Khan’s election is seen as a symbol of Europe’s self-immolation. It is hard to believe that Trump is ignorant of this narrative, which has been loudly trumpeted by his chief strategist’s old website.
And it is hard not to suspect that Trump felt so little dissonance in expressing his support for London one minute, and denigrating its mayor the next because, on a fundamental level, he does not see Khan as a real Londoner.
After all, Trump’s tweets about the mayor bear a striking resemblance to remarks he once made about another nonwhite Western leader, whose citizenship — and loyalties in the fight against terrorism — he found cause to question.
Last summer, following the mass murder at the Pulse nightclub in Orlando, Trump said that Barack Obama should resign for failing to say the words “radical Islamic terror” — and that there was quite likely an unspeakable motive behind that failure.
“He doesn’t get it or he gets it better than anybody understands. It’s one or the other,” Trump said of Obama on Fox & Friends. “People cannot — they cannot believe that President Obama is acting the ways he acts and can’t even mention the words radical Islamic terrorism. There’s something going on. It’s inconceivable.”
It’s possible that Trump’s attack on Khan wasn’t motivated by racial animus, but merely by the mayor’s past hostility toward the president. But to posit that intention is merely to say that Trump is delusionally petty, rather than delusionally bigoted.
Regardless, with his tweet, the president asked the American people to fear the nonwhite immigrants among them; despise London’s Muslim mayor; and trust his descriptions of reality over the evidence of their own senses.
This is reason to be alarmed.