the national interest

How Trump Learned to Make 9/11 a Racket

Donald and Melania Trump commemorating 9/11 this morning. Photo: Nicholas Kamm/AFP/Getty Images

President Trump’s commemoration of 9/11 today included the usual patriotic brio featured at such events, but also one awkward moment. The president threatened the Taliban, “And if for any reason, they come back to our country, we will go wherever they are, and use power, the likes of which the United States has never used before.”

It was Trump himself who invited them to come back to our country. The president had tried to give the Taliban leadership the honor of a visit to Camp David. The deal, which makes a great deal of sense in principle, collapsed because Trump “wanted to be the dealmaker who would put the final parts together himself, or at least be perceived to be,” the New York Times reported. The Taliban wanted the deal to be struck before the visit, while Trump needed to position himself as its author, the point being to create the same kind of Trump-branded diplomatic accomplishment he has tried to forge with North Korea’s faux disarmament.

And so, while his plan unraveled, at least for the moment, he was seriously attempting to cozy up with the leaders of an Al Qaeda–associated extremist sect on or around the 9/11 anniversary.

9/11 is one of the most potent touchstones of modern conservatism. Its power as a nationalist totem has waned but never fully disappeared. The broad, nonpartisan version of 9/11 memory is mournful and fuzzily patriotic. But from the outset, conservatives developed and exploited more pointedly partisan versions of this idea. Remembering 9/11 meant not only honoring police and the military, but also invoking disdain of cultural liberals.

One of the especially ugly versions involved the demonization of Muslim-Americans. George W. Bush steered clear of his kind of nativist bigotry, but less principled conservatives grasped its potential quickly. One of those conservatives was Donald Trump.

Trump’s very first instinct following the attacks was to boast that he now had the tallest building in Manhattan. Over time, though, he gravitated toward the Obama-era racist frenzy enveloping the right. Trump promoted the lie that Muslim-Americans in New Jersey cheered the attacks (and has never withdrawn the slander.) He gave vocal support to a right-wing campaign to prevent a Muslim cultural center from opening in lower Manhattan, on the absurd grounds that it was a “victory mosque” commemorating the successful attack. “I think it’s very insensitive to build it there,” he said, flouting his customary disdain for sensitivity. When asked if linking a Muslim cultural center with the 9/11 attacks meant the country was at war with Islam as a whole, Trump replied, in toto, “Well, somebody knocked down the World Trade Center.”

The neoconservative version of 9/11 remembrance led to the political dead end of militarized-democracy promotion. Trump’s version was the one that thrived. His paranoid, nativist Islamophobia led to his wild claims that Barack Obama was a secret Muslim and noncitizen. This became the path that led Trump away from reality-show hucksterism and into politics.

9/11 was the impetus to Trump’s career as a professional natvist. Now it has grown so disconnected from its original source that the man who deemed it insensitive to allow a building for people who shared a religion with Al Qaeda is trying to bring people who gave direct support to Al Qaeda to Camp David in the run-up to 9/11. Some members of Trump’s party saw 9/11 as impetus for an ideologically driven crusade. Trump saw a racket.

How Trump Learned to Make 9/11 a Racket