Una Mullally: Public permission for Trump’s racism founded in 9/11
The environment for scapegoating immigrants, refugees and Muslims was reinforced this day 16 years ago
US president Donald Trump: Even though his incompetence is so clear, the latest figures say 47% of white men approve of the job he is doing. Photograph: Kevin Lamarque/Reuters
In his most remarkable and searing piece of writing since Between the World and Me, Ta-Nehisi Coates last week wrote in the Atlantic about Donald Trump as “the first white president”, a president for whom white supremacy is core and whose presidency is defined by erasing the legacy of the first black president.
“The scope of Trump’s commitment to whiteness is matched only by the depth of popular disbelief in the power of whiteness,” Coates writes, “We are now being told that support for Trump’s ‘Muslim ban’, his scapegoating of immigrants, his defences of police brutality are somehow the natural outgrowth of the cultural and economic gap between Lena Dunham’s America and Jeff Foxworthy’s.” (Foxworthy being the gun and Bible-toting stand-up comedian.)
Coates rightly eviscerates the oft-repeated belief that Trump’s victory and the Democrats’ failure was about a backlash against contempt for white working-class people, and places Trump’s white supremacy and the broad ignoring of that white supremacy to the fore.
Such “commitment to whiteness”, as Coates puts it, is key to understanding why although Trump’s approval rating continues to tank across the board, his approval rating among white demographics is still split quite evenly. Even though Trump’s presidency has so clearly been a catastrophe, even though his incompetence is so clear, the scandals so outrageous and constant, his reign so chaotic, the latest figures say 47 per cent of white men approve of the job Trump is doing, and 48 per cent don’t. That’s a large endorsement, given the context.
Trump’s war on people who aren’t white, which began with Obama, but has extended to Mexican immigrants, Muslims, refugees, black people in general, and so on, could not be possible without white supremacy being embedded in all echelons of the US, an inherently racist country that built its economic success on slavery. But perhaps the bluntness of such “othering” could not be successfully wielded today were it not for the events of 16 years ago. The environment for scapegoating immigrants, refugees and Muslims was reinforced this day 16 years ago, with the terror of the attacks of September 11th, 2001, even as they lean further back in memory still incomprehensible in their horror. 9/11 became singular moulding force in the modern American psyche if only because everything pales in comparison; every school shooting or act of white terrorism, every mass murder or natural disaster. It’s legacy now is perpetual war – as recently confirmed in Afghanistan by Trump – discrimination against Muslims, and mass surveillance.
The public permission for Trump’s racism against Muslims is founded in 9/11. He has used the residual atmosphere created in the aftermath of those attacks by the George W Bush administration as leverage for further discrimination against people he can call “threats”; Muslims, refugees, immigrants. Trump himself used 9/11 to bolster his own racism against Muslims, repeating a conspiracy theory by lying that “thousands and thousands” of Muslims in Jersey City “were cheering as that building was coming down”. He also said he saw people jumping from the World Trade Center from his apartment (which was four miles away).
The US’s reaction to 9/11 normalised the previously unacceptable. One of the most shameful post-9/11 actions of the US was the countries use of torture and sending “suspects” to countries for interrogation where they knew torture would be used. Trump campaigned on these actions as a virtue. “I would bring back waterboarding,” he said in February 2016. “And I would bring back a hell of a lot worse than waterboarding.”
While the US Patriot Act (“Uniting and Strengthening America by Providing Appropriate Tools Required to Intercept and Obstruct Terrorism”) chiselled away at civil liberties, its implementation coincided with the growth of the internet and the power of tech companies, which once infiltrated by state agencies became the largest surveillance tool the world has ever known. Surveillance programmes went from specific targets to everyone. The mass surveillance of innocent citizens is now accepted, even four years after Edward Snowden’s revelations about the Prism programme confirmed that the NSA and GCHQ were trawling through millions of email contact lists, tracking mobile phones, tapping Google data centres, spying on computer game players, and so on. Given the power of tech companies and the far-reaching nature of state agencies, all we could hope was that “good people” would remain in control of them. Oh well.
The scapegoating of immigrants is central to the Trump era, and may have been a harder sell in a country largely made up of immigrants, were it not for 9/11, and the increased aversion the American public had to dangers from “out there” “getting in”. This distrust of outsiders as actors of terrorism (despite the frequent mass murder of Americans by other Americans) has manifested in some of the most despicable of Trump’s policies and actions, such as his “Muslim ban”, demonising of refugees, cheerleading of immigration and customs enforcement (Ice) raids and roundups, and the empathy vacuum that is his recent repeal of Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (Daca), a programme that protected 800,000 young immigrants who came to the United States as undocumented children from deportation.
As the US remembers today, it owes it to those who died to protect the values that were then being attacked – those of freedom, diversity, tolerance – and not instead to continue to embed the ugliest elements of the legacy of those terror attacks, which will continue to demonise innocent people, and eventually turn on everyone.