When terrorists drove a van into a crowd on London Bridge earlier this month, Trump tweeted about the need to be “smart, vigilant and tough” even before authorities identified terror as the motive behind the attack.
About 15 hours ago, as of this writing, a man drove a van into a group of Muslims near a mosque in London. The attack, which killed one person and injured 10 others, is being treated as terror-related by authorities in Britain. Prime Minister Theresa May described the attack as “every bit as sickening” as the attacks at the London Bridge and, earlier this year, on Westminster Bridge.
In response to a crisis, one of the simplest responses from a president is a carefully worded statement of support, condolence or outrage. Simpler still is a brief message on social media. Trump built his political career in part on his willingness to jump into any number of frays by tweeting about them. As we’ve noted in the past, he shows little reticence to tweet about things he sees on television right after he sees them. Yet, Monday morning: silence.
Trump’s use of Twitter betrays his interests and disinterests. On Sunday, Father’s Day, Trump tweeted, in order:
- A two-part defense of his political success.
- An outlier poll showing him as more popular than he is.
- A retweet of the performers Diamond and Silk criticizing the media.
- A retweet of his son critical of former president Barack Obama.
- Praise for Camp David, where he spent the weekend.
- And finally, a retweet of the White House’s “Happy Father’s Day” message that morning.
That Trump hasn’t mentioned the attacks on Muslims in London isn’t surprising, mind you. It took days for him to praise the two men who were stabbed to death in Portland, Ore., while defending Muslim women on a train. It took almost a week for him to speak out about the shooting of two Indian men in Kansas by someone who thought that they were Muslim. In one sense, it’s odd that Trump hasn’t tweeted condolences to the victims in London, given the criticism he’s received for his slow response to the above attacks — but, again, it’s not surprising that he hasn’t, given his history.
The broader question is why Trump remains uninterested in acknowledging such attacks.
One likely explanation is that Trump sees attacks by people of the Muslim faith through the lens of a rampant anti-Western ideology but views attacks on Muslims as being one-off examples of bad actors. The emergence of al-Qaeda and the Islamic State reinforced the idea that there’s a substantial, organized subset of the world’s Muslim population focused on political violence.
Absent those groups, attacks like the one on Westminster Bridge or at Orlando’s Pulse nightclub might more easily be treated as aberrant individual actions in the way that the attack on Muslims in London will be treated in some quarters. That there’s a strong but largely disorganized anti-Muslim undercurrent in Western societies that can make Muslims a target of violence lacks the sort of readily identifiable markers as a coordinated terror group, especially for those unwilling to see them.
In June 2015, when a white gunman shot nine black worshipers dead at a church in Charleston, S.C., shortly after Trump announced his presidential candidacy, Trump tweeted about it.
It was incomprehensible in the sense that murdering nine people at church is an affront to our sense of humans as rational creatures. It was entirely comprehensible in the sense that a white man who held racist views might target black people in a shooting spree.
To view attacks by Muslims as part of what being Muslim is about but attacks on Muslims as being distinct from the identities of the perpetrators demands seeing those two groups as fundamentally different. Trump has a presumption of guilt for Muslims that he doesn’t for the white people who committed the crimes in Kansas, Portland and at the London mosque.
It’s interesting to compare Trump’s response to the Charleston shooting with his response to the 1980s rape of a white woman in Central Park, for which a group of black and Hispanic teenagers were arrested and which prompted Trump to buy a full-page ad calling for the death penalty for the accused.
Those teenagers were later exonerated when another man admitted to the crime. But Trump, even as recently as last October, seemed to believe that the teenagers were the perpetrators. “They admitted they were guilty. The police doing the original investigation say they were guilty,” Trump said last year — eliding the critical point that the confessions were obtained under duress. In Trump’s eyes, those teenagers are guilty despite the judicial system rescinding that verdict.
Trump’s presidential campaign — and therefore his presidency — relied on the idea that America was under threat from terrorism and crime, a point of view that necessarily overlapped with America’s complex racial history. That’s the other reason Trump highlights terrorist acts by Muslims and ignores those against them: He has reaped political rewards from it.
Trump views terrorism through a very particular lens, and he won the presidency by articulating that lens. That it’s reflected in his Twitter account, then, is not a surprise.