The three tweets in question presented videos of murky origin with flat, crude captions: “Muslim migrant beats up Dutch boy on crutches!,” “Muslim destroys a statue of Virgin Mary!” and “Islamist mob pushes teenage boy off roof and beats him to death!”
It’s hard to imagine why Trump would share these videos for any reason other than to demonize Muslims, something he has done both tacitly and openly ever since he launched his presidential campaign. According to my colleagues, two of the videos Trump circulated to his Twitter followers date as far back as 2013. In one — a video that depicts an Egyptian crowd shoving a teen off a building amid a political protest — a perpetrator was later detained and hanged. And the video of the supposed “Muslim migrant” attacking a Dutch boy, which surfaced this May, featured two Dutch nationals. Neither police nor local news identified either as Muslim or an immigrant.
The fact that an American president would use the video to somehow make an argument against Muslims was shocking, and it led to a sharp response from the Dutch embassy in Washington.
In Britain, too, the denunciations were swift and scathing. “Britain First seeks to divide communities by their use of hateful narratives that peddle lies and stoke tensions. They cause anxiety to law-abiding people,” read an unusual rebuke of Trump from conservative Prime Minister Theresa May. “British people overwhelmingly reject the prejudiced rhetoric of the far right which is the antithesis of the values this country represents, decency, tolerance and respect. It is wrong for the president to have done this.”
Piers Morgan, an attention-seeking British presenter and tabloid journalist who has been supportive of Trump, was aghast: “By endorsing Britain First, Trump may as well have worn a KKK hood in the Oval Office,” Morgan tweeted.
Members of the center-left Labour Party, including London Mayor Sadiq Khan — who has clashed with Trump in the past — and David Lammy, the member of parliament for Tottenham in north London, also issued strong condemnations:
Yet, as result of Trump’s tweets, a group of wing nuts and extremists was at the center of attention, fielding both British and American media requests while exulting in its sudden relevance.
And it seems the White House is happy to lump itself alongside the xenophobic fringe. When confronted about Trump’s tweets, White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders told CBS: “Whether it’s a real video, the threat is real. His goal is to promote strong border security and strong national security.” Trump and his lieutenants decry “fake news” all the time, so it’s startling to see the spokeswoman of the president arguing implicitly that actual “fake news” is fine when it suits their political purposes.
This may be ultimately self-defeating, as my colleague Aaron Blake noted. The “problem with endorsing the use of propaganda is that it calls into question your underlying arguments,” wrote Blake. “If you need fake information to argue for a real goal, it suggests the existing evidence isn’t all that compelling. It makes it appear much more likely that your cause is unjust.”
Analysts suggest Trump may have further undermined his own attempt to impose a travel ban on a set of Muslim-majority countries. Oral arguments are scheduled next week in two federal courts, which are hearing the government’s appeals after judges in Maryland and Hawaii moved to partially block the ban’s implementation. “It is unprecedented and, until recently, unthinkable that an American president would incite religious hatred on such a powerful social media platform,” tweeted Omar Jadwat, an ACLU lawyer representing those suing in Maryland. “But the videos are consistent with Mr. Trump’s commitment to white supremacy and his other anti-Muslim statements and policies.”
It’s a sign of the times that Jadwat’s claim is not at all absurd. Trump has made various disavowals of racism over recent months, but his track record tells a different story. He has attacked Mexicans as rapists, demonized Islam and Muslims at every opportunity, referred to some neo-Nazi marchers as “very fine people,” and spent the better part of his presidency weaponizing a festering white nationalism among his base. He can no longer hide behind the “economic anxiety” of the white working class — the domestic policies he’s pushing would likely hurt many of them. And with tweets like these, it seems he is comfortable airing his views out in the open.
“The specific dissonance of Trumpism — advocacy for discriminatory, even cruel, policies combined with vehement denials that such policies are racially motivated — provides the emotional core of its appeal,” noted the Atlantic’s Adam Serwer in a provocative essay about the inescapable racism behind much of the Trump vote. “It is the most recent manifestation of a contradiction as old as the United States, a society founded by slaveholders on the principle that all men are created equal.”
Battered by historically low approval ratings, a federal investigation into his associates and a dismal legislative record thus far, Trump may find cause to indulge even more deeply in the divisive tribalism that brought him to power.
“His decision to retweet Fransen’s videos wasn’t a gaffe. It’s a core part of his strategy for remaining president,” wrote columnist Peter Beinart. “And the weaker he grows politically, the more extreme his incitements to anti-Muslim violence will become.”