Sadiq Khan really gets under Trump’s skin. You can hear it in his voice when he speaks about him, or read it in his tone when he tweets about him. When interviewed on his views on British politics yesterday, the president’s usual congested, out of breath and bored drawl sharpened when he came on to Khan.
Even when he was ostensibly undermining Theresa May by saying that she “didn’t listen to him” about Brexit, and posturing that he would walk away from a non-favourable trade deal with the UK, his pulse didn’t seem to quicken once, as he did what he usually does, which is the opposite of what anyone would expect of a president on a diplomatic mission. Outrageous as his comments were, they were still broadly reading from the same script, one that he doesn’t necessarily believe in or particularly care about as long as it telegraphs his status.
But on Khan he woke up. Before you knew it, he had issued several quick condemnations of London’s mayor.
“Take a look at the terrorism that is taking place. Look at what is going on in London. I think he [Khan] has done a very bad job on terrorism”, Trump said. “I think he has done a bad job on crime, if you look, all of the horrible things going on there, with all of the crime that is being brought in.”
I don’t want to be trite, nor slip into the trap of identity politics that is poisoning our modern discourse, but what could possibly set Khan apart from, let’s say, the mayor of Manchester, who also, according to Trump’s logic, failed to prevent a terror attack last year and therefore also did a “very bad job” on terrorism?
What could it be about Khan, merely a mayor, not even a member of government, that has meant that Trump, the president of the United States, would dedicate so much time to abusing him?
I am sorry to bring race or religion into this, it’s ever so tedious and I am as bored of it as you are, but the inescapable fact is that the only difference is that Khan is Muslim and brown.
That alone however is not enough to incur Trump’s wrath.
Sadiq Khan is also uppity.
Trump has no issue with women or Muslims or immigrants, as long as they know their place; as long as he is the one to bestow on them status and compliments; as long as they are silent when he makes oblique insults or untrue statements. Khan is not in the business of placation or ingratiation because he has a strong mandate in London that he is confident of, and because he has a Teflon composition.
We take it for granted because Khan is a don, but it must be unnerving, when trying to deal with the aftermath, bloodshed and social cohesion challenges after a terrorist attack, to have the president of the United States bearing down on you to score cheap points in his domestic political game.
When Khan wisely and calmly said that there was ‘’no reason to be alarmed’’ by the visibly increased security presence in the streets of London after the London Bridge attacks, Trump spun it as Khan trying to minimise the threat of the attacks – but didn’t challenge Theresa May when she said in response to the same attacks that ‘’everybody needs to go about their lives as they normally would’’.
The clear implication is that Khan is deliberately minimising the threat of terror attacks and cannot be trusted to police the city effectively – because he is Muslim and therefore naturally, his loyalties lie elsewhere.
Khan merely said that Trump was ‘“ill-informed”. That’s another thing that makes him a supreme irritant to the president: he’s not really spoiling for a fight and will not engage so as not to dignify. And so Trump must continue to smear him the only ways he knows how to, by coming to his city and blowing a chorus of dog-whistles, by mentioning Khan in the same breath as immigration “changing the fabric of Europe”, and all the crime “that is being brought in” (by immigrants obviously as, no indigenous crime in London ever existed) and “all the terrorism that is taking place”.
It’s not subtle, is it. And it’s not novel.
Where is the party of government? Running to Khan’s defence? Alas, I bring you more bad news that must refer to anti-Muslim prejudice. As Trump gave the interview in which he insulted Khan, Tory MP Michael Fabricant tweeted an image of Khan as a pig blimp, being sodomised by another pig, as Trump laughed in the foreground.
There was no cavalry coming to his defence.
Not to suggest that all Tory MPs are Islamophobic – not until an inquiry that has for years been demanded goes ahead anyway. Those whose prejudice credentials have not been withdrawn are not alarmed by the bullying of Khan, because they need the bully on side.
May squirmed and smiled as Trump patronised her both in the press and in person. His gendered subordination of May was clear: the subtext painted a picture of a man amused by a woman PM who would not listen to his advice, but is a tough old gal anyway.
May knows that she must swallow this if it means maintaining the peace, not bristling when she is insulted, avoiding reading the room as London teemed with protestors.
Khan, on the other hand, free from the practical constraints of government and the personal constraints of spinelessness, will not take Trump’s lazy racism lying down for the sake of an invite to a state dinner.