What does the response of Donald Trump to the most recent terrorist attack in the UK tell us about the most powerful man in the world?
First, Trump lacks basic human qualities such as compassion and empathy. His instinctive response to the murder of innocent human beings is to politicise their deaths; to exploit a tragedy to push his own agenda. The bodies of the seven victims in London were not yet cold last Saturday night when Trump began tweeting in defence of his most controversial policy proposal.
“We need to be smart, vigilant and tough,” he declaimed. “We need the courts to give us back our rights. We need the Travel Ban as an extra level of safety!”
Only after making this declaration online did he bother, briefly, to try to show a modicum of solidarity with the residents of America’s closest ally: “WE ARE WITH YOU. GOD BLESS!”
It is worth pointing out that Trump’s definition of being “smart, vigilant and tough” in response to the terror threat seems to include sacking the director of the FBI and not replacing him; leaking classified intelligence on Islamic State to Russia; and appointing a national security adviser who resigned in disgrace after 24 days in office.
As for the much-touted “Travel Ban”, Trump omitted to mention that it was supposed to have been “temporary” and banned nationals from six (originally seven) Muslim-majority countries from entering the United States “for a brief period of 90 days”. Therefore, even if the executive order issued by the president on 27 January had not been blocked by the courts, it would still have expired more than a month ago. So why mention it now? And how long will it take for the president to acknowledge that none of the accused attackers in the recent Westminster, Manchester or – at the time of writing – London Bridge attacks were immigrants from Trump’s “banned” list?
Second, Trump is petty and vindictive. He is infamous for holding grudges. In May 2016, Trump was interviewed by his pal Piers Morgan, who asked the then Republican candidate what he made of comments by the new Mayor of London Sadiq Khan, who had described Trump’s hostility towards Islam as “ignorant” and dangerous. “I think they’re very rude statements,” Trump responded angrily, “and frankly tell him I will remember those statements.”
For once, the president has proved to be a man of his word. He neither forgot nor forgave. On the Sunday morning after the London Bridge attacks, before going off to play golf, Trump denounced Khan on Twitter for telling Londoners “there is ‘no reason to be alarmed!’” in the wake of the atrocities. It was a complete distortion of Khan’s remarks – the mayor had been urging Londoners not to be “alarmed” by an increased police presence on the capital’s streets.
Third, Trump lacks the temperament to be Commander-in-Chief. “I think I have the best temperament . . . of anybody that’s ever run for the office of president,” he once boasted. As is so often the case with his claims, the exact opposite is true: Trump lacks the requisite temperament to run a school bake sale, let alone the US government. His early-morning and late-night tweetstorms are a reflection both of his short fuse and his lack of impulse control. As the Washington Post noted, most presidents “would have reacted carefully to the London Bridge terrorist attack by instilling calm, being judicious about facts and appealing to the country’s better angels” yet Trump “reacted impulsively . . . by stoking panic and fear, being indiscreet with details of the event and capitalising on it . . . to advance a personal feud.”
My friend David Graham of The Atlantic coined perhaps the best phrase to describe Trump in moments like these: “The Panic President.”
Fourth, Trump is not just a bigot but an authoritarian. Having fanned the flames of Islamophobia since launching his campaign for the presidency in 2015, he now seems to be counting the days till the next Isis attack on US soil. Remember: Trump is well aware of the political value of terrorist incidents, having bragged in the wake of the Paris attacks of November 2015 that “whenever there’s a tragedy . . . my [poll] numbers go way up”. It is the reason why this demagogue of a president sees jihadis under every bed; why he was so quick on 1 June, for example, to incorrectly label a violent robbery in the Philippines as a “terrorist attack”.
To quote The Atlantic’s Graham again, for Trump “fear is not only acceptable, but necessary” because “by first instilling fear, he can then build himself up as the solution”.
The solution he offers is the stuff of nightmares. Between Trump and his advisers, recent suggestions for tackling “radical Islamic terrorism” have ranged from closing down mosques to registering Muslim Americans on a database to replicating the internment of the Japanese-Americans during the Second World War.
One particular, chilling moment stands out from the election campaign. “Why would Muslim databases not be the same as requiring Jews to register in Nazi Germany?” a reporter from NBC asked candidate Trump in November 2015. “You tell me,” replied Trump, casually repeating this statement an astonishing four times.
Terrorist attacks may be a political prop for Donald Trump but they also, in their own dark way, provide a window into the president’s soul. They remind us of his inability to be a decent human being, let alone a decent leader. Sir Christopher Meyer, the former British ambassador to the United States under Tony Blair, may have spoken for millions (billions?) of us in the wake of the most recent London terror attack.
“Let me be diplomatic,” Meyer tweeted, referring to the US president’s tone deaf attacks on the Muslim mayor of London. “Trump makes me puke.”