After a terrorist attack, there are two steps nearly every leader takes: first, condemn the violence; second, appeal for calm. London Mayor Sadiq Khan followed that familiar playbook in the wake of Saturday night’s attacks. Speaking to the BBC, Khan said:
There aren’t words to describe the grief and anger that our city is feeling today. I’m appalled and furious that these cowardly terrorists would deliberately target innocent Londoners and bystanders enjoying their Saturday night. There can be no justification for the acts of these terrorists, and I’m quite clear that we will never let them win, nor will we allow to cower our city.
Then Khan went on reassure the public:
Londoners will see an increased police presence today and over the course of the next few days. No reason to be alarmed. One of the things, the police, all of us need to do, is make sure we’re as safe as we possibly can be. I’m reassured that we are one of the safest global cities in the world, if not the safest global city in the world, but we always evolve and review ways to make sure that we remain as safe as we possibly can.
Early Sunday morning, President Trump logged onto Twitter, offering not condolences to Britain or support in fighting terrorism (though he did do that in a call with Prime Minister Theresa May, according to a White House readout), but instead an angry “I told you so” and an attack on Khan:
We must stop being politically correct and get down to the business of security for our people. If we don't get smart it will only get worse— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) June 4, 2017
At least 7 dead and 48 wounded in terror attack and Mayor of London says there is "no reason to be alarmed!"— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) June 4, 2017
(Trump also argued that the fact that the attackers did not use guns proved gun-control pointless, a claim my colleague David Frum has dissected elsewhere.)
The claim that political correctness, rather than violent attackers, is to blame for the attack puts the cart before the horse. Even if were situated properly, though, it would remain dubious, as the U.K. has aggressively surveilled Muslims it believes could conduct attacks. The Times reported earlier this year that British intelligence is watching 23,000 possible jihadists, and more closely watching 3,000 of them.
As Khan’s full remarks make clear, the mayor was not soft-pedaling the attack, which he condemned in blunt terms. Rather, he was saying that the increased police presence offered no need for additional concern. It comes as no shock by now that Trump would misrepresent comments or take them badly out of context for his own political gain, but the tactic is no less distasteful for being habitual. In the broader context of his statement, Khan was making an argument about how populations should react to terrorism: With anger, with sadness, with rejection, but also with courage and a refusal to given in to fear.
Predicating the public response to terror attacks based on interpretations of “what the terrorists want” is a slippery, trap-laden, and often self-serving approach. For example, cracking down on civil liberties after a terrorist attack is not unwise “because it’s what the terrorists want,” but because cracking down on civil liberties is unwise and immoral per se. However, if there is one thing that it is safe to say terrorists want, it is to sow terror. It’s the definition of the term: political violence meant to seed fear and intimidation. Hence Khan’s statement that “we will never let them win, nor will we allow to cower our city.”
The idea of maintaining a stiff upper lip is quintessentially British, of course, and even more quintessentially Londoner: Think of the steadfast response to German bombardment during the Battle of Britain. But though Trump pays lip service to wartime leader Winston Churchill—restoring a bust of the prime minister to the Oval Office, for example—he has consistently taken a different approach in response to attacks. Refusal to back down in the face of adversity is not uniquely British. Churchill’s American counterpart, Franklin Roosevelt, famously cautioned in his 1933 first inaugural address that “the only thing we have to fear is fear itself.”
Trump is the panic president, bearing a radically opposed message: Fear is not only acceptable, but necessary. Rarely does one see a leader, much less the leader of a liberal democracy, actively embracing, even calling for, panic. But this is Trump’s response, ridiculing Khan’s plea for calm among Londoners. If it is little surprise to see tired demagogues like Lou Dobbs do this, it is distressing to see it in the president of the United States. (There may be a connection—Trump’s rhetoric seems to often derive directly from Fox, Dobbs’s employer.)
This is not a new tendency for Trump. It has been evident since he announced his candidacy almost two years ago, in which he claimed (without substantiation) that unauthorized immigrants were bringing a crime wave with them over the border. It runs through his doomsaying acceptance speech at the Republican National Convention in Cleveland last summer, on to his pronouncements of “American carnage” in his inaugural address, and in his repeated, dishonest claims of a nation in chaotic thrall to crime. It is also central to his claim that the only way to stop terrorism in the United States is to cut off Muslim immigration, even if political and legal realities have forced him to scale back that promise.
Trump’s embrace of panic is instrumental: By first instilling fear, he can then build himself up as the solution, as he did in his RNC speech when he declared, “I alone can fix it.” But panic is a dangerous force, not always controllable by those who whip it up in the first place. Meanwhile, Trump’s governments stands ill-prepared to offer substantive aid to the United Kingdom: His FBI has no permanent leader, after his abrupt firing of James Comey to stop an investigation into Trump’s ties to Russia; he has appointed no ambassador to the Court of St. James; and his State Department remains deeply understaffed. (The U.S. charge d’affairs in London, the acting head of the embassy while no ambassador is stationed there, contradicted Trump, praising Khan’s “strong leadership” following the attack.)
That Trump used the opportunity of the attack to launch his own attack on Khan is likely not a coincidence. The two men have traded jabs before. In May 2016, shortly after he was elected, Khan, a Muslim, criticized Trump’s rhetoric about Muslims on Twitter:
Trump's ignorant view of Islam could make both our countries less safe. It risks alienating mainstream Muslims. London has proved him wrong— Mayor of London (@MayorofLondon) May 10, 2016
In March, after a terrorist attack in Westminster, Donald Trump Jr. presaged his father’s tweets on Sunday, taking a comment that Khan made out of context to criticize him. Khan had said in September that residents of big cities had to prepare for terrorist attacks—another unobjectionable statement that Trump Jr. mischaracterized as somehow accepting of terrorism. And on Sunday, Dan Scavino, Trump’s director of social media, made the president’s criticism of Khan explicit as a rejoinder to Khan’s comments last year:
The feud is bound to continue. Khan poses a particular challenge to Trump’s panic-fueled approach on two levels. For one, his appeal to calm stand at odds with the president’s desire for greater hysteria. But for another, Khan himself represents a threat to that political message. If a Muslim like Khan can win the mayorship of a city like London, and if he can win acclaim as a strong leader who upholds liberal democracy, it undermines the president’s fear-mongering about absorption of Muslims into Western society.
Now that’s something for Trump to fear.