US President Donald Trump has devoted much of his time as commander-in-chief to communicating with his 40 million Twitter followers, who are predominantly members of his political base. The president’s tweets have become like a carnival sideshow in American politics, 140-character insights into Trump’s mind.
The presidential tweets predictably take one of several forms: Boasting about real (or fantasised) Trump accomplishments; excoriating, often in libellous and slur-filled language, political opponents; picking fights where none previously existed, such as against US professional athletes; and punishing members of his own administration, such as Attorney General Jeff Sessions, when they don’t toe his line.
One objective, however, often runs through all his tweets: stoking fear.
Demagogues — and let’s call Trump what he is — base their power on arousing popular emotions, passions, prejudices and, especially, fears. The classic demagogue message is: “You should be very afraid and only I can make you safe.”
Trump’s recent tweet — in which he retweeted three videos purporting to show Muslim-inspired terrorist acts — is a case in point. One of the videos was outright “fake news” — it simply showed two Dutch teens fighting, with no indication that either was Muslim or inspired by Islam. The other two apparently were real, one being an al-Qaeda propaganda video that has been around for years. The source of the videos was a far-right-wing, ethno-nationalist UK organisation that has faced criminal charges for its actions.
These tweets raise many questions: Why did Trump choose now to bring attention to extremist Muslim violence? He could as easily have retweeted videos of Muslim Rohingya refugees who have been violently driven out of Myanmar or Palestinian children being brutally assaulted by Israeli soldiers or a born-in-America gunman slaughtering innocents at a music concert in Las Vegas. Those atrocities, however, apparently do not inspire fear among Trump’s base.
And what does Trump’s validating use of videos being spread by a patently racist British organisation say about the US president’s tolerance of ethnic hatred and incitement? Remember, this is the same person who said that the neo-Nazi protesters in Charlottesville, Virginia, included “fine people.”
Another question: In the Dutch video — the one proved to be fraudulent — Trump referred to the supposed perpetrator as a “Muslim migrant.” Not a terrorist but a migrant. Does this suggest that Trump intends these videos to signal support for anti-immigrant parties in Europe — as well as for his domestic agenda of restricting Muslim immigration to the United States?
Ironically, these tweets may make it harder for him to achieve the latter goal as they indicate his proposed immigration restrictions are indeed based on religion, a violation of the US Constitution.
Did Trump consider the possible consequences of spreading these videos? For example, could his tweets influence US policies and goals in the Arab and Muslim worlds or make US diplomats and citizens a greater target of terrorism? What about the more than 3 million US Muslim citizens, as well as visa-holders from Muslim countries who attend US universities or work in jobs such as medicine and engineering? Have their odds of being victims of hate crimes risen in the wake of Trump’s tweets?
It is doubtful that Trump considered any of these potential consequences.
Whatever one feels about Trump’s tweets or the justification for sending them, it is certain that these disturbing tweets will in no way help to combat Islamic-inspired terrorism nor advance US foreign policy interests and objectives in the Middle East.
Speaking of US foreign policy interests and objectives, just hours after Trump’s tweets, rumours erupted in Washington that US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson was likely to soon be replaced by CIA Director Mike Pompeo. Trump and Tillerson have rarely been on the same foreign policy page on major issues from Iran to North Korea and Trump’s displeasure with his top diplomat has been apparent for some time.
In many ways, Trump and Tillerson were a bad fit from the get-go. Trump boasts of being a powerful CEO but, in fact, headed a privately held family real estate empire. Tillerson is the real thing, having steered one of the world’s largest publicly listed companies — Exxon Mobil — with thousands of employees. Trump loves to be the bombastic centre of attention; Tillerson built his business career on quiet negotiations.
Pompeo is a Trump loyalist and avid supporter of the White House line on most foreign policy positions. Unlike Tillerson, he is not used to being in charge and will not push back against the president. The good news, therefore, is that the US administration would likely speak in a more unified voice with Pompeo at the State Department. The bad news: That voice would be the unfiltered and unchecked opinions of Donald Trump.
Mark Habeeb is East-West editor of The Arab Weekly and adjunct professor of Global Politics and Security at Georgetown University in Washington.
Copyright ©2017 The Arab Weekly