After the Sept. 11 attacks, Time magazine’s cover vividly captured the explosive force pulverizing the first Twin Tower — a photo that, strikingly, was ringed by a black border. Nineteen years later, the magazine’s new cover powerfully memorializes the nearly 200,000 Americans who have died of coronavirus — in an image that’s again ringed by a black border.
With President Trump and challenger Joe Biden both commemorating the anniversary of the 2001 attacks on Friday, that bookending of the post-9/11 era captures something essential about our current moment: In a way, it exposes the entire mythos of the Trump presidency as an utter fraud to its very core.
The story Trump and his mythologists tell runs something like this: After 9/11, the country was essentially destroyed by a combination of neoconservative and liberal internationalist elite failures — by a hyper-militarized overreaction to the attacks, and by excessive diplomatic and economic engagement with the world.
This led to a series of catastrophic elite policy disasters that were sold with lies, the tale continues, including “Mideast Forever Wars” that killed thousands of Americans and globalized economic policies that destroyed the white working class through competition with immigrant labor and China.
Trump has brought his business smarts and personal knowledge of elite corruption to the task of extracting our country from these international entanglements — which were stupid and wasteful and only enriched elites — and put the American people first again.
In just about every way, this story has fallen to pieces. And the anniversary of 9/11 should drive this home.
Trump’s elite policy catastrophe
Trump is now presiding over his own form of massive elite policy failure, one that has killed more Americans than 9/11 and the militarized overreaction to it many times over. Just like the Iraq War, it, too, was initially sold and is getting covered up with unrestrained official propagandizing and lying.
Meanwhile, some of the very worst abuses and pathologies of the Trump presidency represent continuations of our overreaction to 9/11. He has exacerbated the Islamophobia it helped unleash to an extraordinarily explicit degree, and he has politically weaponized the post-9/11 homeland security bureaucracy in just the way its initial critics feared.
We saw this when Trump endorsed a virulently Islamophobic congressional candidate, only the latest example in his long history of open anti-Islamic bigotry. And we’re seeing this now with extraordinary abuses at the Department of Homeland Security, which was birthed amid the post-9/11 climate of fear. While it committed serious abuses under former president Barack Obama, it has now been corrupted by Trump and his cabal in just about every conceivable way.
This goes far beyond immigration. We just learned from a DHS whistleblower that top officials appear to have manipulated intelligence to help fabricate the existence of an organized leftist domestic terror threat for Trump to run for reelection against. That comes after DHS sent armies of law enforcement into urban protest zones to provoke the civil conflict that Trump believes will boost that case.
All this rank Islamophobia and all this corrupt weaponization of DHS to target domestic dissidents and help manufacture Trump’s reelection agitprop are in many ways crucial aspects of our national 9/11 legacy. They will not be discussed at Friday’s commemorations.
Trump’s tale about Biden
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Joe Biden, too, represents aspects of these post-9/11 failures. He supported the Iraq War, and he was a supporter of opening up China to trade, though the story there is complicated.
Trump is using these facts to continue casting Biden as a member of that failed, corrupt, militaristic, globalist post-9/11 elite, and himself as their scourge. When military officials leaked that Trump called our war dead “losers,” he positioned himself as an opponent of the military-industrial complex’s war lust.
Biden’s balance on China — build international coalitions to confront unfair trade practices while seeking cooperation on climate change and global pandemics — will prove far better. As a terrific New York Times piece chronicled, his approach is rooted in learning from his long and complex series of interactions with China, which included much good and bad. Trump cannot learn.
And while Biden’s brand of hawkish liberal internationalism badly needs a rethink, we are now seeing Trump’s own supposed hostility to hyper-militarization morph into hideous domestic abuses of the national security state right before our eyes.
Trump’s mythos has fallen apart
Above all, Trump is responsible for the most catastrophic elite policy failure of the modern era.
When we learned Trump privately knew the airborne coronavirus threat was far deadlier than he publicly allowed — and that he admitted to publicly downplaying it — it exposed his disastrous mishandling of the pandemic in a new way.
When this is understood as exactly the sort of massive elite policy disaster — buttressed by extraordinary willful deception and deeply depraved unconcern for the lives of untold Americans — that the Trump mythos created as his foil, that mythos implodes further.
As the nearly 200,000 deaths help illustrate, Trump and his cronies and GOP enablers constitute a stupider, more corrupt, more incompetent, more dishonest and more depraved elite than even the caricature version of pre-Trump elites he created as a foil to gain power. Trump has carried forward the very worst of our post-9/11 pathologies.
Much of this will be taboo for our politicians on 9/11’s anniversary. But it shouldn’t be for the rest of us.
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