In Speech, Trump created a fake sense of crisis; how he’d handle a real one?

To mark the first anniversary of the day that terrorists hijacked four planes and used them to murder thousands of people and obliterate a chunk of lower Manhattan, New York magazine compiled a set of statistics about the attacks.

60 police officers were killed.

343 firefighters were killed.

128 companies had employees that died in the collapse of the towers. Cantor Fitzgerald alone lost 658.

21,906 remains — parts of human bodies — were recovered.

1,609 people lost a spouse or partner. 3,051 children lost a parent.

But this is the number that struck me as I was looking at the list shortly after Donald Trump finished his acceptance speech at the Republican convention on Thursday: 20.

Twenty percent of Americans, this list says, knew someone who was hurt or killed in the September 11th attacks.

“Hurt” isn’t defined, and it’s safe to assume that some exaggeration was at play, since otherwise the statistic means that 57 million Americans knew someone hurt or killed in New York or in D.C. or in that field in Pennsylvania. Math tells us that the number is probably actually much smaller, something like 1.1 million. Still a lot of Americans, but not a fifth of the country.

Another way of thinking about that number, then, is the way we (much more lightheartedly) think of attendees at Woodstock: The attendance in theory was much larger than that field actually held. Going to Woodstock was a marker, one of the stakes planted along the paths of millions of lives, and through some neural clicking we convince ourselves that we were sort of there or that it’s fine to say that we were. We become part of this greater thing.

I’m too young to have lived through the Kennedy assassination, but am old enough to remember that day. I was in California and woke up only after the planes had hit, but it was tangible. There’s never been another day when I felt like every eye in the country was pointed at the same place, snapped to and fixed on the same thing. I felt like part of a whole that I’d forgotten existed. Terrorists had figured out a way to do something intensely horrible and it was an incomparable sensation, like waking up not from a nightmare but waking up as though you’d taken the red pill in the Matrix.

It was terrifying in a hundred stupid ways (the not-very-tall building in which I worked in San Jose was closed, in case it had somehow made it onto the terrorists’ lists) and it was heartbreaking in its scope. We say that a lot, that things are heartbreaking. But this was. For every story you hear after a tragedy about a parent kissing his child goodbye and then heading to work, never to make it home — imagine stacking 3,051 of those stories back to back. Imagine each one differently, boys in some, girls in others, some in the dark while the kid is sleeping, others with kids complaining about going to school as they jam papers into a backpack. The last thing they were doing the last time they touched their parents — a story like that every minute for 51 hours. That was the sense of the day.

It was a moment of crisis. It was a moment in which we realized that the systems that were supposed to protect us hadn’t and couldn’t. It was a collective, instant transition from bitching about minor or major annoyances into a recognition of what terrible really looked like.

It was a moment that’s very different than the moment now.

Donald Trump’s speech tacked together anecdotes about crime in some cities and murders in some families and terrorism in some countries to create a picture of an America under threat. The tragedies he mentioned are tragic in the way that thousands of tragedies a day are tragic to groups of people of varying size. But the picture wasn’t accurate.

“The first task for our new administration will be to liberate our citizens from the crime and terrorism and lawlessness that threatens their communities,” Trump said at one point. “Nearly 180,000 illegal immigrants with criminal records, ordered deported from our country, are tonight roaming free to threaten peaceful citizens,” he said at another. “The attacks on our police, and the terrorism in our cities, threaten our very way of life,” he said at another. The word “threat” was spoken eight times: You community is threatened, your peace is threatened, your very way of life is threatened.

Most Americans aren’t threatened by violent crime, though a fifth of the country is very worried about it. (The violent crime rate in 2014 indicated that there were 366 violent crimes for every 100,000 people in the country.) Even fewer Americans are threatened by terrorism — 0.00002 percent of the country has died in a terror attack since Charleston — though half the country is very or somewhat worried about it. We have no idea what crime those 180,000 illegal immigrants committed; the figure is offered without detail in a letter from the government. But it’s a big number and they could be murderers as easily as they could be litterbugs, so let’s just leave it there.

Trump wants to create this picture and to leverage it to make the case for his candidacy as the law-and-order candidate. It’s odd, really; he probably could have more luck by hammering on the economic points that were buried in the middle of his lengthy address. But he’s not the “you’re hired” candidate, for whatever reason. He’s the law-and-order candidate. So he needs disorder and lawbreaking to fix. He’s aided by a drumbeat of news reports focused on violence in Chicago and in Syria that are then used as points of political debate against President Obama. People were primed for this. The picture Trump’s painting isn’t new to many of his fans; he was describing something they’d already seen. Many of them take it for granted, and it’s in part why fears of crime and terrorism and nebulous “illegals” are as robust as they are.

“I have a message to every last person threatening the peace on our streets and the safety of our police: When I take the oath of office next year, I will restore law and order to our country,” he said. He added, “Believe me. Believe me,” which wasn’t in his prepared remarks. It’s a tic of his, how he doubles down, like boosting his “never”s to “never evers.” It’s a double-jab of the index finger in the chest.

But: “I will restore law and order to our country.” This isn’t Somalia. The murders of police officers in Dallas and Baton Rouge were shocking but they weren’t a collapse. My father, who lives in a suburb of Dallas, texted me that night to say that he “may just stay home forever.” He didn’t, of course. Law and order may have flickered for an instant, but they never went out.

The best analogue in recent politics is the anguish over Ebola. Ebola dominated the political conversation in late 2014, boosted by less-than-a-handful of infections in the United States, a wildfire in Western Africa and a contentious national election that November. Ebola fears peaked in mid-October, offering a clear benefit of some size to the party not occupying the White House. By December, no one cared, in part because Ebola was never actually much of a threat, no matter how fearsome it seemed.

When Gallup asked people in October if they were worried about contracting Ebola, a quarter of Americans said that they were. Why not? It was all over the news and it was all that political leaders were talking about.

“I alone can fix it,” Trump said of “the system” during his speech (a system which, of course, is completely corrupt and rigged and has been for decades). That’s quite a phrase: No one can solve the problem Trump just outlined but Trump. Which is in part true, because only Trump can unwind the fabulous tapestry that he put together. But that’s not what he means.

After 9/11, George Bush’s approval ratings skyrocketed. It didn’t take him long to call for military action against the Taliban in Afghanistan, but he wasn’t popular because of that. On Sept. 10, Gallup pegged his approval at 51 percent. On Sept. 15, about a week before he announced actions against the Taliban, it was at 86. He was popular because in a moment where a fifth of Americans felt as though they’d been personally affected by carnage and death, he didn’t paint a bleak picture.

On the night of the attacks, Bush said this:

Terrorist attacks can shake the foundations of our biggest buildings, but they cannot touch the foundation of America. These acts shatter steel, but they cannot dent the steel of American resolve. America was targeted for attack because we’re the brightest beacon for freedom and opportunity in the world. And no one will keep that light from shining. Today, our nation saw evil — the very worst of human nature — and we responded with the best of America.

Faced with a real threat, Bush appealed to America’s strengths. After building a Potemkin crisis, Trump told Americans that only he was good enough to deal with it.

The question that lingers for those skeptical of Trump’s view of the world is this: What would he have done if he were in Bush’s place on September 11?

Philip Bump is a political writer for The Fix – the Washington Post. Follow him @pbump

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