Earlier this week US President Donald Trump shared inflammatory anti-Muslim videos, originally circulated by an ultranationalist British group, without comment or explanation. He also referred to Senator Elizabeth Warren as “Pocahontas” during a White House event to honour Native American code talkers. In Missouri, during a speech that was meant to focus on tax legislation, he digressed into foreign policy and called the leader of North Korea a “sick puppy”.
Downing Street’s reaction to the first incident – unprecedented for a sitting US American president – was instructive. “It is wrong for the president to have done this,” said a statement from Prime Minister Theresa May. “Britain First [the fringe group that originally circulated the videos] seeks to divide communities by their use of hateful narratives that peddle lies and stoke tensions. They cause anxiety to law-abiding people.” Like many other reactions to Trump’s boorishness, these lawyerly words keep the wrongness of the deed carefully separate from its perpetrator, yet otherwise sound earnest enough to pass as condemnation.
The videos themselves are typical of the decontextualized narratives that make social media so compelling, and potentially dangerous. Shot in three countries and at different times they have no common thread apart from being anti-Muslim. Each misleads in predictable ways. The New York Times quickly noted that the “Muslim migrant” said to be assaulting a Dutch boy in one clip was in fact a Dutch citizen (a fact confirmed by the Netherlands embassy, on Twitter, apparently to no avail.) The other clips showed an extremist cleric in Syria smashing a statue of the Virgin Mary and a violent 2013 clash in a neighbourhood of Alexandria, Egypt between supporters of the ousted president Morsi and their rivals. It passes understanding why a US president would share such digital detritus, – after it has been repurposed by ultranationalist bigots – with a Twitter audience of 40 million .
It is safe to say that Trump neither knows nor cares to know details about the provenance of these videos. When questioned about the footage, White House press secretary, Sarah Huckabee Sanders’ response was typical of the administration: “Whether it’s a real video, the threat is real,” she said, adding that the president’s “goal is to promote strong border security and strong national security.”
Trump’s surreal presidency generates so many similar moments that it is often hard to say whether a new low has been established or greater embarrassments lie ahead. It is increasingly clear, however, that the public mood in America has begun to shift. Trump’s casual dismissal of the allegations against Roy Moore, the GOP Senate nominee from Alabama, did not achieve their desired effect. In fact they caused the claims of misogyny and harassment that bedevilled his own 2016 campaign to resurface. Furthermore, the Washington Post’s detection of a deliberately misleading story about Moore – one that would have been used to vindicate the right’s war on “fake news” – is a sign that the old channels of disinformation are beginning to lose their power.
In the months since abuse allegations at Fox unseated Roger Ailes and Bill O’Reilly, dozens of America’s high-profile public figures have been consumed by similar scandals. Both sides of the political spectrum have been affected and distinguished careers have made no difference to the ensuing public outcry and the loss of reputation. America’s appetite for accountability is gathering steam and the political reaction to the forces that brought Trump into office have now learned how to leverage threats of advertising boycotts and the like into tools for change. In this atmosphere, Trump’s blasé attitude towards public opinion cannot continue indefinitely. As widespread calls to have his UK state visit cancelled have shown, exasperation with Trump’s casual racism and xenophobia has reached a momentum that is politically significant. At some point, perhaps quite soon, even he will face a reckoning.