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Epilogue: affective heritage and 9/11 memory in the age of Trump

Donald Trump’s political usage of the September 11 attacks and their memory predated his time in the oval office. Since his days on the campaign trail, Mr. Trump claimed a special relationship to the September 11 attacks, their afflicted geography, and their emergent cultural memory. Leveraging his proximity to the World Trade Center as a former New Yorker, Mr. Trump claimed to have witnessed the second plane hit the Twin Towers, as well as the highly censored, deeply traumatic images of building workers jumping to their death first-hand. Alleging proximity to the site, as well as being witness to the event’s most traumatizing images, marked Mr. Trump as an authority on the subject and bolstered his credibility amongst his supporters.

Former President Trump routinely wielded his connection to the 9/11 attacks, harnessing its affective power to influence his political base and garner support for his administration’s policies. In April 2019, the New York Times ran an article documenting the President’s strategy of evoking 9/11 for political gain (Nir 2019), which by mid-summer also included a highly public bill-signing ceremony at the White House Rose Garden with more than 60 September 11 first responders in attendance, “true American warriors” as Mr. Trump called them, upon permanently extending the long fought-over Zadroga Act (Associated Press 2019). The New York Times article was published amidst one of the President’s many attacks against Muslim congresswoman Ilhan Omar, this time following her speech at the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR). Congresswoman Ilhan Omar was then one of two Muslim women serving in the US House of Representatives, a first in the nation’s history, where she was joined by Palestinian-American Rashida Tlaib. Ms. Omar is also of Somali descent. The President’s condemning tweet of Omar’s speaking engagement spurred a wave of death threats against the foreign-born congresswoman, deepening anti-Muslim, xenophobic, and anti-Black sentiments throughout the country. In a tweet that immediately went viral, the President circulated a video that was edited to merge statements from Omar’s speech at CAIR (taken out of their original context) with footage of the September 11 attacks. In the video, Representative Omar is heard saying, “CAIR was founded after 9/11 because they recognized that some people did something,” when the video abruptly cuts to footage of the September 11th terror attacks. Omar’s statement, “some people did something,” is subsequently looped as a voice-over set to images of the second plane striking the World Trade Center, the destruction at the Pentagon, and the eventual collapse of the Twin Towers. “Some people did something?”—the video reads in exasperated certainty before closing with a somber “September 11, 2001. We remember.” In his tweet accompanying this video, Mr. Trump added “WE WILL NEVER FORGET!”

Conflating Representative Omar’s statements with the ideologies of those who planned and executed the September 11 attacks entrenched anti-Muslim, anti-immigrant, and anti-Black sentiments amongst the President’s base in the name of 9/11 and its emergent cultural memory. Although Omar’s remarks can be interpreted as flippant, the President’s political attack attempts to equate Omar’s words—indeed, Omar herself— with the political ideologies responsible for the events of 9/11. In her actual remarks, Representative Omar connects CAIR’s legacy to the post-9/11 fight for Muslim civil rights protections during wartime: “CAIR was founded after 9/11 [sic] because they recognized that some people did something and that all of us were starting to lose access to our civil liberties.”1 Yet it was Omar’s positionality as a Somali-American Muslim woman—a Black Muslim, foreign-born woman—that emboldened the White nationalist segments of the Trump base to act violently against her political voice and demands, even threatening assassination to eradicate it. Mr. Trump took to Twitter to debase his political opponent, once again, in the wake of the eighteenth anniversary of the 9/11 attacks. This time congresswoman Omar is depicted “celebrating” the attacks by allegedly dancing on the attack’s anniversary.

In his earlier usages, 9/11 memory is not just leveraged by Mr. Trump to demonize individual lawmakers; it is broadly and strategically applied to entire communities. One of Mr. Trump’s more insidious usages of 9/11 came during a 2015 presidential campaign stop in Birmingham, Alabama, where the then presidential hopeful alleged that thousands of Muslims gathered in parking lots and on rooftops on the morning of September 11, 2001, to cheer the demise of the Twin Towers from nearby Jersey City (Haberman 2015). Although these claims were repeatedly debunked by federal investigators, the presidential candidate strategically mobilized 9/11 memory to garner political support, laying the foundation for what would later become cornerstone legislation of the Trump Presidency: Executive Orders 13767 and 13769. Signed into law just two days apart, the so-called “Border Wall” and “Muslim Travel Ban” fixed the administration’s domestic policies on war on terror discourses and post-9/11 fears of Islamic terrorism. Presidential tweets disseminating unproven claims of Islamic prayer mats discovered at the US-Mexico border, for example, recentered public attention to the threat of international terrorism and post-9/11 border security (see Qiu 2019). Such claims aided the administration in ramping up its domestic surveillance programs against Arab, Black, Latinx, and immigrant communities under the guise of counterterrorism. Meanwhile, federal funding put in place by the Obama administration to direct governmental agencies to curb the rise of (mostly White) domestic terrorism threats were strategically redirected under Trump. Although the electorate only endured four years of the Trump administration, Trump»«?, on the other hand, looks as though it will endure for much longer. With the contentious 2020 U.S. presidential election just behind the country, and its political landscape still in dispute—especially in lieu of the white nationalist attack on the US Capitol, what political futures will presidential usages of 9/11 memory conjure amidst new frontiers of state (in)security and national emergency, at home and abroad? What does it mean that 9/11 memory has “come of age” amidst the longest wars in US history? And what are the consequences of enduring wartime on this emergent collective memory and cultural trauma?

We witnessed devastating political consequences of 9/11 memory as an affective heritage in the Trump years. In fiscal year 2020, defense spending exceeded 50 percent of the United States’ discretionary budget. Exacerbating the demise of the already weakened social security state, America’s “longest war” has also witnessed the rise of global alt-right. White supremacist groups, as well as the relational resurgence of global anti-Semitism and Islamophobia. Amidst the convergence of two additional pandemics, COVID-19 and anti-Black violence, the recent crises of the novel coronavirus and the ongoing social justice movement for Black Lives Matter continue to be shaped by the events of September 11, 2001, its cultural memory, and post-9/11 policies. The comparison of medical professionals and other essential workers with those who aided in rescue and recovery during the September 11 attacks and its aftermath, for example, is but one (uncomfortable) point of comparison (see Biancolli 2020; Bryant 2020; Perrett 2020; Rapoza 2020). Here, the American response to the global pandemic is very much being shaped by the memory of the former. But it is the fantasy of national unity following the September 11 attacks that continues to amplify the dysfunction of American democracy in the post-9/11 world. In fact, it paved the way for the President of the United States to send federal agents to Portland, Oregon, to unlawfully detain those protesting anti-Black racism while guaranteeing impunity for the extrajudicial killing of Black citizens by national law enforcement.

As these political controversies and public crises demonstrate, the political realization of 9/11 memory is still being written, if not unfolding. The egregious abuses of executive authority by the Trump administration saliently marked the convergence of 9/11 memory and the global war on terror as it was mobilized to frame a new (race) war “at home,” deepening the erasure of constitutional protections in the name of national security. The rise of 9/11 memory during the Trump years was not only shaped by, but has also shaped, affective heritage at and beyond the cultural institution at “Ground Zero.” And while affective heritage attempts to reduce the representational, generational conundrum of feeling ««affected by the events of that ill-fated day, our feelings remain fickle—influenced from within and without.


1 The Council on American Islamic Relations was founded in 1994.

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