In 102 minutes, 15 years ago, 2,606 New Yorkers were killed by Middle Eastern terrorists. Today, two New Yorkers are vying to be president of the United States. How does that day of infamy inform their campaign? The answer is in some ways profoundly, and in others hardly at all.
The shadow of 9/11 is evident at home and abroad. Domestically, Donald Trump has prospered by a xenophobic nativism that 9/11 did not begin but arguably confirmed. His call for “a total and complete shutdown of Muslims entering the United States until our country’s representatives can figure out what is going on” was a direct echo of the fears the 2001 attacks provoked.
His call to remember 9/11 is also a call to ponder how an ineffectual liberal elite failed to protect America on that day. Eight years of a Bill and Hillary Clinton White House (1993-2001) left the United States uniquely exposed to the men Trump says he will “bomb the shit out of” in Syria.
He was present in New York on that morning and has a riff – it is possibly as articulate as he gets – in his recounting of it: “... the people in New York fought and fought and fought, and we saw more death, and even the smell of death — nobody understood it. And it was with us for months, the smell, the air.”
Hillary Clinton, then a newly-elected senator for New York, cannot posture in similar fashion. She was part of the federal government that failed to forestall the attack – and of the previous administration that failed to join the dots of the plot. The heroes of that day were local authorities, the cops, firefighters, hospital workers, ordinary Joes – i.e. the kind of people Trump has been able to attract as she has not. Her big government solutions were absurdly ill-equipped (read the 9/11 Commission Report) to handle the crisis. And Trump will argue they remain the cause of America’s decline; give the keys to a successful property magnate instead.
US foreign policy
Of course, September 11 still resonates in terms of foreign policy. Everything America has done abroad in the years since is at some level connected to that terrorist attack. Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, Syria: each of these wars, interventions, partial interventions and non-interventions continues to frame foreign policy debate. All of them begin or were recast on 9/11. Both candidates claim they will be able to resolve that problematic and myriad legacy: Hillary because she has experience, Trump because he knows how to cut a deal.
Interestingly, Trump has chosen to focus less on national security failure post-9/11 – though he recurrently berates Hillary for her poor stewardship at the State Department and the open-door to terrorists he claims she was complicit in – than on the iniquity of trade deals. His mantra in opposition to the Transpacific Partnership – which he declared was “a continuing rape of our country” – has forced her to oppose it also.
If international trade has indeed replaced 9/11 as the central foreign policy issue of the campaign, its fading shadow is also apparent in the shift away from physical security concerns. This is for two possible reasons. The first is the failure of Al Qaeda and its affiliates to repeat the horrifying success of that September morning. The widespread concerns about what was coming next dissipated as that ‘next’ never happened.
The Global Financial Crisis
The second reason 9/11 resonates less is the intercession in 2008 of the GFC. Fears of physical security gave way to fear about mortgage insecurity – a much more present reality for millions of Americans.
Both candidates are the products of that global financial crisis, but Trump especially so. Australia’s Pauline Hanson is a Donald Trump without a housing collapse. She is fringe and he is mainstream because Australia escaped the crash that crippled the American economy and its housing market in 2008 – and from which it is only now recovering. Her nativism is faintly absurd (it has little enabling context), whereas his version defeated every Republican contender in his path.
In the US, lower-middle class mortgage holders that managed to stay in their homes have only recently seen a return to property price growth. Australians, in contrast, have become increasingly blasé that their property could ever be worth less in the long-term. Politics in a period of prosperity matter less. This might explain why Australia has so casually knifed, installed, knifed, and installed its most recent prime ministers. Who leads doesn’t really matter if you can flip your house every third-year.
Hanson has little anger to articulate and channel, Trump has a huge reserve on which to draw. 9/11 has been essentially tangential to the climate Trump has exploited. Without economic dislocation, and an attendant and longer-standing cultural alienation felt by his supporters, he would never have got a whiff of the Republican nomination.
9/11, and his lived experience of it in New York on that day (he wiped the floor with Ted Cruz during a debate in which the Texan derided Trump’s ‘New York values’) has sometimes given his mangled rhetoric added power; but his standing with an angry, white, non-college educated demographic does not require a belligerent counterterrorism. His channelling of economic and cultural disaffection does.
Hillary Clinton, on the other hand, we might speculate, would rather the campaign become more 9/11 in its focus. She is a foreign policy hawk and will almost certainly countenance more war than has President Obama. Syria is likely to be a proving ground of her hard-line credentials. As secretary of state she can plausibly claim to have been on the frontline of the war on terror.
But if the campaign rhetoric becomes increasingly economic and cultural – and every indication is that Trump will continue to make it so – she is on dodgier territory.
Economically, she has been insulated from the property crash, moving from a multi-million dollar income in the 1990s to a multi-multi-million-dollar income today. She and her husband Bill are a money-making machine. Their often unreadably banal books and sell-out corporate speaking engagements have earned them healthy profits. She is a walking articulation of the elite that Trump supporters hate. She speaks the language of the dispossessed, but is separated from them; Trump is separated from them, but speaks their language.
She talks the language of gender rights but has rarely defended the powerless women her powerful husband has being consorting with since their days in Arkansas. When Connie Hamzy accused Bill Clinton of propositioning her in 1991 Hillary said ‘We have to destroy her story.’ According to Carl Bernstein, she coordinated an ‘aggressive, explicit direction of the campaign to discredit’ Bill’s long-term mistress, Gennifer Flowers. Monica Lewinsky was not the victim of sexual harassment but a ‘narcissistic loony toon.’
Clinton and ‘elitism’
Clinton is, according to Trump, what happens when political correctness, hypocrisy and privilege elevates the mediocre to positions of power.
He will argue that Hillary is symbolic of a liberal elite that turns its back on ordinary middle-class Americans, that erects speech codes to limit their room for complaint, and that distains their parochialism. Thomas Frank’s What’s the Matter with Kansas? (2005) is a powerful indictment of both this demographic’s supposed ability to vote against its interests and, ironically, of the contempt its author, and Hillary Democrats like him, hold them in for doing so – a contempt that Trump has exploited.
Being tough on terror and tough on the causes of terror – the enduring lesson of 9/11 – won’t lose Hillary Clinton votes. But Trump’s depiction of her as a cultural warrior, advanced and advantaged by multicultural elitism – a caricature made possible by the 2008 recession – likely will. This will probably not be enough to lose her the election (she currently has an 88% chance of being the victor) but enough to see her elected not because of the hope she embodies but merely because she is less distrusted and less disliked than her opponent.
Timothy J. Lynch is Associate Professor in American Politics, School of Social and Political Sciences, University of Melbourne. He is part of a four-part masterclass series in the Faculty of Arts assessing pivotal elections in US history.
Banner Image: Flowers at the 9/11 memorial in New Yourk City. Picture: Tim Wilson/Flickr
This article has been co-published with Election Watch USA 2016.