How Trump Used the Pulse Tragedy to Advance His Anti-Muslim Agenda

How Trump Used the Pulse Tragedy to Advance His Anti-Muslim Agenda

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In the early hours of June 12, 2016, the first news reports coming out of Orlando were bad. Terrifying. A lone gunman had entered the Pulse, a gay nightclub, and began firing into the crowd. Each update provided another unwelcome detail: news of hostages; the growing estimate of the dead; eyewitness accounts of confusion, sadness, and fear. Hours later, the gunman was dead after a stand-off with local law enforcement. The final death toll reached 49. All but a few were LGBTQ-identified. Most were men. Many were Latino. Several were achingly young.

By the morning of the shooting, then-candidate Donald Trump had taken to Twitter: “Appreciate the congrats for being right on radical Islamic terrorism, I don’t want congrats, I want toughness & vigilance. We must be smart!” Although the gunman was born in suburban New York and raised in suburban Florida, he was the son of Afghani immigrants.

Surely, many thought, Trump’s self-aggrandizing statement — made before many facts were known and before any form of public or private grieving could begin — would soon backfire as a political strategy. It didn’t. 


The next day, Trump called for a moment of silence in solidarity with “Orlando’s LGBT community” at the start of a speech given in response to the shooting. Over the following half-hour, Trump-the-candidate laid out the first contours of what we’re now officially calling (with Trump-the-President’s recent Twitter blessing) the “travel ban.” While Trump had initially called for an immediate stop to all immigration by Muslims, he now called for a more targeted policy based on a supposed intractable clash of cultures. Some people, he argued again and again, just hate the gays.

What may be worth revisiting a year later is how this “tough on terror” policy was proposed, almost quite literally, over the dead bodies of LGBTQ people. Since the speech, Trump and his administration have evoked “Orlando” several times. It has become shorthand for “radical Islamic terror,” used to justify publicly a draconian immigration policy that would have done nothing to prevent incidents like the Pulse shooting.

Orlando and the Trump travel ban

For a historically unpopular president, public support for the “travel ban” is still quite high and cuts across many demographics. That Trump has succeeded in speaking as persuasively as he did, in the names of those who died at the Pulse nightclub, should give us significant pause. 

In the speech, Trump promised then he would “suspend immigration from areas of the world when there is a proven history of terrorism against the United States, Europe or our allies, until we understand how to end these threats.” He name-checked Saudi Arabia, Afghanistan and Syria as counties that could be subject to the ban, while calling for far harsher screening in order to prevent any immigrants or refugees from those countries from becoming “a better, bigger, more horrible version than the legendary Trojan Horse.”

These actions would obviously not have prevented violence committed by a native-born shooter, as was the case in Orlando. One strange implication here is that the shooter’s father should not have been allowed to immigrate three decades earlier. Thus, he would not have given birth to a son in the United States, who would not have had access to assault-style weapons, etc. There’s an easy, seductive logic of this butterfly-effect approach to public policy for the way it shifts responsibility elsewhere.

Trump’s embrace of Orlando isn’t about LGBTQ Americans

Half-a-dozen times, Trump evoked the potential threat “radical Islamic terror” and “sharia law” posed to lesbians and gay men as a justification for taking these actions. He presented the mass shooting at the Pulse as irrefutable evidence of a larger existential attack against all LGBT Americans. By extension, he repeatedly claimed, this attack was an attack on all Americans, a “strike at the heart and soul of who we are as a nation.” 

By the end, Trump demanded that Hillary Clinton formally apologize to all lesbian and gay Americans for allowing immigration from countries that allowed such hatred to flourish and (by further extension) condemning them to death. He pointedly refused to name the shooter, but omitted any specific details which would honor those who died. That they were gay and “suffering” seemed to be sufficient for him to link pathos to policy.

As a direct address on behalf of LGBT! Americans, this speech now rings even more hollow. And this is without taking the Trump administration’s disappointing responses to LGBTQ human rights abuses in Chechnya in the spring into account. Or its recent choice to discontinue federal Pride Month declarations and celebrations for this year. Or Trump himself, who delivered remarks at a conference hosted by anti-LGBTQ evangelicals just a few days ago.

But what should we have expected? That the majority of those killed at the Pulse nightclub were young Latino men was perhaps too politically inconvenient for a candidate who began his campaign by demonizing Mexicans as rapists and drug dealers. Or worse, that those who died were just convenient victims. Any specific details of their lives and identities were just not seen as important to that larger, fear-based argument.

What does “Orlando” mean to Trump?

Campaign surrogates such as reality TV fixture Omarosa and YouTube personalities Diamond and Silk left a wreath (and a mash note) at the memorial outside the Pulse nightclub during their “Women for Trump” tour. Last December, he and Vice President-elect Mike Pence made Orlando the first stop of the duo’s post-election victory tour through swing-state cities. There, Trump told a cheering crowd that he considered Florida his “first home” in many ways — after all, Mar-a-Lago is a just over two hours south (and a little east) of Orlando.

But when Trump again descended on the Orlando airport on February 17 for a campaign-style rally, his mood was different. The first travel ban had just been delivered an immediate set of stinging judicial rebukes. Just ten days earlier, the Administration had released a long list of supposedly “underreported terror attacks” (which included the mass shooting at the Pulse nightclub) in order to gin up public support.  (Comedian Melissa McCarthy, in belligerent drag as Sean Spicer, brutally mocked the list on SNL that weekend by being unable — or unwilling — to remember or even correctly pronounce “Orlando” during a White House press conference.)

In a speech given less than a month ago in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, Trump ominously recalled a chain of “repeated barbarous attacks” against America that had stretched from September 11 to Orlando. Despite paying lip service to the “vibrant cultures” of the Middle East, the address carried unmistakable echoes of the ideological clashes which so animated Trump almost a year earlier. But this time around, “Orlando” was merely a city name to be checked off on a list that included “Boston” and “San Bernardino.” It had become just another attack; those who died were just more voiceless statistics.

Erasing the Pulse tragedy’s queerness

It’s increasingly difficult to resist such cynical-sounding conclusions. This past March, Florida activists called out Governor Rick Scott for speaking of the events in his “State of the State” address without making a single direct reference to the LGBTQ community. The violence Scott described might as well have taken place at a dog track or in a Zumba class.

Some of this might be attributed to a lack of imagination about what actually goes on in gay nightclubs. In the immediate aftermath of the shooting, Representative Pete Sessions (R-TX) famously claimed to reporters that Pulse was not a gay nightclub. His staff later reported that he was confused, since it was a “Latino night” and there were straight people in the crowd.  A quick scan of coverage about the Pulse shooting on sites like Breitbart tend to mention sexuality rather than race and ethnicity, to the extent that they get talked about at all.

And, for all this work on linking “Orlando” to an unspecific kind of anti-Muslim fear, the city itself recently failed to make the cut to receive funding to combat terrorism from the Department of Homeland Security for 2017. The President’s other security priorities may partly be the cause. The formula used by the Federal Emergency Management Agency to calculate the likelihood of a terror-based attack takes into account “targeted infrastructure that terrorists are deemed more likely to attack” and threats related to border crossings. Orlando placed 38th on FEMA’s overall threat list, behind locations like San Antonio, Indianapolis and Salt Lake City. 

A missed opportunity

Something went missing in the aftermath of the Pulse shooting. Calling for increased gun control may have sounded like — and may still be — a common-sense solution to blunt the horror of the former. At the time, moral outrage always seemed the easiest way to deal with Trump. 

Neither was sufficient. Gun control legislation that might have prevented the shooting seems further away than ever. Continued outrage is exhausting. Perhaps we lost an important chance to ask some hard questions about the ways that homophobia and racism can act as social fault lines that can easily be exploited both by home-grown extremists, as well as by unscrupulous politicians when they respond to those terrorist actions.

If there is some path forward through all of this, it might be gleaned from studying the reactions to the London Bridge terror attacks earlier this month. As with the Pulse shooting, Trump took to Twitter: Not only did he renew calls for his travel ban to be enacted, but he attacked London mayor Sadiq Khan for urging people not to be alarmed by increased policing. The extent to which his remarks may have tipped the outcome of the British parliamentary elections away from his ally Theresa May is still being understood. His long-planned state visit to the U.K. may or may not be on indefinite hold.

On this side of the Atlantic, Trump faced more blandly fact-based criticism. Democratic Connecticut Senator Christopher Murphy noted that more people die from falling objects than from terror attacks. Such responses come off as clinical and almost beside the point.

As foreign policy analyst Uri Friedman notes:

“In the raw moments after a terrorist attack, people are often looking for recognition of the horror and reassurance that they’ll be kept safe, not to be told that they’re overreacting or to be soothed with unconvincing arguments.” 

But it’s what comes afterwards, how we recognize and respond to this fear in the public square that really matters. The past year has proven this. Until we master this kind of language, we risk being spoken over — and spoken for — again and again and again.

(Featured image by Walter via Flickr)

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