UPDATE (Sept. 10, 2021, 7:45 p.m. ET): This piece has been updated to note former President Donald Trump may now be making some 9/11 stops, although these plans remain vague.
There is much hand-wringing and even outright mockery over former President Donald Trump’s Saturday plans for the 20th anniversary of 9/11.
Unlike former President George W. Bush and former President Barack Obama or President Joe Biden, Trump isn’t going for the solemn. Instead, alongside his son Don Jr., Trump will be providing commentary for a boxing match. These two heretofore unrecognized geniuses of the sweet science will be doing MAGA-friendly play-by-play from the Hard Rock Café in Hollywood, Florida — presumably before a raucous, maskless crowd.
The highlight will be 58-year-old former champion and 1984(!) Olympian Evander Holyfield. This isn’t a boxing card. It’s a crime scene.
As for the fight itself, it is a repellent affair even by boxing standards. The highlight will be 58-year-old former champion and 1984(!) Olympian Evander Holyfield. This isn’t a boxing card. It’s a crime scene. Yet as Trump Sr. said to hype the contest, “I love great fighters and great fights. I look forward to seeing both this Saturday night and sharing my thoughts ringside. You won't want to miss this special event."
The reaction has been beyond critical, calling Trump’s choice to take part in such frivolity undignified on such a grim day of remembrance. But this rush to the fainting couch misses the point. And I’m not talking about the fact that it is (still) a waste of breath to chide Trump’s boorishness. This is someone who tried to overturn an election. Do you really think he can be shamed for thumbing his nose at 9/11?
But beyond the commentariats’ predictable waste of breath, I’d argue that for all of his childish taunts, transparent insecurity and third-grade grasp of nuance, Trump is also incredibly, even wickedly, good at connecting with the lizard brain of his followers. (Most authoritarian aspirants are.) Trump knows that there is a section of this country that thinks all of these presidents are at best phonies and at worst, mendacious traffickers of children. They aren't elder statesmen. They are enemies. And why would their leader mimic the actions of such foes?
Trump also understands the visceral thrill of boxing — a blood sport where someone could, in a moment, be knocked unconscious or worse. Trump’s followers will probably love that he’s watching a boxing match instead of going to Shanksville, Pennsylvania.
Remember that for all the Americans appalled by 9/11, there were some who were energized by it. Like the Toby Keith song “Courtesy of the Red, White and Blue,” there were Americans just itching to bring the so-called clash of civilizations to the Muslim world. ‘'Cause we'll put a boot in your ass,” Keith sang to sold-out crowds. “It's the American way.”
Now, 20 years later, they don’t want to be solemn. They want to go beat someone up. Think about Trump lickspittle and right-wing power broker Glenn Beck and his 9/12 movement, which posited that the day after 9/11, the country was never better because we were united in a clear focus for blood and revenge.
This is who Trump has an instinctual ability to speak to, like few national politicians this country have ever seen.
This is who Trump has an instinctual ability to speak to, like few national politicians this country have ever seen. Trump is now thoroughly confident that he won’t be held accountable for his actions on Jan. 6; his marriage is a mockery; his reputation among the Hollywood elite he once courted is in tatters. All that’s left for him and his defeated dead-enders is revenge.
9/11 is still their day to feel and feed that sense of vengeance, except now Trump and his media cohorts are targeting their fellow Americans for an assorted list of offenses and manufactured outrages ranging from Covid-19 mask rules to teaching about slavery.
Whether or not Trump is building his base for a 2024 run, or is trying to maintain his status as a GOP power broker (it’s the former, and we all know it), his aim is the same: to speak to people’s worst instincts for his own purposes. That he is choosing an embarrassing sideshow of a boxing match in order to do this is an indictment of boxing itself. Famed boxing writer Jimmy Cannon once called boxing “the red light district of sports.” You can keep your speeches and crocodile tears. This is where Trump is truly at home.