The city of Brussels is a hellhole—or so says Donald Trump. In an interview with Fox Business Network on Tuesday, the prospective Republican U.S. presidential nominee lambasted Belgium’s capital for being dominated by Muslim extremists. Following comments about the supposed encroachment of Sharia law, he had this to say:
“You go to Brussels — I was in Brussels a long time ago, 20 years ago, so beautiful, everything is so beautiful — it’s like living in a hellhole right now.”
The portrayal of their city as a gaping chasm of hellfire has alternately enraged and amused Brussels residents. In the now standard global reaction to high profile blowhards, they’ve taken to Twitter to vent their scorn for Trump, using the hashtag #hellhole to challenge his view of the city. Certainly, it hasn’t helped Trump’s case that many corners of Brussels continue to be extravagantly photogenic.
Others have taken a direct pot shot at the man, stuffing his mouth with a Belgian waffle or even superimposing his face onto the Manneken Pis.
There’s still a nervousness behind the reaction. Brussels has indeed been going through a testing time recently. Following the Paris terror attacks, the inner-city neighborhood of Molenbeek has been under intense scrutiny as a breeding ground for Islamic extremism, as a string of terrorists were found to have lived or passed through it at some point. The city enforced a four-day lockdown this November with one of the attackers still on the loose, and tourist numbers have been down since. Brussels own organizational shortcomings have received some flak for creating this situation. Divided between 19 municipalities without an overseeing city council or mayor, Brussels fragmented make-up can indeed make anything from policing to congestion management more complicated than it need be.
Painfully aware of the negative press, Brussels has launched a charm offensive. The Call Brussels campaign invited people from across the world to call a toll-free number that would connect to public phones at three points across the city. Locals could then pick up the phone and assure callers that everything in Brussels was in fact all right. Possibly one of the strangest city PR campaigns in recent history, its reliance on the kindness of strangers prepared to pick up the phones meant only half of calls were actually answered.
Trump’s “hellhole” accusations represent a trend among parts of the U.S. right to portray European cities as some monstrous multicultural other—such as when Fox News outlined entirely spurious no-go zones in Paris, London, and Birmingham last year. Seen through this fantastical lens, Europe’s cities have become war-torn video-game backdrops in which Jihadis prowl territories abandoned entirely to Sharia law.
Europe has indeed suffered some terrible terrorist attacks recently, but such a lurid portrayal is quite unrecognizable. Underneath the caricatures, there’s arguably a sense of disappointment that Europe hasn’t stayed entirely fixed in time. It’s as if a certain type of American coming to Europe expecting wall-to-wall berets or lederhosen now feels disappointment on discovering that not all contemporary Europeans are white.
Indeed, if Brussels has changed in the 20 years since Trump’s last visit, it is unquestionably for the better. Still beset by congestion, its center has been extensively pedestrianized, turning the city core into a sparkling stage set for architecture that is quirky and extravagant even by old European norms. Many once-dilapidated inner-city districts are now teeming with vigor, and still just about balance that thin edge between attracting more wealth and retaining their original character.
Of course, Brussels isn’t a perfect city and could do with some changes, not least political. It remains one of Europe’s most eclectic, unexpected, agreeably weird cities, with surprises and good food around every second corner. But if this is indeed what hell looks like, then many of us are due to enjoy the afterlife rather more than we imagined.