Editor’s Note: Michael D’Antonio is author of the book, “Never Enough: Donald Trump and the Pursuit of Success” (St. Martin’s Press). The opinions expressed in this commentary are his.
President Donald Trump is on a tear about immigration again. Often mercurial and dark, Trump is using the power of the presidency to share his fear and anxiety with the country, and to stir the same feelings in its citizens.
He does this instead of directly addressing the nation’s domestic problems – in this case, a long-broken immigration system – pushing the buttons of his base and re-energizing them on this divisive issue. In this scenario, governance and leadership lose, and fear-driven policy can result.
Thus, over the holiday weekend, he issued a series of tweets stoking a familiar (and unfounded) fear of border-crossing bogeyman who are hell-bent on committing violent crimes. And Tuesday, he announced several proposals to address this alleged issue, including stationing military troops along the border with Mexico.
Trump’s immigration tirade began with a Twitter rant about pardons issued by California Gov. Jerry Brown to five people facing deportation. The topic had just been featured on Fox News, which often functions as an outrage factory for the President and his followers.
The President’s tweet came as he spent the weekend at his Florida resort, Mar-a-Lago, with current and former Fox bigwigs, including Sean Hannity and former executive Bill Shine. Away from the moderating influence of chief of staff John Kelly, Trump was free to marinate in the fact-challenged political stew that comes from the likes of Hannity, Shine and other visitors including Jeanine Pirro.
Notably, these Trump influencers have apparently been devouring “The Camp of the Saints,” a right-wing immigrant fear fantasy novel, which has surfaced on Fox News in recent days – including on Tucker Carlson’s show. The Southern Poverty Law Center has referred to the novel as “a favorite racist fantasy of the anti-immigrant movement.” All of which is to say, Trump is getting his immigration talking points from commentators reaching dangerously far outside the mainstream.
After targeting Brown, Fox reported breathlessly on a “caravan of illegals headed to US.” Any viewer could easily conclude that some sort of invasion was imminent. In fact, the “caravan” is an annual journey of more than 1,000 people who travel across Mexico to ultimately seek asylum in the United States. Many of them claim they are trying to escape violence and political unrest in their home countries, such as Honduras.
Only a propagandist would omit all the context of this caravan in order to sow fear. Hence Trump’s Easter morning rant about how Mexico must act to “stop the big drug and people flows.” In the same tweet, he alleged that Mexicans “laugh at our dumb immigrant laws.” That last bit about the laughing was supposed to make Mexican authorities seem mean and nasty, and Americans feel shamed and furious.
The basic fact regarding immigration on the southern border is that more undocumented Mexicans in the United States are leaving than entering, and this has been true for a decade. The President is correct that Mexican cartels are responsible for the flow of some illegal drugs into the United States, but Americans also create the demand for those drugs.
Anyone who had any doubt about the President’s intent to rile public outrage only needed to consult his most concise tweet, which said “Getting more dangerous. ‘Caravans’ coming. Republicans must go to Nuclear Option to pass tough laws NOW. NO MORE DACA DEAL!”
The “caravans,” as Trump imagined them, were not entirely real. The situation at the border is not getting more dangerous. The crisis over DACA, which involved nearly 800,000 young people who signed up for the program, is Trump’s own creation. He canceled the program. He could make a deal immediately by reinstating it. Instead, he cruelly manipulates the plight of DACA recipients, keeping them and their families in limbo.
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Make no mistake. Trump’s immigrant rants are all about hype. And it is hype that is his stock-in-trade. For decades prior to becoming President, Trump hyped real estate, casinos, consumer products and his reality TV show. In every case, he proved to himself, as he cashed various checks, that propaganda pays.
In business, propaganda is known by other names like marketing and advertising – but everyone involved, including the consumer, knows that’s going on. A candy bar company can tout its chocolate as “the best,” and no one expects proof.
But presidents have an even greater power than businessmen – they can directly shape policies to comport with their views, and Trump has certainly done that. In addition to rescinding DACA, he has ended Temporary Protected Status for Haitians, Nicaraguans and Sudanese. He has banned nationals of several Muslim majority nations. And he has reduced refugee admissions to their lowest levels since 1980. And with each decision, he has used the power of his propaganda machine to justify his decision.
Unfortunately, Trump’s propaganda comes at great cost – and not just to immigrants, but to the entire country, which seems to grow more and more divided. Rather than doing the hard work of creating responsible and well thought out policies, he has placed that burden on the American people, who must question and challenge his tweets almost daily.