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A Presidency of Lies, Fearmongering and Human Degradation

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As I write in late December 2018, a substantial share of our nation’s federal government is shut down for lack of Congressional willingness to fund construction of a wall along the U.S-Mexico border. This turn was the personal responsibility of President Donald Trump who chose this course to try to force Democrats in Congress to provide $5 billion toward construction of that barrier, while also assuring his core supporters that he was working hard to secure a central claim of his campaign. Those Democratic votes are necessary in the Senate particularly, where even Trump’s GOP colleagues have never shown themselves willing to fund his proposed partition.

Matters will shortly grow more complicated in the House of Representatives, too, as it appears this artificially concocted governance crisis will not be resolved before January 3 and the advent of a new Congress with a significant Democratic majority in that chamber. It is unlikely that the new House majority will agree to the President’s specious demand and Trump has yet to offer or accept an alternative. This scenario is indicative of what Trump’s peculiar concept of his role as chief executive has wrought, and it illustrates neatly how he has sought to mobilize those willing to countenance his erratic behavior and depravity on the basis of specific emotive and symbolic claims. It also suggests what is now a truism: Trump has not sought to develop policies for the common good, but instead has pursued initiatives that address the fears, beliefs and prejudices of his most fervent supporters or provide material benefits to specific corporate interests, including his own and those of his family. Trump presses political stances, whatever their specific stripe, in a similar fashion. I here share the typical character of his mobilization efforts as they relate to immigration.

Trump began his formal quest for the presidency with the claim that illegal and legal immigration constituted a national security crisis, arguing that many of those coming to the United States from Mexico and Latin America were criminals and, more particularly, rapists. [1] His assertion was completely false, and it misled those who chose to believe him about the character of the nation’s existing immigration policies and challenges. Trump tied his lie about immigrants and immigration generally to another falsehood, that the supposed problem as he defined it could be and would be allayed with construction of a “beautiful wall” for which Mexico would pay. [2] He never explained how a border partition would address the problems he had outlined, nor why the government of Mexico would accept responsibility for its construction (it has not and will not). [3]  Instead, he repeatedly described both legal and illegal immigrants and refugees as nefarious and worse and interested foremost in committing crimes and taking American jobs.

Trump went further just prior to the November 2018 national midterm election and dispatched several thousand U.S. military troops to the Mexican border in an obvious effort at fearmongering to address the “national security crisis” occasioned by a rag tag group of asylum seekers from Central America, including many women and children. [4] They were never a threat and once the election had occurred, Trump dropped his claims concerning them. He has nonetheless continued to argue that immigration constitutes a serious menace to the American people and that it is best controlled by securitization of the border by means of a huge and hugely expensive wall and executive measures targeted at preventing members of specific groups and/or nationalities from entering the United States.

He has likewise continued falsely to claim that the Democratic Party supports “open” borders, which he does not define. The Democrats do not support such a concept. He also contends that members of that Party want to invite caravan after caravan of refugees to the border, but there is no evidence for that assertion either. Finally, he maintains that birthright citizens can bring their entire extended families to the United States through “chain migration” as infants. First, there is no such thing as chain migration. Second, individuals born here may petition to bring their non-American parents to this nation only after they have turned 21, and the average waiting period thereafter, once that request has been approved, is 13 years. Trump’s claims, clearly meant to instill fear of the “other,” are patently ridiculous. [5]

In short, Trump has pressed his arguments concerning the border wall despite their inherent fatuousness. And, now, he has engineered the shutdown of a large proportion of the government in an attempt to “realize” his empty lie. In all of this, the following features of how Trump seeks to mobilize supporters are clear:

  • Trump began this policy discourse on the basis of a complete fabrication and a sweeping claim that the remedy he proposed for the falsehood he had devised would address a fear or fears among a share of Americans.
  • He has sought to deepen and broaden that fear—in this case concerns about the pace and character of demographic and economic and social change— and the lie he tied to it with another falsehood that connected the phenomenon in question to criminal or otherwise unacceptable behavior. He has done so by arguing that the supposed “problem” was far larger and consequential than it was and that it could be eliminated by demonizing and punishing those he alleged were responsible for it.
  • This last point is key as it has allowed Trump to play not only on fear, but also on discriminatory and racist impulses among some voters by systematically “othering” refugees and immigrants. He has gone so far as overtly to embrace individuals from preferred countries—read majority white or Asian (unless Chinese)—and to disparage individuals from “####hole countries” —read Haiti, Latin America, Mexico and African nations with individuals of color as majorities. [6]
  • As he has demonstrated with his decision to sacrifice government functioning in an attempt to force Congress to turn his fantasy into reality, Trump has continued to lie about the character of the nation’s immigration challenge, to lie about current policies related to it and to lie about the role a wall could play in addressing it. He has persisted in pressing these arguments despite broad condemnation of them. Nonetheless, his most fervent supporters continue to believe his lies. He has also continued to seek to heighten his devotees’ fears of the “other,” implicit in all of his immigration rhetoric, by frequently contending, and lying, that large numbers of Islamic terrorists or “other race” criminals and thugs are daily pouring into the United States across the Mexican border for lack of a wall.

Trump has pressed this claim concerning refugees and immigrants in a form similar to that he has employed to advance his other false assertions in other policy domains:

  • He selected a genuine concern and blew it out of proportion, while lying that an identifiable group(s) was/were dangerous and “other” and taking undue advantage of Americans. What he has not done in this policy area is propose a new comprehensive immigration law or take clear steps to ensure that existing administrative machinery created to process immigrant, refugee and asylum claims is adequate to its current challenges.
  • He has sought, too, to play on the racial and discriminatory impulses of a share of Americans willing to embrace and countenance them by his persistent appeals to degrade unlike “others” and to racial, religious and ethnic animus.
  • More broadly, he has lied repeatedly on matters linked to immigration in an effort to persuade voters that abandoning concern for the human and civil rights of those he has targeted can be countenanced because they are, in his conception, both as individuals and as groups, “less than” and undeserving as a result of their relative poverty, skin color, ethnicity or religion. Apart from its innate cruelty and wrong headedness and as an evocation of those characteristics, this stance has resulted in the “penning” of hundreds of refugees, including young children, in inhuman conditions and in the deaths of two youngsters in U.S. Border Patrol custody.  [7]

One may draw several conclusions on the basis of this example. First, Trump is practicing classic demagoguery and his othering and dehumanization of targeted groups has resulted in human and civil rights abuses and the diminution of the United States in the eyes of other nations as he has chosen systematically to violate our country’s treaty obligations as well as the central principles of its Constitution and Declaration of Independence.

Second, Trump has sought to set the government’s policy and regulatory agenda in the immigration and refugee domain on the basis of fearmongering and scapegoating. He has laid aside reality and the facts in so doing. Sadly, many Americans have been willing to follow him in his course. This example is too similar to other historical episodes, including recent ones in Myanmar, Poland and the Philippines, not to take note, and to remind those supporting Trump’s actions of their horrific costs for those targeted and for American national self-respect as a supposed experiment in democratic governance.

Third, the fact that Trump has built his mobilization edifice on outright lies constantly repeated is itself deep cause for concern. That reality raises the question of why his supporters have continued to believe his falsehoods, even when confronted with the facts. To say this turn among a share of Americans is corrosive of self-governance is to understate its significance. Analysts need to understand better why and how this has occurred lest the United States fall into a still more anti-democratic predicament.

Finally, the Republican Party, and its major supporters, including many corporations, must consider carefully what price they are willing to impose on the nation to maintain power. They have already engaged in documented voter suppression, gerrymandering and legislative efforts to deprive duly elected individuals of their rightful roles as those officials enter office, even as they have tolerated Trump’s efforts to bully, lie and fearmonger his way to the center of the political stage using immigration as his principal vehicle. The costs to the nation of the Republican Party’s willful choice to countenance these actions have already proven exceedingly high, and it seems clear they will only grow if left unabated. One may only hope those GOP elected officials fretting more about their next primary election contest than the country’s future might soon consider this distressing reality.

Notes

[1] “Donald Trump’s Announcement Speech,” Time, June 16, 2015, http://time.com/3923128/donald-trump-announcement-speech/ Accessed December 28, 2018.

[2] Kessler, Glenn. “President Trump says his ‘beautiful wall’ is being built. Nope.” The Washington Post, April 5, 2018.  https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/fact-checker/wp/2018/04/05/president-trump-says-his-beautiful-wall-is-being-built-nope/?utm_term=.ba39914c7629 Accessed December 28, 2018.

[3] Keith, Tamara, “FACT CHECK: Mexico Isn’t Paying for the Border Wall, Military Unlikely to Pay for It,” National Public Radio, December 20, 2018, https://www.npr.org/2018/12/20/678557749/fact-check-border-wall-funding  Accessed December 28, 2018.

[4] Shear, Michael and Thomas Gibbons-Neff, “Trump Sending 5,200 Troops to the Border in an Election-Season Response to Migrants,” The New York Times, October 29, 2018, https://www.nytimes.com/2018/10/29/us/politics/border-security-troops-trump.html  Accessed December 28, 2018.

[5] Qiu, Linda. “Fact-Checking Trump’s Rally in Missouri,” The New York Times, November 1, 2018, https://www.nytimes.com/2018/11/01/us/politics/trump-rally-missouri.html  Accessed December 28, 2018.

[6] Dawsey, Josh. “Trump derides protections for immigrants from ‘####hole’ countries,” The Washington Post, January 12, 2018, https://www.washingtonpost.com/politics/trump-attacks-protections-for-immigrants-from-shithole-countries-in-oval-office-meeting/2018/01/11/bfc0725c-f711-11e7-91af-31ac729add94_story.html?utm_term=.36c7dd61126a  Accessed December 28, 2018. 

[7] “Separation at the border: Children wait in Cages at South Texas Warehouse,” The Guardian, June 17, 2018, https://www.theguardian.com/us-news/2018/jun/17/separation-border-children-cages-south-texas-warehouse-holding-facility  Accessed December 28, 2018; Jordan, Miriam, “’A Breaking Point:’ Second Child’s Death Prompts New Procedures for Border Patrol Agency,” The New York Times, December 26, 2018,  https://www.nytimes.com/2018/12/26/us/felipe-alonzo-gomez-customs-border-patrol.html   Accessed December 28, 2018.

Publication Date

January 7, 2019

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