Everyone knows that Donald Trump has called Mexican immigrants “rapists” and criminals. But what he actually articulated in his infamous June 2015 announcement speech was not just standard racism but a profoundly bizarre conspiracy theory with roots in the far-right white nationalist anti-immigrant movement.
“When Mexico sends its people, they’re not sending their best,” he said. “They’re not sending you. They’re sending people that have lots of problems, and they’re bringing those problems with us. They’re bringing drugs. They’re bringing crime. They’re rapists. And some, I assume, are good people.”
His theory: “The Mexican Government is forcing their most unwanted people into the United States.”
The idea is not that Mexicans are all rapists, but that the Mexican government is intentionally selecting their social refuse and offloading them on the United States. It might not be as offensive as his calling immigrants rapists but it’s an important window into how Trump thinks. This aspect of Trump’s theory on why immigrants come, however, is often overshadowed by his scathing characterization of who immigrants are.
But the notion that the Mexican government is sending immigrants here is part and parcel of a conspiracist framework that shapes Trump’s entire worldview and approach to governance: dull-witted American leaders, he repeatedly intones, are being duped and outwitted by foreigners. A Trump presidency will school those leaders in the art of the deal.
"Our leaders are stupid, our politicians are stupid, and the Mexican government is much smarter, much sharper, much more cunning, and they send the bad ones over because they don't want to pay for them, they don't want to take care of them,” Trump said in the first Republican primary debate in August 2015. “Why should they, when the stupid leaders of the United States will do it for them? And that’s what’s happening, whether you like it or not."
In fact, the notion that the Mexican government is orchestrating an invasion of the United States has been a staple on the white nationalist far right for years.
“This is a longstanding conspiracy theory on the radical right,” said Mark Potok, a senior fellow at the Southern Poverty Law Center. “There have been claims for the better part of ten years now that Mexico is secretly planning to reconquer the American Southwest.”
That conspiracy to take over the Southwest goes by the names Plan de Aztlán (taken from a 1969 Chicano movement manifesto) and “the Reconquista,” or Reconquest. One theory is that it will happen through the “birth canal,” meaning that Mexican women are being sent to the United States to give birth to lots of children and take power through sheer demographic force. The other is that it will take place through force of arms. The Federation for American Immigration Reform, one of the most extreme but influential anti-immigrant organizations, has lent its support to the theory.
“It boils down to the claim that Mexico is consciously infiltrating its citizens into the United States in order to take back the lands lost to the Americans,” said Potok.
A 2006 article in FrontPage Magazine, for example, described “the Mexican invasion of the United States” as “a campaign to occupy and gain power over our country — a project encouraged, abetted, and organized by the Mexican state and supported by the leading elements of Mexican society.”
In 2005, anti-immigrant advocates seized on the Mexican government’s distribution of a safety guide to migrants as evidence that the government was coordinating their outmigration for the economic purpose of ensuring remittances. Rick Oltman of FAIR reportedly said the books were evidence of “the Mexican government trying to protect its most valuable export, which is illegal migrants."
The theory probably originated, said Potok, in a small group called American Patrol, based in Southern Arizona, and was popular amongst Minutemen anti-immigrant militiamen during their heyday, from the mid to late 2000s.
“It’s a conspiracy theory that began in a tiny hate group on the Arizona border that has spread far and wide and quite deeply penetrated the mainstream,” said Potok.
In 2014, a video circulated of a man who described himself as a former Border Patrol agent, who charged that the influx of refugee children was an act of “asymmetrical warfare” carried out by unnamed malignant forces so that they could sneak in drugs and chemical and biological weapons (he also put suggested that the Ebola outbreak in Africa was spread by intentional conspiracy). The video was cited by right-wing figures including former Congressman Allen West.
Others, including former Texas Gov. Rick Perry, accused the U.S. government of being complicit in coordinating the wave of Central American child refugees. That taps into the notion, said Potok, that President Obama wants immigrants and refugees to come to the United States because they will be future Democratic voters. It’s also part of a broader theory that dangerous forces abroad are allied with an internal fifth column of liberals who are aiding the enemy for their own nefarious purposes.
These sorts of conspiracies are not limited to immigration: the far right that has taken over the Republican Party incorporates a whole range of extreme theories rooted in the Cold War paranoia of the John Birch Society (which believed that the civil rights movement was a communist plot and more recently mainstreamed the notion that the United Nations was scheming to destroy the American way of life in the name of environmentalism) and the rantings of Alex Jones and his Infowars empire.
Trump makes a similar but even more sinister argument when he suggests that President Obama is resettling Syrian refugees because he is being fooled by a conspiracy to attack America or may be complicit in it. “Why is he so emphatic on not solving the problem?” Trump asked. “There’s something we don’t know about. There’s something we don’t know about.”
Trump’s position on free trade likewise reflects this worldview. While he does argue that global trade is organized to advantage elites at the expense of workers—echoing criticisms that are also common on the left—the centerpiece of his plan for trade is to “appoint the toughest and smartest trade negotiators to fight on behalf of American workers.”
American leaders have simply been crappy negotiators, he contends. And he will be a much, much better one.
“The most important component of our China policy is leadership and strength at the negotiating table,” according to his website.
There are (to oversimplify matters) two basic radical critiques of the way the world works. One is left-wing and systematic. It takes account of various roles played by different classes and groupings in large economic and political processes. Trump subscribes to the other framework, a form of conspiracist thinking long popular on the far right: contemporary economic problems are created by small cliques in smoky rooms rather than by the fact that labor’s bargaining power against business has been undercut across the board.
This worldview offers another possible explanation as to why Trump went to Mexico to meet with President Enrique Peña Nieto on Wednesday. It was an opportunity not only for Trump to look presidential but also to present himself as the savvy negotiator that is at the core of his personal brand. Perhaps he not only asked Peña to build the wall, but to stop sending his people here as well.
The reality, of course, is that Mexico doesn’t decide which immigrants come to the United States; immigrants experiencing complex social and economic realities do. But conspiratorial explanations become increasingly appealing as the global forces that shape people’s lives become ever more abstract. Trump isn’t just tapping into racist sentiment. He’s channeling a right-wing account of how the world works that is no longer relegated to the fringe.