Doubling down on fear: Attacks on immigrants, trans people fit an ugly Republican pattern

Facing what could be a sweeping defeat next month, Trump and Republicans play to the their supporters' paranoia

Published October 23, 2018 2:15PM (EDT)

Central American migrants walking to the U.S. start their day departing Ciudad Hidalgo, Mexico, Sunday, Oct. 21, 2018.  (Getty/AP/Salon)
Central American migrants walking to the U.S. start their day departing Ciudad Hidalgo, Mexico, Sunday, Oct. 21, 2018. (Getty/AP/Salon)

“Every time you see a Caravan,” President Donald Trump tweeted Monday morning, “or people illegally coming, or attempting to come, into our Country illegally, think of and blame the Democrats for not giving us the votes to change our pathetic Immigration Laws! Remember the Midterms! So unfair to those who come in legally.”

It was another in a long line of Trump tweets hitting the theme of illegal immigration hard in the past few days. His tweets have largely concerned the “caravan,” a group of migrants from Central America who have been moving through Mexico, apparently heading for the American border. Following Trump’s cue, media have deemed them “an army” or “a crisis,” and with each passing hour the rhetoric from Trump has increased. Later on Monday, he cited an unsourced and entirely evidence-free rumor that “unknown Middle Easterners” were with the group, an obvious attempt to suggest that terrorists were planning to sneak into the country on false humanitarian grounds. He even suggested he would cut off foreign aid to countries unwilling to stop the caravan.

As we all know, illegal immigration has been a winner for Donald Trump, who staked his future on the question when he announced his candidacy for president in June of 2015 by singling out Mexico, saying that nation was sending criminals, drug dealers and rapists across the border. Now, facing the prospect of a “blue wave” and a possible Democratic majority in Congress, he’s returning to the old rhetoric in an attempt to move his supporters to the polls.

This narrative has been bolstered in recent weeks by critiques of progressive or leftist activists, suggesting that they are “mobs” dangerous to the social order. These have included PAC attack ads that show alarming footage of Antifa members and violent upheaval. Trump himself said of the Democrats, “you don’t hand matches to an arsonist, and you don’t give power to an angry, Left-Wing mob.” His attacks in recent weeks have involved the incendiary and blatantly false claims that Democrats are in favor of open borders and a lawless society.

This desperate or aggressive appeal to fear has increased as polls have shown Democrats gaining momentum heading into the Nov. 6 midterm elections. Perhaps no development has signified that desperation more than a Sunday story in the New York Times that reported the Trump administration was considering “narrowly defining gender” in “the most drastic move yet in a governmentwide effort to roll back recognition and protections of transgender people.” The news was met with understandable shock in the transgender community.

Despite Trump’s continued toeing of the conservative line on most policy questions, many have believed that the LGBTQ community might avoid coming under his eye. Trump has long trumpeted his tolerance and affinity, at least on a personal level, and in earlier years defined himself as pro-gay rights (as well as pro-choice). But what we see now is an embattled president willing to leave no stone unturned in attempting to ward off an oppositional Congress that could conceivably impeach him, or at least make his remaining tenure much less comfortable through its oversight and subpoena power.

This is hardly unprecedented. Republicans have long made it their strategy to head into midterm elections with an eye toward alarmist rhetoric and appeals meant to rally their aging, socially conservative base.

Almost exactly 12 years ago, President George W. Bush made waves as he took the stage in Sellersburg, Indiana, and attempted to rally his base via the same tactics. After years touting himself as a “compassionate conservative,” Bush shed his meek appearance and told the crowd that Democrats “did not want to investigate, prosecute or even detain terrorists and had no plan for Iraq.” That incendiary rhetoric used the still-fresh 9/11 to paint the opposition party as disloyal and un-American. It’s easy to draw a line from this to Trump’s current appeals to portray Democrats as willing to hand the country over to illegal immigrants, as well as those “unknown Middle Easterners.”

In another move that surprised even some of Bush’s more ardent supporters in 2006, he also mentioned a recent decision by the New Jersey Supreme Court that determined same-sex couples were entitled to equal rights. Bush decried the judges as “activists” and said, “We believe that marriage is a union between a man and a woman and should be defended.” For that defense, Bush touted his confirmation of Samuel Alito and John Roberts to the Supreme Court, and promised to continue his battle to defeat same-sex marriage.

It bears mentioning that the 2006 midterms resulted in a massive defeat for the Republican Party. Democrats regained control of the House and Senate, with Nancy Pelosi becoming the first female House speaker. That contest was such a rout that the Democratic Party didn’t lose a single incumbent. No doubt Bush’s lack of popularity, which hovered in the 30-percent range, his disastrous failure with Hurricane Katrina (which mirrors Trump’s tragic mishandling of Hurricane Maria) and the constant bad new from Iraq hampered Republicans heading into November 2006, but it’s also true that the GOP offered no major policy initiatives or proposals that year.

In tones strikingly similar to those we hear today, Republicans staked their entire attempt to save their majority in 2006 on appeals to fear. Instead of proposing a way forward to make people’s lives better, they reached into the past to find those things that made their voters uneasy. Back then, it was terrorism and same-sex marriage. Today, it’s illegal immigrants (with scary, “unknown” terrorists mixed in for good measure) and transgender rights.

It remains to be seen how this appeal will work for Republicans in 2018. If polling is to believed, the long-awaited “blue wave” is almost here, whatever form that may take. History does, in fact, repeat itself, meaning we’re in for sharpening attacks from the sitting president and more attempts to stoke the fear and uncertainty of the time. If the results are true to form and these attempts fail, we could be looking at a sea change of historic proportions.

By Jared Yates Sexton

Jared Yates Sexton is the author of "American Rule: How A Nation Conquered the World but Failed Its People," to be published in September by Dutton Books. Currently is an associate professor of writing at Georgia Southern University.

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