If you doubted that the 2020 presidential campaign will be the ugliest you've ever experienced, the past few days should have disabused you of that. It's been a descent into grotesque racism and xenophobia on a level we haven't seen in our national politics for many decades. And it's not just a matter of Donald Trump acting out and having one of his regular tantrums. There's a rationale behind his behavior that's extremely disturbing.
As everyone is well aware by now — or should be — the refugee camps at the border are a national disgrace. If this was happening in another country (and if we had a different president) the United States would be leading the charge to condemn what was happening. The plight of families, particularly the kids, is an ongoing nightmare and Trump seems determined to exploit the pain and suffering of these vulnerable people to keep the country in a constant state of hysteria.
I noted last week that Trump had mentioned in passing that he wanted to take reporters to a recently cleaned-up facility featuring happy, well-fed children to prove how "fake" the reports of cruel and disgusting conditions were. So last Friday officials rounded up the vice president and a couple of senators, including Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., and Mike Lee, R-Utah, and brought them in for an "inspection." The propaganda ploy was exactly as one might expect: The kids were in a new, air-conditioned facility and seemed to be well cared for.
But even after observing and writing about the Trump administration's depraved use of xenophobia, racism and general fear-mongering for years now, I'm never quite prepared for the depths to which they will sink. I assumed they were doing this because they believed they needed to reassure their own voters of their basic humanity. I was wrong. The visit to the kiddie-camp was a little sop to some embarrassed churchgoers and the press. What Team Trump really wanted their voters to see was another camp — the one with hundreds of single, dark-skinned men in overcrowded cages, sleeping on concrete floors, desperately trying to get the attention of the exalted visitors from Washington to let them know what was going on.
As I see it, Trump officials wanted to reassure their voters that they were treating the scary brown people with much cruelty as they could get away with.
The Washington Post described it like this:
When Vice President Pence visited a migrant detention center here Friday, he saw nearly 400 men crammed behind caged fences with not enough room for them all to lie down on the concrete ground. There were no mats or pillows for those who found the space to rest. A stench from body odor hung stale in the air. When reporters toured the facility before Pence, the men screamed that they’d been held there 40 days, some longer. They said they were hungry and wanted to brush their teeth. It was sweltering hot, but the only water was outside the fences and they needed to ask permission from the Border Patrol agents to drink.
Pence appeared to scrunch his nose when entering the facility, stayed for a moment and left.
The men told reporters they hadn't been allowed a shower for as long as 40 days in some cases. There have been reports that the CPB officers' uniforms are so inundated with the smell of hundreds of unbathed humans in a small space that the local townspeople avoid them.
Pence objected to media coverage of this event over the weekend, complaining that they failed to show the nice pictures of the happy children and instead focused on the misery of all those men caged up like animals. But you'll notice that he immediately turns to the claim that many of the men were criminals, a charge Trump himself made over the weekend as well.
I'll say it again: If they hadn't wanted people to see those men being held in inhumane conditions, they wouldn't have gone there with the press in tow.
Lindsey Graham made it very clear what they were up to. “I don’t care if they have to stay in these facilities for 400 days," he said. "We’re not going to let those men go that I saw. It would be dangerous.” That's right: Apparently he could tell that they were dangerous just by looking at them.
He must be as psychic as acting Border Patrol head Mark Morgan, who told Tucker Carlson, “I’ve been to detention facilities where I’ve walked up to these individuals that are so-called minors, 17 or under. I’ve looked at them — and I’ve looked at their eyes, Tucker — and I’ve said, ‘That is a soon-to-be MS-13 gang member.’ It’s unequivocal.”
So it's no coincidence, I'm sure, that in the same week Trump announced that ICE would be conducting raids around the country to round up alleged criminals who have managed to avoid being thrown in cages, after which they will either be jailed or deported or both. Reports from major cities show that immigrant communities are now living in the grip of a terrible fear, which is half the point of doing it. The other half is to make Republican voters believe that Donald Trump is as tough and macho as he constantly proclaims himself to be.
I was prepared to call Pence's border tour the most insidious public demonstration of bigotry we'd seen in many a moon. But Trump took it to a whole other level on Sunday with his openly racist tweets about the four freshman Democratic women of color, in which he basically told them to go back to their shithole countries.
This escalation of bigotry is no coincidence. I'm not saying that Trump sat down and strategized all this. He doesn't do that. But he has a well-honed feral instinct about the ugly underbelly of American life and he knows how to make it work for him. As Peter Baker of the New York Times put it:
His assumption that the House Democrats must have been born in another country — or that they did not belong here if they were — fits an us-against-them political strategy that has been at the heart of Mr. Trump’s presidency from the start. Heading into next year’s election, he appears to be drawing a deep line between the white, native-born America of his memory and the ethnically diverse, increasingly foreign-born country he is presiding over, challenging voters in 2020 to declare which side of that line they are on.
Democrats can argue among themselves about ideology over the next year or so if they wish. But essentially, that's what the 2020 election is going to be about whether they like it or not. Trump welcomes it because he believes that most Americans are as racist as he is and that he will be rewarded for this indecency with a second term. Expect this bigoted talk to ratchet up to levels we never imagined could be uttered in 21st-century America before this is all over. It already has.