"Violent anarchists" are the new "migrant caravans" — and will flop just as badly

Trump already tried to distract voters from health care with racist paranoia — and that was before the pandemic

By Amanda Marcotte

Senior Writer

Published July 24, 2020 1:01PM (EDT)

U.S. President Donald Trump (Drew Angerer/Getty Images)
U.S. President Donald Trump (Drew Angerer/Getty Images)

In 2018, Donald Trump's very-stable-genius plan to win the midterm elections for Republicans was to hype the hell out of a so-called caravan of Central American refugees who were crossing Mexico in hopes of seeking asylum in the United States. About 7,000 people, mostly consisting of families with children, were indeed making the 2,500-mile trek to escape poverty and gang violence, but Trump and his Republican sycophants tried to convince American voters that they were coming to the U.S. to kill white people and burn down the suburbs. Through his preferred media of Twitter and Fox News, Trump endlessly hyped the "invasion" of these migrants, and suggesting they might be terrorists, and were coming to create gang warfare, not escape it

The nonstop fear-mongering about the caravan did work its magic on the ever-gullible mainstream news media. A Media Matters study published two weeks before the election showed a precipitous rise in cable news coverage of what would have otherwise been a minor story, as similar caravans had been in previous years. 

But if Trump and his minions succeeded in hijacking the news cycle with their racist hysterics, they failed in their goal of winning the 2018 midterm elections. While Republicans certainly leveraged their unfair electoral advantages to maintain a wildly disproportionate share of power, Democrats racked up historic wins, retaking the House of Representatives with a 40-seat pickup, as well as winning seven governorships and hundreds of state legislature seats. 

While the news media let Trump's racist hype machine around the caravan drive their coverage, the actual voters were worried about an issue that had fallen out of the headlines 15 months prior: Health care, by far the biggest concern cited by voters in 2018 exit polls

Trump and the Republicans had tried to repeal the Affordable Health Care in the summer of 2017, failing only at the last minute when Sen. John McCain voted against the effort. But while McCain may have blunted the impact slightly, Democrats were still able to run a bunch of ads and hold numerous events highlighting the fact that Trump wanted to take away people's health insurance. The strategy worked not only to win that election, but to keep the health care issue central to voters' concerns, no matter how much Trump was hyping racist fears. 

Now it's time for another, even more important election and Trump, never one to believe that he was wrong just because he failed, is pulling out the same playbook. He's replaced "caravan" with phrases like "professional anarchists, violent mobs or arsonists, looters, criminals, rioters, antifa," all terms he uses to describe the largely peaceful protesters who have been  demonstrating against police brutality and racism since May. 

It's essentially the same trick: Taking a group of people who are both peaceful and in fact genuinely opposed to violence  — refugees who are fleeing violence, protesters who object to police brutality — and portraying them as a threat to life and limb (and most importantly, to property) of "real" Americans, defined as people who are sure Jesus was white. 

Naturally, Fox News and other Republican camp followers are echoing the message in maximally hyperbolic terms, with Fox prime-time host Laura Ingraham declaring that if Joe Biden defeats Trump in November, "You will become the target for criminals, for radicals, and the cancel culture" who will destroy "our families, our kids, our churches, our schools, our whole way of life."

To bolster this message, Trump is sending federal police, outfitted to look like invading troops, into American cities to arrest people without cause, tear-gas groups of protesters and beat people, all to generate images of violence and chaos he can use to scare what he imagines to be a "silent majority"  of scared white people cowering in their suburban homes. With his usual lack of subtlety, Trump even tweeted Thursday that the "Suburban Housewives of America" should believe that "Biden will destroy your neighborhood." (He appears unaware that most women with children under 18 at home work outside the home.) 

But there is no reason to believe this strategy will work for him. As I wrote on Thursday, all the polling so far suggests that voters accurately perceive that Trump's crackdowns are the source of violence, not the protesters themselves. As Jamelle Bouie of the New York Times pointed out on Friday, there is "a silent majority in this country," but it opposes Trump's racism and fear-mongering. 

Perhaps more importantly, however, that silent majority cares a lot about protecting access to health care. They cared in 2018, when those concerns secured massive wins for Democrats in the midterms. They cared in 2019, when Democrat Andy Beshear won the gubernatorial race in Kentucky — a state Trump won by 30 percentage points — in large part because the previous Republican governor, Matt Bevin, kept finding ways to take away people's Medicaid

While there hasn't been much polling in recent months to gauge the highest-priority issues, it's a safe bet that these health care-sensitive voters aren't particularly pleased with the way that Trump and the Republicans have let the coronavirus wash over our country, infecting more than 4 million Americans and killing 144,000 as of Friday morning — with both infection rates and death rates sharply on the rise once again. 

Moreover, largely because Trump and the Senate Republicans have mishandled this crisis so badly, more than 5 million Americans have lost their health insurance since the pandemic hit. Many of these people are, or should have been, eligible for Medicaid coverage, but the refusal to expand Medicaid in 14 states, combined with massive Trump-era cuts to education and outreach programs have kept many Americans off the rolls. 

Trump's surprise victory in 2016 left many progressives wondering if he was some kind of political genius, even as he seems to think it's a brag-worthy event to pass a cognitive test used to determine if someone has debilitating dementia. But that election was a fluke in many ways, a true black swan event. Thanks to his pathological narcissism, Trump cannot imagine what it would like to worry about losing health care access, and also can't believe that other people might not be as racist as he is. So he's running a campaign strategy, if you can even call it that, reflecting the "concerns" of a pampered racist poisoned by Fox News, instead of the things American voters are actually worried about. So long as Democrats stay out of the Trumpian media morass and continue to advertise their superior policies on real issues people, they have nothing to fear from Trump's "anarchists and looters" strategy. 

By Amanda Marcotte

Amanda Marcotte is a senior politics writer at Salon and the author of "Troll Nation: How The Right Became Trump-Worshipping Monsters Set On Rat-F*cking Liberals, America, and Truth Itself." Follow her on Twitter @AmandaMarcotte and sign up for her biweekly politics newsletter, Standing Room Only.

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