The latest bit of ridiculousness from the Trump administration followed a pattern that is already familiar: the President says something not just false but ludicrously false; his aides scramble to convince reporters that what he said was actually true and fail miserably, only making themselves look foolish in the attempt; what follows is a wave of withering fact-checks and mockery; and the whole thing serves to reinforce Trump’s opponents’ view that he’s a liar and his supporters’ view that the media are out to get him and can’t be trusted.
But if we take a step back, there’s a different way to understand what’s going on. Donald Trump and his allies want Americans to exist in a state of perpetual fear. That will help maintain his support (such as it is) and give him the ability to justify not only the kind of white nationalist policies he has already promised, but even more draconian moves and expansions of his power that he will surely attempt once there’s a terrorist attack he can exploit.
So yesterday, Trump told military personnel in a speech at MacDill Air Force Base that the media are covering up terrorist attacks. “It’s gotten to a point where it’s not even being reported,” he said. “And in many cases the very, very dishonest press doesn’t want to report it. They have their reasons, and you understand that.”
Pressed to provide evidence of this massive conspiracy to cover up the threat of terrorism, Trump’s aides produced a list of attacks it said were ignored by the media, which included such items as the attacks in San Bernardino, Paris, and Orlando — which you may recall received monumental news coverage — and some obscure cases in which, for instance, someone stabbed and wounded a police officer in Copenhagen, which was apparently not given the blanket coverage Trump feels it deserved.
This is, of course, positively farcical. So why does it matter? Some have suggested that there’s a short-term strategy at work. As Major Garrett of CBS News said, the administration “knows these events were covered and the accusation would lead news organizations to remind their audiences of the events, thereby at least partially distracting from the legal woes the President’s immigration order is facing in the courts.” It’s possible, but that’s not an explanation for why Trump said it in the first place. He doesn’t do seven-dimensional chess, he acts and speaks on impulse. And distraction is not the point.
The truth, of course, is that saying Americans aren’t afraid enough of terrorism is like saying we as a nation aren’t paying enough attention to the Kardashians. The number of Americans who have been killed here at home by jihadi terrorists since 9/11 is fewer than 100 — you are literally more likely to get struck by lightning than killed by a terrorist. But it’s vital to Trump that Americans exist in a state of ongoing fear.
Trump’s presidency, like his campaign, is built on a set of powerful negative emotions: fear, hate, disgust, contempt, resentment. When Americans think of the world outside our borders, he wants us to think of two things: foreigners that are ripping us off, and foreigners that are trying to kill us.
These ideas are already being translated into policy, and it’s just getting started. Consider this bill just unveiled by Senator Tom Cotton:
The outspoken, 39-year-old Cotton has written the first in what may be a series of bills to revamp the nation’s immigration system. Cotton will start off with legislation being unveiled Tuesday that will dramatically slash the number of immigrants who can obtain green cards and other visas every year….
All told, the number of legal immigrants allowed into the United States under the bill — named the Reforming American Immigration for Strong Employment (RAISE) Act — would plummet by 40 percent in the first year and by 50 percent over a decade, according to analysis by Cotton’s aides.
For many years, the standard GOP line was, “I support legal immigration, it’s just illegal immigration I want to stop.” Not so anymore. Keep in mind that the next Attorney General, Jeff Sessions, was for years the foremost opponent of comprehensive immigration reform in the Senate. And Steve Bannon, the President’s policy and political architect, has long wanted to limit legal immigration, not because immigrants are a drain on the system but because they’re too successful and would take high-paying jobs from native-born Americans. If Trump’s ban on travel from seven Muslim countries survives its journey through the courts, you can bet that more countries are going to be added to the list.
The unifying principle here is fear. The administration wants us to be afraid of immigrants to justify border walls and deportations, and afraid of terrorists to justify travel bans and closing the doors to refugees. That’s why, for instance, inserted in one of Trump’s executive orders was an instruction to “on a weekly basis, make public a comprehensive list of criminal actions committed by aliens and any jurisdiction that ignored or otherwise failed to honor any detainers with respect to such aliens.”
It’s unclear whether the “and” was supposed to read “in” — meaning they’d publish a list of crimes committed by immigrants in sanctuary cities — but regardless, this is a classic technique used by demagogues and authoritarian governments against disfavored groups. If you wanted, you could find thousands of crimes committed by left-handed Lutherans, but you’d only gather and publish that list if your goal was to encourage people to hate and fear them.
What is all this leading to? We need to be seriously concerned about a Reichstag Fire scenario, in which some dramatic event like a terrorist attack occurs, and the administration moves swiftly to exploit it for its own ends. We’ve been through that before, and not that long ago. After the attacks of September 11, 2001, Congress rushed to pass the USA PATRIOT Act, giving the government sweeping new powers to monitor, detain, and spy on Americans. In the atmosphere of fear and anger, it was passed 357-66 in the House and 98-1 in the Senate.
That happened under the Bush administration, which in retrospect looks moderate and thoughtful compared to this one. There will be some kind of terrorist attack eventually, simply because they’re a regular occurrence. Maybe one person will be killed, or five, or 50. When it happens, Trump will say, “See? You should be afraid, just like I told you.”
Then he’ll demand (or just assume) new powers to deal with the alleged emergency. Will the Republican Congress stand up to him? Don’t bet on it.