Presidential adviser Stephen K. Bannon at a panel discussion at the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) on Feb. 23 in Washington, D.C.
(Bill O’Leary/The Washington Post)

No issue was more central to President Trump’s campaign — and to Stephen K. Bannon’s world outlook — than demonizing immigrants and slowing the decline (demographically and culturally) of white, Christian America by keeping foreigners out. As one commentator puts it:

Characterized primarily by a knee-jerk hostility towards Hispanic immigrants and Muslims, ethnotribalism constitutes one of the more repulsive aspects of the reactionary guard’s thinking. White House advisor Stephen Miller has repeatedly expressed his deep hatred of American multiculturalism, and Breitbart has become the leading platform for nativist populism. Such forms of “racial nationalism” have always been present in American politics. This was the case in the days of Lindbergh and the America First Committee (which Michael Anton has described as having been “unfairly maligned”), or during the 2000 presidential campaign of Pat Buchanan, during which he suggested erecting a sea wall to stop “immigrants sweeping over our southern border.” This is the first time, however, that ethno-tribalists have found themselves in such positions of power. Ethno-tribalism also helps explain the international far-right’s fascination for Vladimir Putin. Indeed, from the French Front National to the German National Democratic Party, the Russian autocrat has become an object of reverence—a symbol of white nationalism and martial virility in the face of creeping Islamic expansionism. The so-called American alt-right is no exception to this trend, even though Stephen Bannon has expressed a certain wariness vis-a-vis Putin’s “imperialism” in the past.

Trump and Bannon’s contrived hysteria about immigration — stoked by exaggerated fears of crime and economic illiteracy — was arguably the most emotionally pungent message of his campaign.

That has translated into the mainstreaming of characters like Rep. Steve King (R-Iowa), as Max Boot points out:

On March 12, he posted a tweet praising the Dutch far-right leader Geert Wilders, who wants to close mosques, ban the Quran, and end Muslim immigration. “Wilders understands that culture and demographics are our destiny,” King wrote. “We can’t restore our civilization with somebody else’s babies.” The next morning he was given a chance on CNN to back off this revolting statement, which has been praised by David Duke and which led the neo-Nazi newspaper the Daily Stormer to exult: “Steve King is basically an open white nationalist at this point. … He is our guy.” King didn’t flinch, saying, “Well, I meant exactly what I said.”

The White House press secretary meekly distanced Trump from King’s remarks (“not a point of view that he shares”) but could not very well repudiate him. The connection between King and Trump/Bannon’s worldviews is too close. “This is how the Bannons and Kings view the modern world: The West is threatened by hordes of swarthy outsiders, especially Mexicans and Muslims, and they are lonely defenders of the white Christian race against this insidious threat,” Boot explains. That mind-set is at the root of its “building a border wall, expanding deportations, and trying to keep out citizens of as many Muslim countries as possible. This isn’t about fighting terrorism or crime; it’s about fighting changing demographics. And it’s premised on an unspoken assumption that only white Christians are true Americans; all others are ‘somebody else.'” And as we have pointed out, a disturbingly high percentage of Republicans share the assumption about American identity.

This a-factual, visceral distaste for outsiders has tripped up Trump time and time again when voters and courts see what his views entail.

His Muslim ban, for example, has been shot down repeatedly and internal documents from Homeland Security undercut the national security arguments. It’s not about security but about keeping out those “hordes of swarthy outsiders, especially Mexicans and Muslims.” Trump keeps telling the truth about his motives — and the courts keep knocking down the bans.

Likewise, Trump’s expansion of the “priorities” for deportation (changing from serious crimes to just about anything) has stoked a backlash when sympathetic victims come to the public’s attention.  It’s always easier to dislike an undefined mass of outsiders than to see a particular individual harmed. (To paraphrase Josef Stalin’s observation, that the deportation of one person is a tragedy; the deportation of one million is a statistic Trump can brag about.)

In fact, with new coverage of the plight of immigrants swept up in Trump’s raids, the public is becoming more sympathetic toward legalization — “amnesty” in the parlance of the anti-immigration crowd. A new CNN/ORC poll finds that “60% say the government’s top priority in dealing with illegal immigration should be developing a plan to allow those in the US illegally who have jobs to become legal residents. In contrast, 26% say developing a plan to stop illegal border crossings should be the top priority and 13% say deportation of those in the US illegally should be the first priority.” That is a big jump for opposition to mass deportation, even among Republicans:

The number who prioritize legal status for those working in the US illegally is up from 51% who said so last fall. That shift comes across party lines, with Democrats and independents each 10 points more likely and Republicans 8 points more likely to choose a plan for legal status now compared with last fall. . . . As for deportation priorities, seven in 10 say the government should not attempt to deport all immigrants living in the country illegally, up from 66% in the fall.

And the kicker is that 90 percent favor giving citizenship to those “illegal immigrants who have been in this country for a number of years, hold a job, speak English and are willing to pay any back taxes that they owe.” That was exactly what the Gang of Eight bill envisioned.

In short, nothing was more central to Trump/Bannon than their ethno-nationalist fear-mongering, which played to the sense of alienation and displacement many white working-class Americans felt. The strategy was  simple: Give them a scapegoat, rather than address complex problems. It’s a strategy employed for centuries by autocrats, bigots and charlatans. There is also nothing more un-American and violative of our historical and constitutional traditions. Let’s hope and pray Trump/Bannon have awoken a sleeping giant — the conscience of good and decent Americans.