The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Trump turns to Europe’s far right as he detains Latin American children

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A popular explanation of President Trump's politics argues that his success has less to do with ideology than personality. After all, the real estate tycoon-turned-reality television star is accustomed to wearing different hats. He has changed his party affiliation and can shift his views for the sake of expediency and self-aggrandizement. When the outside world expresses bafflement with the president's decision-making, insiders and political reporters point out his impatience, his impulsiveness and his preference for gut instinct over strategy.

But this week, we're seeing Trump's core political ideas come into focus. The administration's decision to forcibly separate thousands of migrant children from their families along the U.S.-Mexico border has turned into a political showdown. Lawmakers from both parties have decried the policy, which Trump falsely pins on his opponents. On Tuesday, Mexico's foreign minister deemed the separations “cruel and inhumane.”

“The Trump administration implemented this policy by choice and could end it by choice. No law or court ruling mandates family separations,” noted The Washington Post's Fact Checker. “In fact, during its first 15 months, the Trump administration released nearly 100,000 immigrants who were apprehended at the U.S.-Mexico border, a total that includes more than 37,500 unaccompanied minors and more than 61,000 family members.”

Trump, though, has dug in, rejecting criticism of his actions and seeking to leverage the detained children's plight to get Democrats on board with legislation that will fund his long-desired wall along the Mexican border. But he didn't stop there.

On Tuesday, Trump tweeted a warning about “illegal immigrants” infesting the nation. It was a jarring, dehumanizing phrase that echoed the remarks he made last month calling immigrants who are alleged criminals “animals.” He continued to claim that immigrants automatically cause crime, lying about German crime statistics to bolster his case. And he warned during a speech that the supposed threat of migration must be kept at bay.

“The United States will not be a migrant camp, and it will not be a refugee holding facility,” Trump said. “You look at what’s happening in Europe, you look at what’s happening in other places. We can’t allow that to happen to the United States. Not on my watch.”

Readers of Today's WorldView are well aware this is perhaps the most consistent line of argument offered by the president, reaching all the way to his campaign for the White House. Trump has repeatedly invoked the xenophobic talking points of Europe's far right and applied them to the United States, whipping up nativism in his base. While his demagoguery on immigration may draw rebukes from various corners of the Republican establishment, Trump and his close advisers are not bothered, and the overwhelming majority of GOP lawmakers have thus far fallen into line.

The party has moved steadily to the right, embracing the blood-and-soil politics of the once-fringe European factions that erstwhile Trump adviser Stephen K. Bannon believes are forging “a brave new world.” Like their far-right counterparts in Germany, France and Italy, Trump's GOP is animated by a profound sense of grievance with the elite, a nationalism hostile to certain minorities in their midst and a climate of hysteria that rejects mainstream media and spreads conspiracy theories.

“People don’t turn out to say thank you,” said Corey Lewandowski, once Trump's campaign manager, to the New York Times, explicitly arguing that the scenes on the border would generate support for Trump. “If you want to get people motivated, you’ve got to give them a reason to vote. Saying ‘build the wall and stop illegals from coming in and killing American citizens’ gives them an important issue.”

A flurry of polls this week suggest that two-thirds of Americans oppose Trump's policy of separating migrant children from their parents. Nevertheless, only about a third of Republicans disagree with the measures — a sign of the political polarization that Trump has weaponized throughout his presidency.

A separate poll published this week also found a majority of Republicans harboring negative attitudes toward Muslims, who are also frequent targets of Trump’s fearmongering. It found that some 20 percent of Americans “would deny Muslims who are American citizens the right to vote.”

Of course, it shouldn't be a surprise that Trump is following through on the nativist agenda that defined his campaign. But it's less clear what lasting effects he may have on American society and democracy.

“The president is winning anytime the country is focused on immigration — polls and bad headlines be damned,” wrote McKay Coppins in the Atlantic, referring to the thinking of influential anti-immigrant White House adviser Stephen Miller. “His bet appears to be that voters will witness this showdown between Trump and his angry antagonists, and ultimately side with the president.”

That could still be a losing bet, but it has proved successful elsewhere. Italy’s new far-right interior minister, Matteo Salvini, came to power via a platform promising mass deportations of migrants. This week, he proposed a census of the country's Roma minority in a bid to deport those who are found not to be Italians. Chiara Gribaudo, a deputy from the center-left Democratic Party, told reporters “the way is short from a census to a concentration camp” — yet Salvini and his party are only gaining in popularity (more on that below).

You could argue that that is hyperbole, but the specter of “concentration camps” looms over the American conversation, with accounts (and audio) of migrant children wailing behind chain fences now haunting the administration. On a friendly Fox News broadcast, Attorney General Jeff Sessions dismissed comparisons to a much darker era of internment and discrimination. “It’s a real exaggeration,” he said. “In Nazi Germany, they were keeping the Jews from leaving the country.”

“ ‘We aren’t exactly like the Nazis; we’re just separating children from their parents indefinitely and holding them in detention camps,’ ” Vox noted, “isn’t exactly a compelling brief for the Trump policy.” But it's certainly a sign of the times.

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