The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Trump is ending the midterms like he started his presidential campaign: Ringing alarm bells about immigrants

President Trump wants to reduce legal and illegal immigration, but apparently has no qualms about scapegoating every immigrant in the process. (Video: JM Rieger/The Washington Post)
Placeholder while article actions load

From the moment Donald Trump launched his presidential bid in the lobby of Trump Tower more than three years ago, he made his candidacy about one issue: fear of immigrants coming across the southern border.

Now, President Trump is trying to make the dominant theme of the last week of the midterm campaign the same as the start of his own.

His focus on the caravan of migrants headed to the U.S. border, his decision to send an additional 5,200 troops there and now his claim that he wants to sign an executive order to end birthright citizenship for children born in the United States to noncitizens, all seem like transparent attempts to energize his supporters.

His contention in June 2015 that Mexicans coming to the United States were rapists and murderers set the tone for an “us vs. them” narrative that has carried through his presidency. It gave voice to a subset of Americans who resented the changing demographics of the country. While businesses such as NBC and Macy’s cut ties (literally: Macy’s actually stopped selling his ties) with Trump over his incendiary comments, expecting most Americans to be offended by his rhetoric, Trump has laid the foundation for a loyal base of voters.

For Democrats, the midterms have always been a referendum on Trump, and their vote is a way to send him a message. But for Republicans, without Trump’s name at the top of the ticket, it has been harder to rally their base in the same way. To have any chance of holding the House, Republicans need to match Democrats' enthusiasm at the polls. Elections are always a game of turnout, and this one is no different.

So how does Trump motivate his base? The best way he knows: by using inflammatory language and false or exaggerated claims meant to stoke fear and anger.

But fear works two ways. Trump’s gambit has the potential to backfire if it further emboldens Democrats in their quest to provide a buffer to the president.

A recent Washington Post-ABC News poll found that Republicans had lost ground on the issue of immigration. Half of voters surveyed said they preferred Democrats to handle the issue vs. 38 percent who preferred Republicans. That is a significant shift from 2015 when just 37 percent preferred Democrats and 40 percent Republicans.

Sen. Lindsey O. Graham (R-S.C.), one of Trump’s staunch allies in Congress, praised Trump’s promise of ending birthright citizenship and said he would introduce legislation to do so — a vow of congressional action makes control of Congress an even more vital component.

It could also motivate more Latino voters, who make up about 12 percent of all eligible voters, to go to the polls next week. The Latino voting bloc is considerable in places such as Arizona, Florida and Nevada, where there are many tough races. Efforts are in motion by Democrats to improve on a history of relatively low Hispanic turnout. Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton won 66 percent of the Latino vote in 2016.

The Washington Post’s James Hohmann has a great piece out of Pennsylvania focused on a Latina woman who has been ordered to return to El Salvador and is hoping the midterms will provide a buffer to Trump’s posturing against immigrants who are in the country illegally. She can’t vote herself, so she’s asking everyone she knows to vote with her in mind. She keeps a stack of voter registration forms on the counter at her store and asks all her shoppers to register if they’re eligible to vote.

"I’ve been paying my taxes all these years, and I do everything I’m supposed to do,” she told Hohmann. “I don’t know the reason they don’t want us here. We’re not on welfare. We work. I’ve never been on a food stamp. I’ve always worked to pay for my own food. The president thinks everybody is in gangs. We’re not!”