The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

That anti-immigrant ad is the essence of the Donald Trump presidency

Luis Bracamontes smirks in court as he is found guilty in the killing of two law enforcement officers in February. (Rich Pedroncelli/AP)

What’s shocking about the video President Trump shared on Wednesday afternoon isn’t the rhetoric.

The 45-second video highlights comments made by Luis Bracamontes, an immigrant in the country illegally who was convicted of murdering two law enforcement officials earlier this year. Bracamontes’s expletive-laden comments from the courtroom are interlaced with footage from the caravan of migrants walking north from southern Mexico. That caravan footage, of course, highlights a confrontation between the migrants and Mexican authorities when the group was first entering that country. The intent is unsubtle: These migrants, the ad suggests, could include more people like the gruesome Bracamontes.

It’s important at the outset to reiterate the points we made Wednesday. The caravan is nowhere near the U.S. border, making it unnecessary to send troops to confront them. Nor is there any indication that confronting the migrants is itself necessary. When a caravan of migrants arrived at the border this spring, the fraction of the group that had completed the journey sought entry at a border checkpoint to seek asylum. It wasn’t a mad rush across the border.

But, again: Not surprising rhetoric from Trump. Literally the first minutes of his presidential campaign included the unfounded assertion that immigrants entering the country from Mexico were criminals and rapists. Even the inclusion of vulgar language in a video shared by the president isn’t really surprising. Comparisons to past ads that subtly stoked racial fears fall apart because there’s no subtlety at all in this video. It’s simply explicit anti-immigrant fearmongering. (To claim that Trump’s only accusing undocumented immigrants of being dangerous is disingenuous, given that the caravan participants have not violated any U.S. immigration laws, as far as we know, and there’s no indication that they plan to.)

From nuclear war to swift boats, going on the attack during campaign season is a staple of U.S. politics. (Video: Adriana Usero/The Washington Post)

What’s surprising is that this is the vehicle Trump is using to close out the midterm elections. Unlike his campaign announcement, when the purported influx of criminal immigrants was blamed on America’s leaders, the new video explicitly blames Democrats for allowing Bracamontes into the U.S. (It’s not clear when he most recently entered the country after being deported to Mexico in 2001.) Trump had pledged that this would be the election of the caravan (and of the nomination fight over Justice Brett M. Kavanaugh, which Trump barely mentions), and so it has been. This video is the sort of thing that defines a political legacy, a document that will be used as an example and a benchmark for decades.

So why do it? Well, consider that Trump’s assertions that undocumented immigrants pose a criminal threat to the U.S. have been debunked repeatedly, including shortly after his campaign announcement. There’s plenty of evidence that immigrants generally commit crimes at lower rates than native-born Americans and there’s evidence that this holds for undocumented immigrants as well.

Notice, though, how Americans have responded to the question of a link between undocumented immigrants and serious crime over time, using polling from Pew Research Center, Quinnipiac University and CBS News. The poll questions vary, but are similar in broad strokes.

Over time, Democrats have become slightly less likely to say that undocumented immigrants commit more serious crimes than native-born Americans. In Pew’s polling, Republicans have gotten slightly more likely to say that there’s a connection. In Quinnipiac’s polling, though, all of which was conducted this year, there’s been a big spike in the percentage of Republicans and independents who hold that position. Quinnipiac’s question was slightly different from that of Pew and CBS, asking if immigrants committed more crime or not as opposed to more, the same or less. But agreement from Republicans soared from 34 to 45 percent while those who said immigrants didn’t commit more crime stayed about flat. The same was true for independents.

About a quarter of Americans believe undocumented immigrants commit more crime than native-born Americans, led by Republicans. That’s whom Trump is talking to with this ad. That’s the frustration and anger he’s hoping to stoke — that base of voters who were stoked by his rhetoric in 2015. That’s where this conversation is happening and that’s whom Trump’s video is targeting.

But even as the percentage of Republicans who believe that undocumented immigrants commit more serious crime has climbed, about half of Republicans still reject that idea. Seven in 10 independents do, as well. Whether Trump realizes his pitch is rejected by more members of his party than support it, that’s the effect.

In fact, as we reported in June, support for immigration hasn’t been as robust as it is now since Gallup started asking about it two decades ago. Three-quarters of Americans see immigration as a good thing — even without the qualifier of legal immigration. About as many Americans say immigration should be increased as decreased, a first since the 1960s.

This is the defining pattern of Trump’s presidency. A fervent, escalating erroneous, race-based appeal to a small group of Americans who are energized to march to the polls. A hope the media will do some of the legwork of spreading the message. A reliance on skeptical Republicans largely voting Republican anyway despite concerns about Trump’s rhetoric or style.

The video posted by Trump establishes a new rhetorical benchmark in American politics. But it’s not remarkable for Trump at all. If anything, it’s what we’d expect.