In the closing days of any election campaign, the slowly chugging machinery of electoral politics shifts into another gear, with rallies, statements and controversies arriving at a breakneck pace. That acceleration can mean that odd individual occurrences surface and vanish before they can be processed (or noticed); this is often the period in which the more egregiously questionable arguments or actions take place. Themes can be hard to pick out in real time.
This year, the theme doesn’t take much detecting. President Trump appears to be banking on his party retaining control of the Senate or even gaining seats. To do so, and presumably in an effort to goose Republican turnout broadly in hopes of averting disaster in the House, he is increasingly surfacing an often-submerged bit of political rhetoric: Vote Republican to protect white America.
Donald Trump Jr., his son, didn’t mince words. On Saturday, Trump Jr. tweeted his support for Eric Brakey, the Republican challenging Sen. Angus King (I-Maine).
“Angus King is a Fake Independent who votes with Schumer 88% of the time,” Trump Jr. wrote, referencing Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.). “Angus wants to repopulate Maine with Syrian and Somalian refugees. Support @SenatorBrakey who fights for secure borders and Better Jobs for Maine.”
The conflict between securing the border and lamenting the arrival of refugees (who don’t arrive by immigrating illegally) notwithstanding, the message is clear. Maine, a state that is 93 percent non-Hispanic white, is at risk of being “repopulated” with nonwhite people from countries in Africa or the Middle East. (Gov. Paul LePage, a Republican, has risen to national attention several times for questionable comments about black people. In late 2016, he said at a news conference that the “enemy right now” in the fight against opioid abuse is “people of color or people of Hispanic origin.”)
Trump Jr. was simply being overt about the case that his father has made on the campaign trail. Last week, he tweeted a video blaming Democrats for allowing an immigrant into the country illegally who went on to kill two law enforcement officials. The ad focused on the idea that a caravan of migrants slowly making its way north toward the U.S. border — it has reached Mexico City, in central Mexico — would be riddled with similar criminal actors.
Trump has said as much explicitly.
The Washington Post’s fact-checkers have assessed Trump’s claims about the caravan and found them lacking or unfounded.
The point, more broadly, is a form of the same sort of “replacement” that Trump Jr. warned about.
“They like [immigrants] coming in because we’re winning,” Trump said of Democrats at a campaign rally in Georgia on Sunday, “and they figure if enough of them come in eventually, they’ll be able to vote, and they’re going to vote for the Democrats. We can’t let this happen for other reasons, too, but we can’t let that happen.”
He wasn’t specific about whether the problem was immigrants becoming citizens and being granted the right to vote or whether he was resuscitating his assertions that immigrants in the country illegally cast thousands of fraudulent votes — a false claim that he has made repeatedly. But it doesn’t really matter for the purposes of Trump’s rhetoric.
Trump has put a broad focus on immigration issues over the past several weeks, centered, it seems, on reducing the number of immigrants from Mexico and Central America in the United States. He and his supporters assert that they simply oppose illegal immigration, but last week’s speculation about ending birthright citizenship makes clear that Trump’s vision is broader.
Earlier this year, Trump offered his views about which migrants were acceptable during a private conversation at the White House. People from Africa and the Caribbean were dismissed as coming from “shithole” countries. He wondered aloud, sitting with lawmakers, why the United States couldn’t have more migrants from countries like Norway.
Trump summarized his sales pitch at that Georgia rally on Sunday.
“If you want more caravans and you want more crime, vote Democrat, it’s very simple,” he said. “If you want strong borders and safe communities, vote Republican.”
Trump’s rhetoric about the caravan may have been focused on electoral politics, but experts on racism saw in it something worth embracing.
CNN refused to run the ad. NBC ran it during a football game on Sunday night but, after backlash, announced Monday that it would no longer air it.
The president’s political life has been defined by similarly leveraging racially questionable or more overtly racist rhetoric. In 2015, he began his presidential campaign railing against immigrants from Mexico. By December, he’d looped people from the Middle East into that rhetoric, proposing a ban on Muslim immigrants' entry into the United States. His general election pitch focused on the danger posed by crime, linked to immigration and terrorism.
In places where the population was less heavily made up of immigrants, Trump performed better.
2015 wasn’t where Trump’s use of race for political purposes began, of course. In 2014, when his political activism centered on tweeting his support of Republicans, his rhetoric focused on the danger of allowing people from Ebola-affected countries in Africa to come to the United States. He warned of grim results, should migration from Africa not be curtailed, results that never manifested.
Most famously, Trump’s aborted 2012 exploration of the Republican nomination was focused in large part on questioning former president Barack Obama’s place of birth — a way to try to undercut Obama’s mandate and to hint at the uniqueness of Obama’s personal background. Obama’s life didn’t look like that of most Americans, and Trump was happy to point that out.
That, too, reemerged in recent days. At a rally in Indiana on Friday, Trump responded to Obama’s presence on the campaign trail by highlighting the former president’s middle name, Hussein.
“It’s no surprise that Joe Donnelly is holding a rally this weekend,” he said, referring to the Democratic senator, “with Barack” — a pause for effect — “H” — Trump drew out the letter in the air with his finger — “Obama.”
The crowd booed at the former president’s name. The significance of focusing on the H probably was not lost on anyone.
House Speaker Paul D. Ryan (R-Wis.) reportedly urged Trump in a phone call on Sunday to focus on the strength of the economy instead of on immigration in the waning hours of the campaign. Republicans, Politico reports, “are profoundly worried that Trump’s obsession with all things immigration will exacerbate their losses” Tuesday.
Over the longer term, the problem could be more significant. Trump’s 2016 campaign was a rejection of the post-2012 decision by the Republican Party to improve outreach to nonwhite voters in an effort to respond to long-term demographic trends. The explicit reliance on race as a motivator in 2018 has already caused something of a rift in the party, with the head of the National Republican Congressional Committee last week excoriating Rep. Steve King (R-Iowa), who has more overtly embraced white nationalist rhetoric and actors in recent months. King consistently wrings his hands about a supposed degradation of American culture, often using the same argument as seen in Trump Jr.'s tweet about Maine.
Identifying the Republican Party as opposed to a more diverse nation, however abstractly, to win votes in 2018 may not work over the short term — and it also may cost votes over the long term. Ryan seems to have tried to make the former case in his call with the president. Trump apparently was unmoved.
Late last month, Trump introduced a new label for himself.
"You know, they have a word — it’s sort of became old fashioned — it’s called a ‘nationalist,’ ” he said at a campaign rally for Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Tex.). “And I say, really, we’re not supposed to use that word. You know what I am? I’m a nationalist, okay? I’m a nationalist. Nationalist. Nothing wrong. Use that word. Use that word.”
Be careful what you wish for.