“Our country is in serious trouble,” Donald Trump said. China was beating us on trade, as was Japan. But that was nothing compared with another country: Mexico. Mexico is “laughing at us, at our stupidity,” he said. “They are not our friend, believe me.”
“The U.S. has become a dumping ground for everybody else’s problems,” he continued. Then he hit his stride, making a claim that has since become part of the Trump canon: “When Mexico sends its people, they’re not sending their best. … They’re sending people that have lots of problems, and they’re bringing those problems with us. They’re bringing drugs. They’re bringing crime. They’re rapists.”
Some were good people, he said — but!
“I speak to border guards,” Trump claimed, “and they tell us what we’re getting.”
Is it possible Trump spoke with a border guard? It’s possible, though it’s not clear when he would have. This was in June 2015, as you’re no doubt aware, in the speech Trump gave announcing his candidacy for the presidency. Trump was not then in the habit of visiting the border with Mexico, though he was in the habit of watching Fox News, where he could hear from Border Patrol agents on occasion. He was attuned to what the conservative base of the Republican Party was hearing in conservative media and reflecting those sentiments back to them.
It took a bit to set in. Trump’s launch didn’t make too much of a splash at the time, covered largely as a fluke or a sideshow. But then, a few days later, Univision broke with the Trump Organization’s Miss Universe pageant because of those comments about Mexico. Others who had partnered with Trump did the same, including Macy’s, which had been carrying Trump’s line of ties. Suddenly, Trump’s comments about Mexico became part of the national conversation.
Trump, true to form, leaned into it, holding a massive rally in Arizona featuring family members of people killed by immigrants who were in the country illegally. In short order, Trump vaulted into the lead in the Republican field, securing a core base of support that helped propel him past the early primaries in a crowded field. His value proposition to Republican voters had multiple facets: outsider, business savvy, etc. But it was unquestionably his defense of his comments about Mexican immigrants that pushed him into the spotlight and to the nomination.
His extreme views on immigration and race weren’t limited to what he said in June 2015, of course. He continued to inaccurately link immigration from Mexico to crime over the course of the campaign (and into his presidency). In December, he called for Muslims to be banned from entering the United States, a response to a mass shooting in San Bernardino committed by an American and his Pakistan-born wife. A few weeks before that, Trump had tweeted out an image incorrectly suggesting that most white American murder victims were killed by black people. Shortly before the 2016 election, Trump decided to again suggest that the teenagers accused of raping a woman in Central Park in the 1980s — a group later exonerated — were indeed guilty of the crime. At the time, Trump had paid for ads in New York tabloids calling for a reinstatement of the death penalty.
This campaign strategy of saying whatever he felt, we were told, was Trump being Trump. His advisers told any member of the media who would listen that this was the key to his appeal: Trump wasn’t “politically correct” or beholden to the in-vogue ways of tailoring his words.
It worked. Trump won the presidency thanks to a margin of about 78,000 votes in three states: Wisconsin, Michigan and Pennsylvania. Part of that victory was a function of voters who’d backed Barack Obama in 2012 staying home. Part of it was that Trump mobilized less-frequent white voters to come out to the polls. At the time, this was attributed to Trump’s economic message: more power to working people, a harder line on trade deals. But that “economic anxiety” argument was quickly undercut by polling looking at the views voters actually expressed.
In exit polls, those concerned about the economy preferred Hillary Clinton; those worried about immigration and terrorism — the twin specters powering Trump’s dark vision about the state of the country — backed him. Research suggested that Trump’s strength among working-class whites was correlated to differences in racial attitudes by education level. Other research showed that race was a more powerful motivator for Trump voters in 2016 than it was for Mitt Romney voters in 2012.
We’ve seen lots of evidence that it’s racial, not economic, anxiety that motivates Trump supporters. A March 2016 Post-ABC News poll showed that there was a stronger link between Trump support and feeling that white Americans were “losing” than between Trump support and struggling economically. In a 2016 poll, Trump voters were more likely to say that whites face a lot of discrimination compared with any other group.
Given the close outcome of the 2016 election, a lot of factors might have swung the vote one way or the other. That holds for Trump’s positions on race and immigration, too: Without throwing fuel on an existent anti-immigrant and xenophobic narrative fostered by Breitbart News and other conservative outlets, it’s likely that enthusiasm for Trump wouldn’t have been enough to edge out Clinton in the necessary states.
The lesson for Trump was a little different, though. He'd been told time and again by advisers and external pundits that he needed to tamp down his rhetoric and move to the middle to win the general election. Trump wouldn't or couldn't do that — and he won anyway. He'd long claimed that he knew better than the experts; now, it seemed, he'd proved it. Letting Trump be Trump, as the phrasing had it, paid off.
As president, Trump has focused on delivering for his 2016 base of support, in part because it's the sort of transactionalism with which he's familiar and in part because he is eager to keep them close in 2020. His loyalty to his base has been reciprocated. Trump's various toxic comments and actions as president — referring to various countries as shitholes, drawing moral equivalence between both sides during the Charlottesville protests and, over the weekend, telling nonwhite Democratic legislators to “go back” where they came from — haven't done anything to drive his base away.
In fact, those actions have forced the Republican Party into a sort of purification. Bucking Trump hasn't paid off for members of his party. Republicans who stood by Trump won their primaries in 2018, though not always their general elections. Trump's popularity with Republicans remains high. The only Republican to vocally, consistently and fervently criticize Trump was Rep. Justin Amash of Michigan — whose opposition to Trump led him to leave the party.
There's a self-fulfilling component to this: The lack of criticism has given Trump cover within his party and no doubt helped keep his approval ratings high. No one wants to be the first one over the side of the trench.
Trump clearly sees value in casting his opponents as outsiders and un-American, declaring repeatedly that Democrats want to see full socialism in the United States — or even, as he hinted earlier this month, communism. (Enjoy your communes, folks.) He has suggested that Democrats want “open borders,” a flood of migrants from and through Mexico who will become Democratic voters. He has claimed that Democrats are soft on terrorism and on crime, both of which he links to nonwhites (the latter by referring to Chicago, among other things).
It’s a whirlwind of racial fears, xenophobia meant in part to bolster Trump’s standing with his base. But it’s also clearly Trump saying what he believes. Trump ran a campaign based on these fears and based on racist rhetoric. The draft of his announcement speech released to the press before he spoke in June 2015 didn’t include any comments about Mexico sending us racists. He added that as he was riffing. His advisers write him speeches, and he embellishes them. He’s being himself.
If questionable and overtly racist comments are Trump being Trump, what does that tell us about Trump?