There is no evidence for a looming invasion or a terrorism risk. But Trump’s game of making up a migrant invading force isn’t surprising to anyone who has watched populists gain power in Europe in recent years. There’s no better way for populists to win an election than by announcing a national emergency that plays into voters' fears.
“The claim that alleged terrorists in that caravan pose a risk is simply wrong, but of course if fits into Trump’s strategy,” said Peter Neumann, a London-based radicalization scholar who is writing a book about Trump’s approach to counterterrorism. “Unlike Bush and Obama, Trump has conflated the issues of Islam, migration and terrorism and is treating them as one. That’s very much similar to what European populists have done, by pushing the idea of a clash of civilizations,” he said.
Europeans still remember how then-UK Independence Party leader Nigel Farage unveiled a poster ahead of the Brexit vote that read “Breaking Point” and showed a long line of predominantly male refugees.
Farage, of course, didn’t mention that almost none of those refugees had any chance of ever reaching Britain because the country is not part of the border-free Schengen zone. Only a tiny fraction of the refugees who entered Europe ended up in Britain — with most of them being carefully resettled and screened by the government — while more than 1 million headed to Germany. Yet it was Britain and not Germany that later decided to leave the European Union to “take back control,” as Farage said.
Then, there’s the example of Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban. When migrant flows into Europe surged in 2015, many arrived in the central European country — but almost nobody wanted to stay there, given the state of social services and a more hostile attitude toward migrants than in Western Europe. Regardless of the nonexistent threat of being overwhelmed by refugees in the long run, Orban ordered the construction of a border fence and some of the toughest anti-migrant laws in the Western Hemisphere. The strategy worked: Many Hungarians bought into the threat scenario Orban made up and celebrated remarks in which he claimed that Muslims were an immediate threat to Europe’s Christian identity.
It’s somewhat ironic, because Hungary in fact needs foreign workers and is now trying to recruit non-Muslims from abroad. The reason? Many Hungarians have escaped unemployment or poor social services in their country and have moved to wealthier nations such as Austria and Germany.
There has been a similar exodus among younger Italians who suffered under a youth unemployment rate of about 35 percent last year. When the country’s new populist government came to power this year, the number of refugees arriving there had significantly decreased. So Italy’s government decided to create some unnecessary drama to put the issue back on the news agenda by temporarily preventing its own Coast Guard members from disembarking from their vessel, after they picked up migrants at sea. The government also has cracked down on private rescue operations, arguing they encourage crossing attempts.
Preventing a few hundred migrants from entering Italy may never have been the point the Italian government wanted to make — as is so often the case in recent years, the domestic message here was the real key to understanding what was unfolding. Artificially creating that crisis has come at a high cost, however. Human rights groups say that the crackdown on rescue missions in the Mediterranean Sea has resulted in a surge in migrant deaths, even as fewer people have tried to cross.
In the case of Trump, careful observers may have suspected a long time ago that he was keen on the European populists’ playbook. In 2016, the Trump campaign released a video ad in which a narrator warned of “illegal immigration” at the southern border and demanded the construction of a border wall to stop it.
To make its point, the Trump campaign showed dramatic footage of African migrants scaling the fences around the Spanish enclave of Melilla in Morocco. It neglected to mention that the events in the video took place more than 5,000 miles from the United States' southern border, just like some of the other facts that went unmentioned as populist leaders made up invasions that never occurred.