Donald Trump’s racist vitriol appeals to his base. Expect more of it
Robert Delaney says by targeting the ‘other’, whether illegal immigrants from Latin America or graduate students from China, the US president has let loose a race-based hostility that is horrifying coming from a White House in the 21st century
The latest spectacle in the US government’s illegal immigration drama featured President Donald Trump with family members of Americans killed by undocumented newcomers.
Standing in front of “angel families”– the PR-engineered moniker given to these unfortunate folks – Trump railed against his critics by highlighting the “death and destruction caused by people that shouldn’t be here”.
It was the most dramatic iteration yet of a familiar production: the framing of illegal immigrants from Latin America as dangerous criminals. It was also, as usual, a performance at odds with all available crime data, and that’s why Trump will only deliver anecdotes instead of numbers in his long-running campaign to portray Latinos as criminals.
Trump’s base can’t get enough of his show. Hearing racist rhetoric from their top leader, thinly veiled and fully blatant, enraptures them.
Watch: Trump denounces illegal immigration while hosting ‘angel families’
His most ardent supporters have inured themselves to the facts about immigration, starting with the reality that America was built on the backs of those arriving with nothing but a desire for a better life and a willingness to work for it.
This makes immigrants indispensable in a period of economic growth that – partly to Trump’s credit – has brought the US unemployment rate to record lows. A steadily declining birth rate in the US and globally makes immigration reform that much more urgent.
While the situations are very different, there’s also an element of racism in the way Trump has used residence restrictions to address perceived threats from China.
Trump intends to limit Chinese graduate students studying certain hi-tech fields to one-year visas, instead of the usual five, in response to evidence of intellectual property theft.
To address this problem by targeting students based on nationality – instead of finding ways to better protect sensitive intellectual property sought by actors in any number of countries – needlessly maligns a particular minority that has been, throughout US history, unfairly subjected to exclusionary policies.
The fact that US arrests and indictments of suspected Russian cyber criminals surged to a record high in 2017 hasn’t moved Trump to propose any official policy targeting Russians in the US.
The economic argument for policies more accommodating to immigrants doesn’t work on Trump’s base, and he knows this. He also knows that the US business community, which has largely been advocating for clearer pathways to citizenship, won’t have his back if the multiple investigations of Trump, his associates and family turn up illegal activity.
That’s why he doles out the ugliest form of rhetoric: demonising “the other” to present himself as something of a messiah to all of those who had previously been forced to keep their racist attitudes under wraps.
Racism has existed at every level of the US government in various forms throughout the country’s history. But the animus Trump displays towards Latin Americans, Chinese and others living in “shithole countries” is horrifying to see coming from the White House in the 21st century.
The only “others” Trump doesn’t discriminate against are authoritarian leaders, that is, China’s President Xi Jinping, North Korean leader Kim Jong-un, and Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman.
He shines in the presence of such leaders, who would scoff at the encumbrances Trump must endure: those pesky investigations, as well as the checks and balances upon which the system of US governance is predicated.
Watch: A ‘movie trailer’ the White House prepared for Trump’s summit with Kim Jong-un
Because Trump doesn’t control his country the way they control theirs, he needs to keep throwing the red meat of racism to his base. He will continue to trot out anecdotes about crimes committed by Mexicans even if US citizens have caused far more bloodshed. The most horrific killings on US soil in recent years were perpetrated by white, male, native-born Americans.
You couldn’t find a stage big enough for all the people whose lives were shattered by mass murderers like Stephen Paddock, the American who killed 58 people and wounded more than 500 in Las Vegas last year, or Nikolas Cruz, who killed at least 17 of his classmates in Florida earlier this year.
So when will Trump introduce specific policy measures to protect Americans from them?
Robert Delaney is the South China Morning Post's US bureau chief, based in New York