Why is anyone still surprised by Trump’s behavior in 2018? Even if his long and storied history of racism had escaped the “Apprentice”-watching public that viewed him as little more than a master of the celebrity-reality show genre, it’s been close to three years since he launched his presidential campaign on June 16, 2015.
His then-comments about Mexico — “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. And some, I assume, are good people” — will forever be etched in America’s history of unfiltered Know Nothing xenophobia, especially since he admitted thereafter that they were pre-planned and not off-the-cuff.
That moment, though, should have critical to establishing the perception of candidate Trump and the potential pitfalls of his campaign: while U.S. Latinos immediately tried to tell the rest of the country that this man was dangerous and that his rhetoric would lead to even more hate-filled policies, America said “meh.”
More people in America thought just like Trump than the mostly-white media elite knew, and he was exploiting it.
He didn’t mean it, we were told. He’s not talking about all Mexicans. He won’t last three weeks in this campaign.
Few people seemingly listened to the warnings from those who were targeted by his racist rhetoric. Instead, they treated his racism like a joke and his candidacy as a punch line. But to some of us, the mainstream media’s treatment of these words as the sort of thing that merited a raised eyebrow and a shrug only underscored a harsh reality: more people in America thought just like Trump than the mostly-white media elite knew, and he was exploiting it. The vast majority of Latino journalists and political observers in my circle knew exactly what Trump was doing — inciting fear for votes — and how those comments would be well-received in many quarters.
Even when compelling evidence showed that Trump’s ideology was directly lifted from Eurocentric neo-nativist lobby that has been contaminating D.C. policy circles for years, the focus remained on how out-of-step Trump supposedly was and how “Mexico will pay for the wall” was such an impossible policy directive that no one could believe it would happen.
The limited run of Trump the Compassionate lasted maybe 24 hours, after which Trump the Racist made his regular return engagement.
And people are still surprised that Trump is not changing his course. Take President Trump’s White House meeting last Wednesday, a 55-minute televised episode of immigration deal-making that spoke about a “bill of love.” Even after his Muslim bans, even after his cancellation of Temporary Protected Status for Salvadorans fleeing war and Haitians fleeing the aftermath of earthquakes and hurricanes, even after discarding the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, Trump was initially praised for his courage to do what neither Presidents Obama or Bush could do: finally provide concrete legislative solutions on immigration.
The limited run of Trump the Compassionate lasted maybe 24 hours, after which Trump the Racist made his regular return engagement, and once again, we’re all “shocked” that Trump has never been for any immigration policy that makes this country blacker and browner.
Trump’s immigration policy plan was, is and always will be the same: to limit immigration from countries where the majority of the citizens are not white. He has said, plainly and over and over again, that he intends to send millions of people back to the countries from which they immigrated, regardless of the human toll, cost to the American economy or taxpayers, basic human compassion or logistical feasibility and to instill even more fear in immigrant communities, while justifying it over the fear of lost opportunities for white people.
So why is everyone acting surprised? Because a Queens-born real estate developer used a bad word to describe the countries from which he’d prefer to exclude or reduce the number of immigrants?
Solely blaming Trump for racism, however, is too simplistic. Trump the president wouldn’t even exist without immigration fear-mongering and enforcement tactics assists from Bill Clinton (at his 1996 State of the Union, he intoned “We are also a nation of laws” after slamming “illegal immigrants” and trumpeting his record on border control), George W. Bush (who sent the National Guard to the Mexican border in 2006) and Barack “Deporter in Chief” Obama (the Democrat who set the table for Trump’s deportation efforts). The previous three presidents picked the song; Trump is just cranking the volume up to eleven.
So why is everyone acting surprised? Because a Queens-born real estate developer used a bad word to describe the countries from which he’d prefer to exclude or reduce the number of immigrants? Trump’s using the exact playbook he’s always been using, which he promised to use and from which he extensively read for nearly three years. America had a chance to push back on its blatant racism and xenophobia, but too many of us just shrugged our shoulders, told U.S. Latinos to relax and thought nothing of it because it seemed too far from the center to take hold.
Welcome to the new center.
Julio Ricardo Varela is co-host of the 2017 Webby-nominated In The Thick podcast and senior digital editor of LatinoUSA.org, the website for NPR’s Latino USA, a Peabody-winning show anchored by Maria Hinojosa and produced by The Futuro Media Group. He is also the founder of LatinoRebels.com.