With a political career built on fear and bizarre tales, Donald Trump squeaked through an Electoral College victory. As a candidate and president, Trump embraced conspiracy theories and often linked to racist and xenophobic statements. Now this rhetoric echoes through American politics, spoken in some form by people as varied as hateful murderers to establishment politicians.
Trump rose to prominence by promoting birtherism, the bizarre story that required not only believing that Hawaii authorities faked President Barack Obama’s birth certificate but also that his parents’ placed false birth announcements in two Honolulu newspapers in 1961. Birthers’ claims were less about where baby Barack was born than portraying the first black president as an illegitimate “other.”
At the end of his first presidential campaign, the Trump campaign aired an ad with words drawn from an October 2016 Trump speech that the Anti-Defamation League criticized as “evoking classic anti-Semitic themes that have historically been used against Jews and still reverberate today.” The ad referred over and over to corruption by the “political establishment” working hand in hand with “global special interests” and the “global power structure” of which Hillary Clinton and several prominent, wealthy Jews were purportedly a part.
Even more persistent for Trump has been a conspiratorial view of immigrants who are part of a force intended to harm the country. That was the message in Trump’s presidential announcement speech in March 2015, when he said “When Mexico sends its people, they’re not sending their best … They’re bringing crime. They’re rapists.” And that’s the message when Trump calls asylum seekers at the southern border “invaders,” terminology also used by the El Paso killer, who murdered 22 people this weekend.
Some truly horrible, violent people feel inspired or legitimized by this presidential rhetoric. Days before the Texas killings, a former assistant FBI director for counterintelligence wrote, “Mr. Trump’s rants emboldened white hate groups and reinforced racist blogs, news sites and social media platforms” and a few weeks ago FBI Director Christopher Wray reported that “a majority of the domestic terrorism cases that we’ve investigated are motivated by some version of what you might call white supremacist violence.”
The El Paso murderer was a part of this trend; his manifesto claimed he was “defending my country from cultural and ethnic replacement brought on by an invasion” and contended “the Hispanic invasion” was “the instigator, not me.”
But there’s good news and bad news. The good news is greater recognition of this danger. As the conservative National Review put it, “the patterns on display over the last few years have revealed that we are contending here not with another “lone wolf,” but with the fruit of a murderous and resurgent ideology — white supremacy — that deserves to be treated by the authorities in the same manner as has been the threat posed by militant Islam.”
The bad news is the mainstreaming of xenophobic, conspiratorial language about immigrants. When Trump visited Maine for a 2016 campaign rally he fear-mongered about Somali immigrants.
Former Rep. Bruce Poliquin’s announcement the day after the El Paso murders that he will not run for Congress in 2020 included the same invasion language as the murderer’s manifesto; Poliquin stated he wanted to “stop the invasion of illegals (sic) aliens.” Eric Brakey, who announced he will run for Poliquin’s old seat, used the vile rhetoric of replacement theory in a 2018 ad against Sen. Angus King. Nick Isgro, the vice chair of the Maine GOP claimed immigrants to Maine are dangerous, even an “existential threat,” “used for our own destruction.”
On Monday Trump spoke in opposition to hatred against immigrants and certainly is not responsible for killing anyone, but his conspiratorial rhetoric and his maltreatment of asylum seekers have legitimized odious, harmful views for some, and have been echoed by purportedly mainstream Republicans. We will not recover quickly or easily from the poison injected into our body politic, and cannot until Republican Party leaders and candidates stop claiming there is an “invasion” that will “replace” those who purportedly are “real Americans.”