Listening to Donald Trump describe the U.S. in 2016 was to hear a story of a nation in peril of losing its identity to waves of brown-skinned invaders. Immigration and the border, particularly the urgent need to build a wall between the U.S. and Mexico, dominated Trump’s campaign rhetoric. Once in office, the president’s top immigration adviser, Stephen Miller, rammed through one punishing initiative after another, banning travelers from Muslim-majority countries, separating immigrant children from their parents to deter others from making the journey north, forcing tens of thousands of asylum-seekers to wait out their cases in the border’s most dangerous cities, and plowing through protected lands to stand up towering new sections of border wall. Today, asylum at the border is effectively dead, and Trump’s Department of Homeland Security is using the coronavirus as a pretext to boot immigrants out of the country — including families, children, and babies — as swiftly as possible.
So it may have come as a surprise to some that immigration hardly came up at all in the first presidential debate of 2020. This is at least partially due to the fact that the Trump administration’s framing of its priorities has evolved over the past several months, as waves of protests challenging the power and brutality of American policing have swept the country. Without question, the anti-immigrant machinery marches on. In July, the Migration Policy Institute catalogued more than 400 executive actions the administration has taken on immigration since Trump’s inauguration. Those policies continue to impact countless individuals and families across the country and around the world every day, and if the claims of a former top DHS official are true, Miller has an immigration campaign of “shock and awe” drawn up and ready to go should Trump remain in office. But with those efforts simultaneously in motion, the Trump administration has increasingly and prominently centered purported threats posed by leftists, anarchists, and anti-fascists in its bid to hold onto power. This widening of the threat aperture is straight out of the authoritarian playbook, said Jason Stanley, a professor of philosophy at Yale University and author of “How Fascism Works: The Politics of Us and Them.”
“You begin with something that separates citizens from noncitizens,” Stanley told The Intercept, explaining how fascistic power grabs often take place. “You have your colonial war, your war on terror, your imperialist war that focuses on distinguishing between citizens and noncitizens, and then you direct that force inwards against your political opponents.”
The Trump administration has increasingly and prominently centered purported threats posed by leftists, anarchists, and anti-fascists in its bid to hold onto power.
In the case of Trump, the first three years of the administration featured talk of threats from MS-13 gang members, migrant caravans marching north through Mexico, Islamic State killers hidden among refugee populations and more — all were couched in terms of threats to the homeland, an “invasion” that posed a danger to national security and warranted decisive law enforcement and military responses. In some cases, such as the October 2018 migrant caravans that led to military deployments to the border during the midterm elections, the supposedly increased severity of the threat coincided with important electoral moments. From the outset, the White House has argued that certain jurisdictions, so-called sanctuary cities typically run by members of the president’s opposing political party, provide cover for dangerous outsiders. In response, DHS has launched high-profile blitzes into these cities, at times deploying militarized Border Patrol tactical units to support Immigration and Customs Enforcement operations deep in urban settings and often producing media-ready photo and video packages to illustrate the president’s resolve.
The administration’s framing of its adversaries entered a new phase with the killing of George Floyd and the protests that followed, as the country witnessed a challenge to the legitimacy of policing unlike anything in recent memory. While the vast majority of those protests followed the traditional nonviolent civil rights model, the uprising began with a police precinct being set ablaze, and to this day, a considerable number of protesters remain unapologetic when it comes to the militancy of their demands and actions. Against the backdrop of this upheaval, the Trump administration has embraced what Stanley would describe as the second phase of a fascistic power grab: the turn inward.