Trump's Revolting All-Out Attack on Immigrants Bears the Fingerprints of New Adviser Roger Ailes

In the late summer of 1988, Republican presidential nominee George H.W. Bush was way down in the polls, compared with his Democratic rival, Michael Dukakis. So the Bush campaign came up with what would prove to be a winning theme: tying the Massachusetts governor to a weekend furlough granted a black prisoner serving a life sentence for murder in his state. The prisoner, William Horton, went on a crime spree after fleeing to Maryland, raping a white woman and assaulting her husband. Bush campaign operatives conducted focus groups revealing that support for Dukakis evaporated among white voters once they were told the story of the Horton furlough.

In the late summer of 2016, Republican presidential nominee Donald J. Trump was down in the polls, compared with his Democratic rival, Hillary Clinton. So the Trump campaign came up with what its operatives hope will be a winning theme: tying the former secretary of state to crimes committed by undocumented immigrants. In a speech delivered to an Arizona rally of mostly white, cheering Trump supporters, the GOP standard-bearer repeatedly referred to American citizens who had lost their lives at the hands of undocumented criminals, and then brought to the stage some of their loved ones. After each family member—mostly mothers—of the deceased testified for Trump, he kissed her and brought the next one to the podium.

Tonight on Twitter, MSNBC’s Joy Reid reminded us that the 2016 Trump campaign and the 1988 Bush campaign have one thing in common: Roger Ailes, the master communicator and former director of Fox News. It was Ailes who oversaw the use of the Willie Horton story in Bush campaign speeches and ads, the same Ailes who is today advising Trump on debate prep and who knows what else.

For more than an hour, Trump shouted from a podium at the Phoenix Convention Center in what he described as a policy speech on immigration, while also taking swipes at Clinton that were answered by the audience with the now familiar chant, “Lock her up!”

“Countless Americans who have died in recent years would be alive today if not for the open-border policies of this administration and the administration that causes this horrible, horrible thought process called Hillary Clinton,” Trump said.

However incoherent that last sentence, it suited the crowd just fine. It combined the words “Americans who have died,” “open border,” “horrible” and “Hillary Clinton.” Never mind that the U.S. does not have an open border, or that Hillary Clinton is a person, not a thought process.

The families who graced Trump’s stage were truly suffering, as do too many Americans who have lost those they love to violent crime. But that doesn’t mean their suffering wasn’t being exploited by Trump for the cynical purpose of ginning up fear among white people of the brown-skinned "other." Never mind that violent crime commited by undocumented immigrants is shown to be at rates below those of U.S. citizens. (It’s hard to know by how much, since the numbers of undocumented people in the U.S. rely on estimates.) And never mind that the numbers of undocumented immigrants coming into the United States from Mexico have fallen so precipitously that the net number is in the negative.

Trump reiterated his commitment to “extreme vetting” of refugees and immigrants, knowing full well that those words signal something akin to torture. That’s why they draw cheers from Trump supporters, naturally. “It's our right, as a sovereign nation to choose immigrants that we think are the likeliest to thrive and flourish and love us,” Trump said.

So now we’re vetting extremely for professions of love.

Speaking to his base, Trump promised once again that, as president, he would build a wall across the U.S.-Mexico border and that Mexico would pay for it, “but they don’t know it yet.” Then he alluded to his meeting earlier in the day with Mexico’s president Enrique Peña Nieto who, in the news conference the two men staged following their chat, said that Mexico would not be ponying up.

The two events—Trump’s rally and his conciliatory-sounding press conference with Peña Nieto—were extreme in their dissimilarity. In Mexico, Trump projected a subdued and almost diplomatic demeanor, praising the Mexican people and calling Peña Nieto his friend. (Still to be determined: Why did the Mexican head of state give Trump, who is reviled in Mexico, the opportunity to appear so?)

The audience in Phoenix was unfazed by its candidate’s happy talk with the Mexican head of state, just as The Week’s Paul Waldman predicted it would be. Writes Waldman:

There's usually a transactional aspect to voting: Support me, and I'll deliver these things you want, whether it's a better economy, a different health care system, an exciting new war, and so on. But for Trump supporters, his candidacy has already delivered. It made them feel like they were in charge again, like they can say what they want and stick it to all the people they despise. And sure, a lot of what Trump says is ridiculous. But they're savvy enough to know not to take it too seriously. What matters is how it makes them feel.

As summer draws to a close, the polls are tightening. Wednesday’s Real Clear Politics average gave Hillary Clinton a mere 4.6 point lead. (The latest Reuters/Ipsos poll gives Clinton only a 1-point advantage, while the Fox News survey gives her a 6-point surplus.)

It's safe to bet that the Trump campaign’s retread of the old Willie Horton smear will be pounded relentlessly through Election Day.


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