In a campaign that every week finds new ways to go beyond the pale, Donald Trump’s speech Monday on “radical Islam” and immigration in Youngstown, Ohio hit a new, dangerous low – even for Trump.
The event was, in many respects, quite unremarkable. The candidate swiveled uneasily between two teleprompters and read the text, seemingly bored with the event, with himself, and perhaps with the idea of continuing to run for President. We can only assume that after multiple reports of low morale and chaos in his own campaign, he was forced to stay on message for just one day.
However, all of this masked his bleak ideas about immigrant families. While much of the speech was packed with the talking points that we have come to expect from Trump about ISIS or NATO, it was the immigration policy section of his speech that got Trump – and the crowd – really going. After invoking the Cold War, he went briefly off of his prepared remarks to label his proposed “ideological screening tests” for immigrants to the U.S. as “extreme vetting,” repeating the word “extreme” three times for those who could not hear his McCarthyist foghorn clearly enough. Trump is no longer flirting with witch hunts; he is now openly channeling the disgraced late senator from Wisconsin.
Trump viciously stated that “those to who do not believe in our Constitution, or who support bigotry and hatred, will not be admitted into the country.” But as Khizr Khan shows us, under this policy, Trump himself would have been banned from our shores long ago. In fact, when grassroots leaders from Maine People’s Alliance held up pocket Constitutions in silent, powerful solidarity with the Khan family at a recent Trump rally in Portland, the leaders were thrown out.
Trump also effectively doubled down on his policy to ban Muslims, saying that he would suspend immigration from “some of the most dangerous and volatile regions,” but only naming the Middle East. Under this policy, my family would have never immigrated to the U.S. from Iran.
Keep in mind that Trump’s proposals are not coming from some random corner of his own mind. Many of these ideas are not new, and they are coming from his advisers, who are part of a well-developed anti-immigrant infrastructure. They include Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach, a long-time nativist lawyer who wrote Trump’s plan to build a border wall; and top staff of Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.), one of the most hardline anti-immigrants in Congress.
It was especially troubling that Trump took these themes of covert and overt white supremacy and nationalism to a place like Youngstown, Ohio. Some political observers wondered why he would choose such a place for a speech on foreign policy. The reality is that the selection of Youngstown, as an economically distressed area, plays right into the cynical demagogue’s playbook: the carnival barker of hatred shows up to tout himself as a champion of the economically marginalized, points the finger at “the other” of darker shades (cue Mexicans, Muslims and Middle Easterners like me), and plays to race and white supremacy. (For more on Youngstown’s history of immigration and white supremacy in the context of Trump’s visit, here’s an excellent piece from two local scholars.)
The immigration speech was a chilling moment for our democracy. I said months ago that Trump’s candidacy is not a joke. It’s not entertaining. This is not to be laughed off. The man and his ideas are the standard-bearer of a major American political party. He is releasing and regurgitating his toxic, racist values into the political bloodstream and our culture. The assembled crowd was only too happy to save its loudest applause for the section of his speech on anti-immigrant hostility.
But while Trump is behind in surveys in Ohio, don’t let sagging polls and bad headlines fool you – because neither polls nor headlines can vote. Donald Trump can still be elected President. And even if he loses, his hate speech will have ramifications in our policies and our culture for years.
Besides organizing in as many states as possible against him, where else can we look for alternatives to Trump’s fearful, cynical vision? We can find the seeds right in his speech: the Somali-American community of Minnesota. Trump singled them out for scrutiny as a source of possible trouble, likely not realizing that the same community scored one of this year’s string of progressive wins at the ballot box just last week. Ilhan Omar, a refugee leader from Somalia, won a primary election in Minneapolis and will likely become the first Somali-American, Muslim woman to be elected to any office in the country.
Omar is a role model for scores of women, Muslims, immigrants and others around the country – people who lead with progressive values and are unafraid to stand up to hatred, fear and xenophobic bullies (TakeAction Minnesota, an affiliate of People’s Action, endorsed her). Her leadership is proof that our country gains nothing from raising up our drawbridges and reverting to the anti-immigrant policies of the last century. Every time anti-immigrant hatred has raised its ugly head in our recent history, it is ferocious and relentless organizing that has beaten it back. I am ready to organize and defeat the Trumps and elect the Omars from coast to coast. Are you?