Despite a flourishing economy, Trump is turning to racist fearmongering to turn out his base.
Bill Clinton famously had a sign hanging in his campaign war room that read, “The economy, stupid!” When running for the presidency in 1980, Ronald Reagan asked the American electorate, “are you better off than you were four years ago?” imploring every voter to consider their financial situation before heading to the polls. Mitt Romney did the same when he faced off with Barack Obama in 2012.
It’s axiomatic in politics that presidents and parties live and die by the economy. Even though anyone who’s taken half of Econ 101 knows that a president generally has little control over the economy as a whole, most voters are happy to give the person in the White House all the credit. People care about pocketbook issues, and they’re usually willing to overlook other problems if they feel financially secure. Presidents nearly always get re-elected during times of economic expansion. By the same token, the only two presidents in the post-war era to lose their re-election bids—Jimmy Carter and George H.W. Bush—lost during times of economic turmoil. Similarly, Democrats received a drubbing in the 2010 midterms when the economy was still in ruin after the 2008 housing crash.
That’s why if the economy is doing well, the president, almost as a rule, will hammer that fact home come election time.
But not Donald Trump.
The economy is on a tare. Growth is at its highest since the mid-2000s; unemployment is at its lowest in nearly 50 years; the stock market continues to reach new heights (though it’s dropped considerably since the Dow Jones set a new record in October). Despite these rosy numbers—and much to Paul Ryan’s dismay—Trump once again is turning to racist fearmongering in his closing argument heading into the midterm elections.
For the past month or so, Trump’s primary focus has been not on the flourishing economy but on the caravan of Central American migrants now making its way through Mexico to the U.S.-Mexico border. On the campaign trail and online, he characterized it as an “invasion” full of violent predators, criminals, and members of MS-13, despite not having any evidence to back up those claims. And just for good measure, he baselessly maintains that the caravan has been infiltrated by “unknown Middle Easterners.” In classic Trump buffoonery, he called the situation a “National Emergy” on Twitter.
Indubitably, this is an “emergy” only he can put an end to, and one that will get much worse if Democrats retake Congress in today’s election. Trump now says that he wants to send 15,000 troops to the border to stop the caravan—more than twice the number of people it contains.
In reality, the caravan is made up mostly of families escaping violence and extreme poverty in their home countries who pose no imminent threat. (The caravan was actually started by a group of 160 Hondurans fleeing San Pedro Sula, a city once referred to as the “murder capital of the world.”) A senior counterterrorism official dismissed Trump’s insinuation that the caravan was filled with terrorists, while no one in Trump’s orbit has offered evidence to the contrary.
Complementing these outbursts, Trump released a campaign ad that was received as being so racist that even Fox News decided to pull it. Other networks such as NBC also pulled the ad (though only after it was already seen by millions), and CNN refused to show it all together.
The ad features courtroom footage of Luis Bracamontes, an unauthorized immigrant convicted of killing two police officers in California in 2014, adding the misleading caption, “Democrats Let Him In. Democrats Let Him Stay.” (He, in fact, had been deported and re-entered the country multiple times, during both the Clinton and Bush administrations.) The ad then juxtaposes this with footage of the migrant caravan and then asks ominously, “Who else will Democrats let in?”
Major television networks may not have been fans, but the ad had at least one prominent proponent: former Ku Klux Klan Grand Wizard David Duke.
And then there’s Trump’s ploy to excite his base by claiming he will overturn the 14th Amendment, which grants citizenship to anyone born on American soil. The amendment was enacted during the post-Civil War Reconstruction era to guarantee citizenship to former slaves and their offspring. Today, it is more commonly criticized on the Right for its connection to “anchor babies,” a racialized epithet referring to children born in the U.S. to unauthorized immigrant mothers.
Of course, this is hardly a surprise coming from a man who kicked off his presidential campaign by calling Mexican immigrants rapists and murderers, the same man who essentially launched his political career by championing the birther conspiracy—not to mention his long history of racist comments and business practices.
Whether or not racial resentment won Donald Trump the presidency in 2016 is perhaps a matter of debate. But such racist invocations lay bare what Trump believes put him in office—and what he truly thinks of his voters. Nevermind that illegal immigration has been in decline for over a decade or that the crime rate in the U.S. is near historic lows, and nevermind that the economy is booming; when the game is on the line, Trump will always double down on his go-to play: stoking racial and nativist fear.