If you thought that facing felony trials in multiple jurisdictions or trying to convince voters to make him president again might make Donald Trump tone it down a little, you’re in for a rude awakening.
Hinting at a new Red Scare, Trump used a Veterans Day speech to declare, “The threat from outside forces is far less sinister, dangerous and grave than the threat from within. . . . We will root out the communists, Marxists, fascists, and the radical-left thugs that live like vermin within the confines of our country.”
He also recently proposed reinstituting the “Muslim ban” to prevent entry to the United States from certain Muslim-majority countries, he has floated a plan to fire tens of thousands of federal employees on political grounds, and he has said he will try to end birthright citizenship, enshrined in the 14th Amendment after the Civil War.
But arguably most shocking was his new proposal to remove millions of immigrants from the United States, both for its dark ambitions and its level of forethought and detailed planning, which is uncharacteristic of Trump.
Last week, after saying immigration is “poisoning the blood” of the country, Trump and his advisors unveiled the anti-immigrant plan for his next presidency, which would essentially turn the United States into a police state. In his proposed effort to deport millions of people per year, Trump would reduce due process rights for immigrants, dramatically expand internment camps near the border, and “deputize local police officers and National Guard soldiers voluntarily contributed by Republican-run states,” the New York Times reported. The plan would also “shift from the ICE [Immigration and Customs Enforcement] practice of arresting specific people to carrying out workplace raids and other sweeps in public places aimed at arresting scores of unauthorized immigrants at once.” (The average number of annual deportations is currently in the hundreds of thousands.)
In other words, Trump wants to hire police and reserve soldiers unfamiliar with immigration law to conduct public mass arrests of presumed undocumented immigrants with little or no probable cause. Trump’s advisors have not publicly discussed how police will determine how people at work or going about their business in public are undocumented — a pressing question if the goal is to arrest “scores” of people at once. The only plausible way to achieve this is to target people based on vague and unconstitutional judgments about their appearance or language skills.
Following their arrest, Trump wants to send detainees to vast detention camps far from where they live in the hope their lives in custody become so miserable that they give up their right to due process and simply agree to leave. He wants to do this to millions of people every year.
Per the Times, Trump’s advisors have also developed an array of other possible legal and administrative changes to quickly deport people they say are illegal immigrants, even those who have been in the United States for decades. Having apparently learned their lessons from Trump’s first term, they say their plans can be carried out without the need for new legislation. Legal challenges would surely arise, and they might succeed, but they would be fought in a judicial system and before a Supreme Court that now includes a significant number of Trump appointees, and which no longer makes any pretense about jamming through right-wing policies.
It is a mark of deep shame on the Biden administration that it has essentially continued much of Donald Trump’s pre-2020 immigration policy, and most Democrats have more or less just gone along with it. But it is still true that Trump’s new, detailed plan represents a serious, disturbing, and frankly evil break with an already morally atrocious status quo.
Beyond the almost unfathomable suffering it would cause to detainees and their families, the process of rounding up millions of people will fundamentally change the fabric of public life. The fear and violence this campaign of constant public mass arrests would bring to the entire country, undocumented or not, is not incidental. It represents a deliberate attempt to foster the most racist and authoritarian tendencies in US law and society.
Democracy on Shaky Ground
While this is all certainly a worst-case scenario, it would be wrong to dismiss the possibility out of hand. Not only does reporting indicate Trump and his advisors are much more prepared than when they entered the White House, but the ex-president is also more aggrieved against his ever-growing list of enemies. There is no reason to think that victory would lead to restraint.
And as reactions to the recent Israeli attack on Gaza has shown, the Western establishment’s dedication to pillars of liberal society like racial and religious tolerance, freedom of assembly and association, and political dissent are on shaky ground. In the United States, pro-Palestinian groups are being banned from universities, their peaceful demonstrations heavily policed even as they are largely ignored by the media — except to the extent they can be demonized as supposed Nazi sympathizers.
American Muslims and Palestinian Americans have been hit by cars and stabbed to death in apparent hate crimes since the conflict began. Arabs and Muslims who have taken no public stand on the conflict have been publicly smeared as antisemites in an organized, well-funded campaign. The establishment’s response? Hundreds of millions of dollars in political and propaganda spending, a presidential declaration that Palestinians are lying about how many civilians have been killed, more weapons for the Israeli military, and an obstinate refusal to name any humanitarian “red lines” that might cause Israel to lose US support.
The situation is hardly better anywhere else. It is arguably worse in Germany, for instance, which many middle- and upper-class Democrats held up as the example par excellence of sober, sensible liberalism during the Trump administration. Though Germany’s government is officially more liberal now than it was during the Trump years, it has fully banned as “antisemitic” many demonstrations calling for an Israeli cease-fire — including those organized by Jews.
Olaf Scholz, the Social Democratic chancellor of Germany, has himself called for increasing the number and speed of deportations from Germany, partly in response to the perception that immigrants are driving the demonstrations. But Germany and the United States aren’t outliers. Nowhere in the West are the political winds blowing against the kind of policies Trump imagines.
There’s just one remaining bulwark against Trumpism on steroids: Joe Biden’s reelection campaign. The president’s generally soporific demeanor is certainly a strong contrast to Trump’s, and his “let the grown-ups get things back to normal” campaign message defeated him once.
Will being someone other than Trump be enough to win now that Biden’s had the chance to push his own agenda? Polls continue to show Trump running neck and neck with Biden or with a slight lead, even as Trump’s legal troubles and his extremist rhetoric both reach new heights.
There is perhaps one reason for this: since his election, Biden has failed to enact anything very popular. He has also gone out of his way, for no good reason, to do things that are unpopular and materially harmful to millions of voters. A recent Financial Times/University of Michigan Ross School of Business poll found that less than a quarter of Democratic voters thought they were financially better off now than before Biden took office — meaning the negative attitude toward his policies is not merely a function of partisanship. Another recent poll found that Trump leads Biden in five out of six key swing states and that support for Biden is currently significantly lower across almost all demographic groups that were key to his 2020 victory.
Young voters seem particularly disenchanted. Already dealing with an economy in which wages have failed to keep up with skyrocketing costs of housing, education, and health care, many are now once again saddled by unsustainable student debt because of Biden’s decision to start collecting loans again. It is especially bitter for them to watch Biden time and again say his hands are tied when it comes to helping them (or even when it comes to simply not harming them), but when it comes to giving a nuclear power billions of dollars in weapons for its campaign to carpet-bomb one of the most densely populated places on Earth, Biden can’t get the job done fast enough. If Biden were intentionally trying to demoralize the base of voters he needs to win, it’s unclear what he would do differently.
Millions of voters are hurting and pissed off. Many of them aren’t paying close attention to politics at all beyond the headlines. They don’t know what Trump has planned, or they know it only in the vaguest terms. So far, simply lecturing such voters that Trump is worse than the unlikable Democratic alternative has a 50 percent success rate. I don’t like those odds of seeing a wave of mass arrests and deportations in eighteen months.