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On immigration, Trump relies on fear-mongering, and little else

To the extent that Trump had a policy argument on immigration, it's collapsed. What's left is him telling people that scary immigrants are coming to kill them.
President Donald Trump talks with reporters as he reviews border wall prototypes, Tuesday, March 13, 2018, in San Diego.
President Donald Trump talks with reporters as he reviews border wall prototypes, Tuesday, March 13, 2018, in San Diego.

Plenty of crimes were committed in the United States on Dec. 27, but Donald Trump decided to single out one for attention.

"There is right now a full scale manhunt going on in California for an illegal immigrant accused of shooting and killing a police officer during a traffic stop," the president wrote. "Time to get tough on Border Security. Build the Wall!"

The point obviously wasn't subtle, but it was familiar.

Not long after taking office, the Trump administration created a Victims of Immigration Crime Engagement (VOICE) office, which included a hotline Americans can call if they're a victim of a specific kind of crime: those perpetrated by undocumented immigrants. (The initiative proved to be ridiculous.)

In February 2018, the White House distributed to reporters a "round-up" of "immigration crime stories," purporting to show -- in some cases, falsely -- evidence of immigrants breaking the law. In June 2018, Trump hosted a special event for the victims of crimes committed by immigrants, complete with a special name: "Angel Families."

Last night's Oval Office address fit comfortably within the larger pattern. A Washington Post  analysis explained:

[I]t's not a surprise that Trump's first Oval Office address to the country focused on stoking visceral fear of people crossing America's southern border. [...]He wanted America to focus on a police officer murdered by an undocumented immigrant in California. He wanted listeners to hear about a veteran brutally killed by another immigrant here illegally. He wanted people to focus on gang members he talked about so often at his rallies, who killed a teenage girl in cold blood.

The antecedents of tactics like these are, of course, genuinely scary. What's more, the entire pitch ignores the simple fact that native-born Americans, on average, commit more crimes than immigrants, including undocumented immigrants.

But as the debate -- and the related government shutdown -- continue, it's worth appreciating why Trump insists on framing the debate in a demagogic way.

I suspect it's because, from the president's perspective, there's simply nothing left. He has no economic argument. He has no counter-terrorism argument. He has no fiscal argument. To the extent that the White House had a substantive pitch in support of Trump's goal, it has collapsed.

What remains is Trump's hope that he can target just enough Americans in the gut, persuading them that scary immigrants are coming to get them. As Dara Lind documented very well, "'Immigrants are coming over the border to kill you' is the only speech Trump knows how to give."

It's the speech the president relied on ahead of the midterm elections, and it's the speech he pitched from the Oval Office last night.

It didn't work ahead of Election Day, and as Republican members of Congress move toward Democrats on a resolution of the shutdown, it doesn't appear to be working now, either.

Update: An emailer reminds me of a point that I'd intended to mention, but overlooked: a wall wouldn't have a dramatic effect on illegal immigration anyway.