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Trump Intends to Keep His Most Frightening Promises

He might disappoint his base on foreign and economic policy, but his transition suggests he's sticking to his guns on immigration.

Scott Eisen / Getty Images

Carl Higbie, a spokesman for a pro–Donald Trump super PAC, insisted to Fox News’ Megyn Kelly on Wednesday that a government registry for immigrants from Muslim countries “is legal” and would “hold constitutional muster.”

“I know the ACLU is going to challenge it, but I think it’ll pass,” Higbie said. “And we’ve done it with Iran back awhile ago, we did during World War II with [the] Japanese, which, call it what you will, may be wrong.”

“C’mon, you’re not proposing we go back to the days of internment camps, I hope,” Kelly shot back. “You know better than to suggest that. That’s the kind of stuff that gets people scared, Carl.”

We should be scared, because all signs point to Trump keeping his promise to crack down on immigration—and doing so to a degree America hasn’t seen for over half a century.

Trump’s ethno-nationalist campaign platform had three broadly linked planks: a unilateralist, but less interventionist foreign policy that would put national interest above traditional alliances; a protectionist economic policy that would put the people before the elite; and a restrictionist immigration policy that would, implicitly, reassert white identity as a defining feature of American culture. All three policies are a break not just from the Obama administration, but also the Republican establishment.

Thus far, Trump is showing more flexibility on the first two planks. On foreign policy, the Trump transition team has floated ultra-hawks like former U.N. Ambassador John Bolton and retired Lt. Gen. Michael Flynn, who might share some appetite for unilateralism but are hardly enemies of interventionism. Their rhetoric can be extreme: Bolton, a potential pick for secretary of state, has repeatedly called for bombing Iran to stop it from developing nuclear weapons, while Flynn, offered the post of being Trump’s national security adviser, speaks of America being “at war with Islam” (not just with radical jihadis). Despite this extreme rhetoric, they’re both longtime members of the foreign policy establishment—more likely to replicate George W. Bush than to sever traditional alliances or advocate disengagement in the Middle East. Bolton in particular is an old-school hawk on Russia, an obvious conflict with Trump’s call for warmer relations with Vladimir Putin.

On economic policy, Trump might outright betray his base by putting at the helm Wall Street insiders who will carry out policies of tax cuts for the rich and banking deregulation. Politico reports on the names being floated for key positions:

Former Goldman Sachs banker Steven Mnuchin has been seen at Trump Tower amid rumors that he’s the leading candidate for Treasury secretary. Billionaire investor Wilbur Ross appears headed to the Commerce Department. Steve Bannon, another Goldman alum, will work steps from the Oval Office. JPMorgan Chase CEO Jamie Dimon remains a possibility as Treasury secretary and will serve as an outside adviser if he doesn’t get the job.

These plutocrats are not likely to implement the kind of economic populism, especially on trade, that Trump touted on the campaign trail. Aside from these potential appointments, Trump will also have to contend with the agenda of House Speaker Paul Ryan, whose proposal to privatize Medicare, Medicaid, and Social Security is at odds with Trump’s campaign promise to defend these entitlements. Trump likely will have to compromise with Ryan, causing even greater disappointment to the president-elect’s supporters.

But when it comes to a xenophobic immigration policy, Trump appears to be bringing aboard true believers.

Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach, who has played a prominent role in the transition and is a rumored candidate for attorney general, is arguing that Trump begin construction of a border wall without congressional approval and has floated the reinstatement of the aforementioned Bush-era immigration registry—which Kobach himself helped to design.

Senator Jeff Sessions, also rumored for attorney general, has long been one of the most prominent nativists in Washington, a supporter of Trump’s border wall who also wants to defund sanctuary cities and make English the official language of the United States. “Sessions is a favorite of Stormfront, the white-nationalist web community founded by former Klansman Don Black,” Roll Call’s Jonathan Allen wrote this week. “His confirmation would reinforce Trump’s appointment of white nationalist Steve Bannon to the top strategist’s role at the White House.”

As for Bannon himself, the administration’s new chief strategist is an outspoken xenophobe who suggested that having an Asian majority of tech CEOs is a threat to “civic society.” More broadly, his support of the alt-right movement, amply displayed during his tenure as executive chairman at Breitbart News, shows an affinity for those who believe in the superiority of ethnically homogenous societies. As historian Ruth Ben-Ghiat explained at CNN, Bannon is “an agitator for a virulent white nationalism that targets people of color and immigrants as criminals and spreads conspiracy theories designed to destabilize our democracy by sowing division and eroding civic trust.”

For Trump, it makes perfect political sense that immigration would be the campaign plank where he keeps his promise to his base. A radical shift in foreign policy or economics would earn him powerful enemies in the military-industrial complex and Wall Street. Latino and Muslim immigrants, on the other hand, are easy targets with decidedly less power in opposing the new administration’s policies—and it’s precisely because Trump could disappoint his base on his other key promises that he might double down on an immigration crackdown.

Of course, if Trump delivers on his most frightening immigration promises, it won’t simply be because immigrants are easy targets. Trumpism itself is built on an assertion of white superiority, and proposals like a border wall and Muslim ban appeal most directly to the grievances of the white racists who form part of Trump’s base. He began his campaign by saying that undocumented Mexican immigrants are “bringing drugs” and are “rapists”—an incendiary comment that formed the basis of his political appeal—so it’s hardly surprising that he’d reward his hardcore followers with immigrant-bashing now that he’s assuming power.

As they prepare for President Trump, Democrats need to prioritize which issues they can work with him on, like infrastructure spending, and where they can most effectively resist him on. Immigration is firmly in the latter camp.

Immigrants are a major part of the Democratic base, but electoral calculus is the least of the reasons to defend them at all costs. This is an existential matter for the Democratic Party. Since Lyndon Johnson and Barry Goldwater squared off in 1964, the Democrats have been the party of ethnic pluralism in America, one that sees the nation as a multi-ethnic democracy. The Republicans, by contrast, have often echoed the language of pluralism but in practice have functioned as the party of white resentment.

Until Trump’s victory, this resentment was usually expressed in muted form, via dog whistles and coded speech. But now it’s out in the open, and America faces a stark battle between pluralism and revanchism. In fighting Trump on immigration, Democrats have to make it clear that the policies he’s advocating represent a return to the era of white superiority challenged by the Civil Rights movement of the 1960s. This is not just an existential matter for the party, in fact; it’s an existential matter for many people living in America today.