The first two weeks of Donald Trump’s administration have been chaotic, but the dominant themes have been civilizational conflict and trade protectionism. The president signed an executive order calling for the construction of a wall of undetermined type, length, and height along the southern border. When he insisted he’d figure out a way to make Mexico pay for the wall or face retribution—perhaps in the form of a 20 percent tax on Mexican imports—President Enrique Peña Nieto canceled his planned official visit to Washington. Then Trump signed an order banning Muslim refugees and permanent residents from seven predominantly Muslim countries (not a “Muslim ban,” we’re told, but a “ban” that overwhelmingly impacts “Muslims”) and all hell broke loose.
The bigoted undertones of Trump’s Mexico policy and the overtones of the ban are self-evident. But they are not incidental to the Fortress America that Trump hopes to create by keeping immigrants, refugees, and imports out of the country. If anything, the economic and security justifications for these policies are incidental, while the racial antagonism and scapegoating runs through the entirety of the agenda. Trump essentially promised us during the campaign that he would attempt to turn America into a white ethno-state, and now he’s making good on his promises.
It is very hard to know, on any given matter of importance, what Trump’s concrete, proximate goals are and how his administration plans to achieve them. This seems at times to be by design—a method of authoritarian control—and at other times an outgrowth of incompetence. But the overall whiff of bigotry is undeniable, exhibited most recently in Wednesday’s confusion over Trump’s phone call with Peña Nieto.
The Associated Press reported that during the call, Trump threatened to send U.S. troops over the border to take on “bad hombres”—the drug cartels and other high-level criminals, presumably. “You have a bunch of bad hombres down there,” Trump said, according to the AP. “You aren’t doing enough to stop them. I think your military is scared. Our military isn’t, so I just might send them down to take care of it.” The White House later insisted that Trump did not, in fact, threaten to invade our most important trading partner. A supposed transcript of the call leaked to CNN made it seem more like Trump had offered U.S. military support as a friendly offer to a hapless ally. “We are willing to help with that big-league, but they have [to] be knocked out and you have not done a good job knocking them out,” Trump apparently said.
It is impossible to say with certainty which version of events is correct. But here, as in most cases, the basic thrust is evident: Trump may not have clear objectives or a plan to achieve them, but if it can be interpreted as “being an asshole to Mexico,” he is behind it. And across a range of issues, the overall thrust is that Trump is implementing a program of white chauvinism, just as he said he would. His hostility toward Muslims, refugees, and Mexico is just the beginning.
Trump’s phone conversation last weekend with Australian Prime Minister Malcom Turnbull was no less mortifying and vindictive than the one with Peña Nieto. The 25-minute chat was supposed to last an hour, but ended abruptly when Trump hung up in frustration.
Feuding with a white conservative like Turnbull might appear to break the pattern of white favoritism Trump has shown, but it doesn’t. The spat centered on the U.S. government’s Obama-era agreement to accept about 1,250 refugees, mostly from Muslim-majority countries, who are currently being held by Australia at offshore detention centers. Trump reportedly accused Turnbull of wanting to export the “next Boston Bombers” to American soil and implied that the transfers would violate the aforementioned Muslim ban. He also told Turnbull that their conversation was the “worst” of the many calls he’d held with world leaders that day.
Things are no less offensive and absurd on this side of the water’s edge.
Domestically, the Trump administration is drafting a plan that would put legal, non-citizen immigrants as risk of deportation if they (or more likely their children) become dependent on programs like Medicaid. According to Reuters, Trump also “wants to revamp and rename a U.S. government program designed to counter all violent ideologies so that it focuses solely on Islamist extremism … and would no longer target groups such as white supremacists who have also carried out bombings and shootings in the United States.” Trump’s determination to offer white supremacists greater impunity is extra troubling in light of a recent disclosure to The Intercept of a classified Counterterrorism Policy Guide which reveals that the FBI has been tracking white supremacist infiltration of domestic law enforcement agencies.
Trump has already promised, in less official ways, to devote federal investigative resources to scrutinizing minority voting and to cracking down on violence in Chicago. It’s easy to imagine his soon-to-be Attorney General Jeff Sessions, who has a checkered civil rights record, determining resources are stretched too thin to police white supremacist groups in any meaningful way.
My colleague Jeet Heer argued recently that top Trump advisor Steve Bannon, the white nationalist former chairman of the racist propaganda website Breitbart, is responsible for the consistency. “providing a coherent political philosophy for the president’s scattered ideas.” In other words, Trump isn’t a vessel for whichever Svengali-like figure happens to gain influence with him. He and Bannon share similar instincts, but Bannon is deliberate enough to make Trump’s id-driven pronouncements cohere.
There’s a precedent to the Trump-Bannon White House, according to Heer, in the relationship between Adolph Hitler and Joseph Goebbels, who “[gave] ideological coherence to his leader’s rants and blabber.” But we don’t have to turn the clock back to World War II to find a harbinger of their partnership. Trump ran a racist campaign for months without Bannon by his side. He won the GOP primary by portraying white America as under siege by immigrants and Muslims, shut out of urban life by what Breitbart would refer to as “Black Crime.”
The substantive platform, though, didn’t become clear until Bannon joined the campaign—after Trump had already accepted the GOP nomination—and the very policy agenda Trump is now implementing came into focus. Trump came up with the wall and the ban on his own, but Bannon threaded them together, and then into a broader plan of action that has white nationalists across the country swooning. We can safely assume that Bannon has been giving ideological coherence to Trump’s rants and blabber, because that’s what he’s done for Trump all along.