President Trump has not assembled a stellar record when it comes to keeping the promises he made as a candidate. A wall on the southern border, and Mexico’s going to pay for it? No. Repealing the Affordable Care Act and replacing it with “something terrific”? Sorry. Drain the Washington swamp? Surely you jest. “So much winning if I get elected that you may get bored with winning”? Well … not exactly.
But that doesn’t mean he isn’t trying. And this week, we saw dramatic movement on policies that honor the white nationalist campaign Trump ran.
On Tuesday, The New York Times revealed that “the Trump administration is preparing to redirect resources of the Justice Department’s civil rights division toward investigating and suing universities over affirmative action admissions policies deemed to discriminate against white applicants.” Then on Wednesday, the president announced his support for a bill that would severely curtain legal immigration, cutting the number of immigrants allowed in to the U.S. in half, restricting the family members who would be able to sponsor an immigrant’s application, capping the number of refugees, and ending the “diversity lottery” that grants visas to applicants from countries with fewer immigrants.
That bill may not pass, and there’s no way to tell how successful the government’s suits on behalf of oppressed white students will be. But the practical effects aren’t really the point. Instead, Trump is symbolically fulfilling what were symbolic promises to begin with.
The power of Trump’s campaign for so many of his voters was that it wasn’t couched in euphemism and it didn’t apologize for its appeal to racial, ethnic, and religious identity. His most ardent supporters thrilled to the permission Trump gave them to cast off the chains of “political correctness” and tell people what they really thought of them — immigrants, Muslims, African-Americans, women, all of them.
What do you think “Make America Great Again” was supposed to mean? It promised a return to a time when our country was less diverse and no one questioned a hierarchy that placed white men at the top (today, of course, the hierarchy still exists, but people question it all the time). Many of those white men feel like they’ve lost something over the years, particularly if their economic prospects are limited. For them, the idea of turning back the clock so they wouldn’t have to read signs in Spanish or be polite to people they consider their lessers was nothing short of intoxicating.
While Trump tapped into those feelings intuitively, certain people around him had been thinking a lot about them and saw Trump as the perfect vehicle for bringing their philosophy to the White House. Stephen Bannon, who took over Trump’s campaign in the fall after running the white nationalist Breitbart website, had for years been ruminating on a war between the West and the forces of barbarism. He frequently mentioned a racist 1973 French novel called The Camp of the Saints, comparing contemporary patterns of immigration to the novel’s vision of a horde of bestial dark-skinned refugees invading France. In speeches and radio shows, he would talk often about the clash of civilizations he believed had already begun between Christian countries and Islam itself.
Bannon’s partner in bringing this worldview to the White House is Stephen Miller, a young policy aide with a wide portfolio who, among other things, writes many of Trump’s speeches. Miller got his start as an aide to then-Sen. Jeff Sessions, who not coincidentally happens to be the other pole of this axis, turning the Justice Department’s commitment to civil rights on its head in a straightforward attempt to advance the interests of white people. For many years, Sessions stood apart from most of his Republican colleagues in the Senate by not bothering to couch his advocacy for an immigration crackdown by saying “I support legal immigration,” as so many of them did. Instead, he made clear his desire to reduce the numbers of all immigrants coming to the U.S., even legal ones. Now he’s attacking affirmative action, immigration, and voting rights, with the power of the executive branch behind him.
While President Trump may never have had any deep thoughts about his role in a clash of civilizations, he knows what whips up his crowds. And his impulses always run toward antipathy for people not like him — even, in his more vulgar moments, toward advocacy for violence, whether it’s telling his supporters to “knock the hell” out of protesters or suggesting that what America needs is more police brutality.
“See, in the good old days this doesn’t happen,” Trump said when protesters interrupted him at a campaign rally, “because they used to treat them very, very rough. And when they protested once, you know, they would not do it again so easily.” Everyone cheered. He promised his supporters a return to those good old days, and that’s what he’s trying to give them. They can look at Washington and know that non-white people and immigrants aren’t going to be treated with kid gloves anymore. It may not put food on their tables or solve the problems in their communities, but it might be enough to convince them that America is becoming great again. And that’s all Trump needs.