Everything we think we know about Donald Trump’s presidential campaign flows from a single word: “rapists.”
In making his infamous off-the-cuff remarks (not that he makes any other kind) at his campaign kick-off that the Mexicans “are bringing drugs and they are bringing crime and their rapists” into the United States, Trump offered a political Rorschach test that has been chronically misinterpreted ever since. Like so much about Trump, there is significantly less here than meets the eye.
Was it a racist comment? On this, social justice warriors, the Republican establishment, and white nationalists all seem to agree, which should perhaps indicate his remarks were a tad lacking in clarity.
Was Trump implying all Mexicans are rapists — or at the very least, significantly more likely to be? That’s a interpretation that satisfies many, be they liberals desperate to believe the Republican base is a gaggle of bigots, backers of primary rivals desperate to dismiss Trump as unhinged, or genuine racists desperate to have one of their own on the center stage.
Or perhaps Trump was merely expressing deep reservations of immigration in general?
Ann Coulter, who coincidentally has an anti-immigration book out right now, has been promoting this theory of Trump quite strenuously, and it’s certainly a valid explanation for his current bump in the polls. Immigration is a great deal less popular in the United States than is fashionable to acknowledge, with large reason for the distaste being an assumed correlation between immigration and criminality.
Trump, for his part, has sought to clarify. “We’re talking about illegal immigration, and everyone understands that,” he barked at a Telemundo reporter the other day. “That’s a typical case of the press with misinterpretation.”
In other recent interviews, Trump has thrown his support behind increasing immigration overall — so long as the immigrants come legally — and has more or less taken it for granted that there should be some “path to citizenship” for non-felonious illegals already here (“I’m going to formulate a plan I think people will be happy with”). Other Trump critics on the right have dug up fairly recent examples of Trump spouting deeply establishmentarian immigration talking-points, including a 2012 interview with NewsMax in which he uses words like “mean-spirited” and “maniacal” to describe Governor Romney’s immigration rhetoric.
His prescriptions for America’s leaky southern border, meanwhile, have been preposterous — “I would do something very severe unless [Mexico] contributed or gave us the money to build the wall,” he told CNN, helpfully adding “I’m very good at building things.” (In Trump’s version of the world there are very few problems that can’t be solved with bullying.) Genuine racists may be similarly discouraged to hear Trump’s endless damage-control assertions of how much he “loves” the Latino people and braggy confidence that he’ll “win the Hispinic [sic] vote.”
At present, Donald Trump’s image seems to have congealed at “Fifth Horsemen of the Apocalypse,” a characterization deserving of suspicion given the vast ideological diversity of people who share it. Everyone presumes that beneath that hair and that bravado there must be an inner core that is either supremely vile or supremely heroic. His wealth, fame, and fearlessness is assumed to liberate him from the self-censorship and political correctness of other Republicans, exposing a creature of pure right-wing id.
Tragically discarded is our conventional understanding of celebrities who “get political” late in life — they know a great deal less than they think. Those who have lived most of their adulthood knowing only privilege and power are less likely to have had the sort of diverse life experiences and interactions necessary to breed sophisticated political opinions; they are less likely to be pressured by life’s complexities to formulate viable solutions to properly understood problems. They are, in short, likely to be buffoons.
Trump’s talent has been the conversion of his buffoonery into the persona of a populist demagogue, the sort of politician upon whom voters project beliefs he has never specifically articulated, but we assume a man like him would hold. In that sense, he is nothing revolutionary or unprecedented, but a stock character of American presidential politics that runs in continuum from William Jennings Bryan to Huey Long to Jesse Jackson and Pat Robertson to Ross Perot and even the current president.
What we feel we deserve is not always what we are given.