PAUL CONNEW: Trump hitches his caravan to hate

PUBLISHED: 12:00 04 November 2018

TOPSHOT - Honduran migrants Mari Elena Torres and her daughter Genesis Samari, who are heading in a caravan to the US. Picture: PEDRO PARDO/AFP/Getty Images)

TOPSHOT - Honduran migrants Mari Elena Torres and her daughter Genesis Samari, who are heading in a caravan to the US. Picture: PEDRO PARDO/AFP/Getty Images)

Archant

The president is back on his favourite topic, and playing with fire. PAUL CONNEW reports

By the time the ‘caravan’ of thousands of migrants trudging north through Mexico finally reaches the US border, next week’s US mid-term elections will be a distant memory. Their timing could not be more perfect for the president. By then, they will have served their purpose.

Donald Trump has seized on the group’s plight as an issue he hopes can swing the tide of the battle for Congress back in favour of the Republicans, in the November 6 election. And it may well work.

Without a shred of evidence the president has sought to turn the caravan into a domestic terrorism scare story, claiming that menacing mystery “Middle Easterners” have infiltrated it and pose a security threat to the US. Despite serious misgivings among Pentagon chiefs, he has even announced plans to send 5,000 troops to the Mexican border in advance of the migrants’ arrival.

His stance – absurdly hyperbolic though it may be – is playing well with his core support base and reinforcing his conviction that immigration – or rather the irrational fear of immigration – is his trump card as polling day nears. After all, it was the issue that provided the rallying cry that helped propel Trump into the White House in 2016 – “Build the Wall”.

The approach of the caravan – however distant – has allowed him to revive the issue of the wall itself, accusing Capitol Hill Democrats and moderate Republicans of stalling his demands for funding to build it. He will be painfully aware that losing the Lower House to the Democrats next week will almost certainly demolish his vision for the structure permanently. The caravan presents Trump with his best opportunity to ensuring that does not happen.

The reality of the situation, of course, in no way matches the president’s rhetoric. This is no “invasion”, as Trump has described the caravan. The travellers are fleeing persecution, poverty and violence in their home countries of Honduras, Guatemala, and El Salvador, and are braving a host of dangers, including dehydration and criminal gangs, to head north. And migrants have trudged this route before. But most previous caravans have been smaller – and have not coincided so propitiously with the US electoral cycle.

The dangers of Trump’s tactics are not just political and could backfire. There are senior GOP figures on Capitol Hill, not just the Trump-sceptic moderates but also some of his own Washington loyalists, who warn that his fiery focus on immigration alienates many voters, even if helps shore up his base.

Then there are other consequences of such incendiary rhetoric which have been all to evident in the US over the last fortnight, with two major domestic terrorist offences, including the most deadly act of anti-Semitism in US history. The fact that the perpetrators in both outrages are far right Trump-supporting registered Republicans who have bought wholeheartedly into the president’s persistent, polarising demagoguery has undoubtedly sent a chill down the spine of GOP election strategists.

It hasn’t, however, failed to effectively curb the president himself, who remains convinced that his gut instincts are the passports to avoiding the predicted Republican humiliation at the ballot box.

Until the synagogue horror, Trump had given his tacit approval to far-right social media attacks on the migrant caravan, including the calumny that George Soros, the Jewish anti-Trump billionaire businessman and philanthropist, is secretly funding it, to smuggle illegal anti-Trump voters into America. In one of the last acts of Robert Bowers before he embarked on his murderous spree at the Pittsburgh synagogue, he accused – via a chillingly popular pro-Trump website – “liberal Jews” like Soros of being behind the caravan “invaders” – the same term used by the president himself.

Wiser White House hands and the Republican leadership are publicly desperate to distance Trump from the attacks, insisting he bears no responsibility for the actions of “crazed fanatics”. Next week, it will be a matter for the voters of America to decide upon.

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