Donald Trump’s current con job – spreading lies about the migrants who are walking through Mexico, seeking to terrify his fans into voting on November 6 – is just his latest attempt to weaponize fear for political gain. He’s been playing that card, successfully so, since he rode his escalator on day one of his craven candidacy, but his “caravan” demagoguery actually reminds me of a tactic that right-wingers concocted way back in 1934. I’ll explain that shortly.
By now you’ve probably heard the fake news, because it’s virtually impossible to escape it. For his closing argument on the eve of the midterms, Trump in recent days has decreed, naturally without a shred of evidence, that the migrants have been infiltrated by “people from the Middle East,” by “criminals and unknown Middle Easterners,” by “some very bad people,” by “MS-13, you’re going to find Middle Eastern, you’re going to find everything,” and guess what, “I think the Democrats had something to do with it.”
In essence, Trump has been amplifying fake rumors that have been circulating on right-wing blogs – most notably, that “100 ISIS fighters” had joined the caravan before being captured in Guatemala. “Fox & Friends” repeated that lie on the air yesterday, and Trump quickly recycled it in a tweet. Reporters (the real ones, who still believe in empirical facts) have asked the White House to verify the ISIS claim, the “Ms-13” claim ,and the “Middle Easterners” claim, but the White House has produced nothing.
And yesterday afternoon, Shepard Smith, one of Fox News’ token empiricists, frankly stated on camera that “Fox News knows of no evidence to suggest the president is accurate on that matter. And the president has offered no evidence to support what he has said.”
But who needs evidence? That concept is downright quaint. At a rally last week, Trump even told his cheering fans that the Democrats financed the caravan, supposedly to turn the migrants into midterm voters: “A lot of money has been passing to people to come up and try and get to the border by Election Day.” He can’t substantiate that claim – nor can Trump ally and Florida congressman Matt Gaetz substantiate his baseless speculation that the migrants are being paid by (you guessed it) George Soros – but, as we know, truth is the first casualty of this nascent authoritarian era. And as we well know, from our checkered human history, fear in the gut can sway the minds of millions.
Which brings me to a chapter in recent history – the 1934 gubernatorial race in California. The progressive candidate was Upton Sinclair, a famous novelist who had long inveighed against poverty. His writings famously inspired legislative reforms, most notably the 1906 Federal Meat Inspection Act and the establishment of what would later become the Food and Drug Administration. He ran for governor on a program called End Poverty in California (EPIC), but rich conservatives, including some of the Hollywood moguls, viewed him as a threat to the power structure. They vowed to take him down. With the Great Depression in full swing, they decided to scare the pants off Californians by sowing fears of a massive invasion by out-of-state “hoboes.”
MGM produced fake newsreels and ran them in the theaters. A reporter purportedly in the employ of “California Election News” (the reporter was a hired actor; “California Election News” was a fake outlet created by MGM) spoke on camera to purportedly average voters who voiced fears of an invasion from “undesirables.” The voters were hired actors, too. Meanwhile, MGM coordinated with its allies in the press. The Los Angeles Times ran a photo of a freight car “loaded with tramps going to California to live off EPIC.” Turned out, the Times photo was from a movie, a 1933 Warner Brothers fictional production called “Wild Boys of the Road.” The Los Angeles Herald Examiner ran its own photo of a purported hobo invasion in progress. Turned out, the Examiner’s hoboes were hired actors. Sinclair lost the gubernatorial race by 11 points.
The historical parallels aren’t perfect, of course – the hobos were fake; the caravan migrants are real – but the impulse to weaponize fear is sickeningly similar. And on midterm eve, Trump doesn’t have much else to offer. He can’t tout the 2017 tax cut, because the average American has barely felt it. (Now he’s promising a new “10 percent” tax cut, starting with an immediate “resolution” to Congress – which isn’t even in session.) And he can’t tout the repeal of Obamacare, because he and his Republican allies didn’t repeal it. He can’t credibly warn that resurgent Democrats will cut Medicare (although he has tried to float that lie), because Mitch McConnell has already vowed to target Medicare and other entitlements if the GOP wins both chambers.
So Trump is going with the caravan. And who’s to say that his fearmongering won’t work? In one news report this morning, a 75-year-old Republican in northern Minnesota was agitated by the possibility that migrants could come to her state and seize the vacation lake homes. She said: “What’s to stop them? We have a lot of people who live on lakes in the summer and winter someplace else. When they come back in the spring, their house would be occupied.”
No word yet on whether George Soros is training the unknown Middle Easterners on the fine points of ice-fishing. But there are still 14 days left on the clock to get the word out.