President Donald Trump in Montana.
Photo: Nicholas Kamm/AFP/Getty Images
Have you heard about the caravan? It is marching north like an army. There are 7,000 people in it and counting. It is a national “emergy.” It is from Honduras, but unknown Middle Easterners are mixed in. President Donald Trump has very good information about it — just ask Vice-President Mike Pence, who had a phone call on Tuesday with President Juan Orlando Hernández of Honduras. Pence has learned that leftist groups are organizing the caravan. Venezuela is funding it. So are the Democrats and George Soros, who is dictating where the caravan defecates.
The caravan is at the southern tip of Mexico, 1,100 miles away, but could be at the U.S. border any minute if you do not vote Republican. “[The November midterms] will be the election of Kavanaugh, the caravan, law and order, and common sense,” Trump told a rally in Montana last week. “I think [the caravan] could be a blessing in disguise because it shows how bad our laws are,” he told USA Today Monday. “The Democrats are responsible for that.”
Trump’s relentless fearmongering toward the men, women, and children laboriously making their way north on foot from Central America reached a new apex Thursday when news broke that Defense Secretary James Mattis planned to send “800 or more” additional troops to the U.S.-Mexico border. The prospect of armed guards lining up from San Diego to the Gulf Coast to rebuff the enemy at the gate is galvanizing imagery — as is intended. It is also not actually what is happening, and their deployment marks another absurd development in Republicans’ efforts to turn the caravan into a wedge issue before the elections.
CNN reports that it is unclear if the 800 new U.S. soldiers will consist of active-duty troops or activated National Guard. They will join 2,100 Guard personnel already present at the border and reportedly not be involved in any “lethal operations.” Their duties will include to “provide fencing, wall materials,” and “tents and medical care for border authorities.” But for many observers, the perception of their presence will inevitably be of a siege. That is the point. As Ed Kilgore notes, the fantasy of an impending confrontation between white-led civilization and a brown immigrant horde is a timeworn subject of global right-wing panic, vividly illustrated in the racist 1973 French novel by Jean Raspail — and purported Stephen K. Bannon favorite — The Camp of the Saints.
In recent weeks, Republican officials past and present have expended significant energy trying to inflame this panic. “[Border Patrol agents] will defend this line,” Thomas Homan, ICE’s former acting director, told Fox News Monday. “Thank God we got a president sitting in the White House who … has [their] backs.” Trump has lied several times about the caravan’s features to make it seem more sinister, including about the aforementioned Democrats funding it and “unknown Middle Easterners” peppering its ranks. When asked by a reporter Tuesday if he could prove the latter claim, the president replied, “There’s no proof of anything.” When asked by the Daily Beast if the president’s outlandish assertions about the caravan were true, a senior White House official responded, “It doesn’t matter if it’s 100 percent accurate. This is the play.”
The president’s “play” is most successful when he harps on who might be in the caravan rather than who actually is. So far, there is no evidence of the left-wing conspiracy Trump and his administration allege is driving the migrants, nor that any of them are “Middle Easterners” — a clear dog whistle meant to imply a terrorist threat. There is evidence, however, that Besi Jaqueline Lopez has two daughters — Victoria, 4, and Elisabeth, 3 — and left Honduras with them “to find work for a better future.” There is evidence that Ingrid Andino fled because she feared local gangs would murder her 16-year-old son, and that Paola Oviedo’s ex-husband was threatening to kill her, so she took her 18-month-old baby and ran north.
These women and the strivers traveling alongside them for protection are the people around whom Republicans are trying to rile up their base, mostly by lying about them and their intentions. The rhetoric they use intentionally invokes conspiracy and invasion. Trump has repeatedly referred to the migrants’ journey as an “onslaught,” suggesting violence where none has taken place. When the president calls for military deployment to stop the caravan — after first implying that it has already overwhelmed Mexican authorities — he is intentionally conjuring the specter of a military campaign approaching U.S. soil, consuming all in its path. He is betting this proves catnip for panic-prone conservatives when they go to the polls in November. “What’s to stop them?” Carol Shields, a Republican in northern Minnesota, told the New York Times. “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.”
Occupation, invasion, onslaughts. As Eric Levitz writes, these are the worries Republicans hope will preoccupy voters rather than the GOP’s actual policy positions. You have heard about the caravan not because it poses an actual threat — this one is larger than usual, but several migrant caravans consisting of hundreds of people, and sometimes more than 1,500, have traveled north in the past two years — but because Trump and his surrogates want you to. The Mattis deployment is a logical next step. A troop surge implies current security is insufficient — that our bulwarks are being fortified in proportion to the forces threatening to overwhelm them. It means the cavalry is on its way. It is a pageant, and an absurd one. But Trump can continue to call on troops as long as he wants people to believe more troops are needed. Whether they are or not is secondary. The prize is a panicked electorate on November 6.