President Donald Trump speaks to reporters at the White House.
Photo: Ron Sachs/Getty Images
It has been a week since what President Donald Trump ominously dubbed the “election of the … caravan,” but nobody in the White House or Republican Party seems to be talking about the caravan anymore. This despite the imminent threat both spent weeks insisting the 7,000 Central American migrants traveling through Mexico posed. “Mexico’s Police and Military are unable to stop the Caravan heading to the Southern Border of the United States,” the president tweeted on October 22. “I have alerted Border Patrol and Military that this is a National Emergy [sic]. Must change laws!”
Trump was not alone in his outcry. Vice-President Mike Pence phoned Honduran president Juan Orlando Hernández to ascertain details about the caravan’s origins, then told reporters on October 23 that “leftist groups” and Venezuela were funding it. Trump accused the Democrats of bankrolling its movements, while U.S. Representative Matt Gaetz claimed liberal billionaire George Soros was behind it. The president stated, without evidence, that “[criminals] and unknown Middle Easterners [were] mixed in.” Former ICE acting director Thomas Homan told Fox News, “[Border Patrol agents] will defend this line … Thank God we got a president sitting in the White House who … has [their] backs.”
There were, of course, no known criminals or “Middle Easterners” mixed in, nor was the caravan a national emergency. The fear-mongering that marked Trump’s response to the migrants — many of whom were women and children, and most of whom were fleeing violence and economic hardship in Honduras — was a transparent effort to scare Republican voters. It appears to have been successful in this regard. “What’s to stop them?” Carol Shields, a Republican in northern Minnesota, told the New York Times in October. “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.” But if the goal was to land a knockout punch on vulnerable Democrats in red states, it was less so. Trump singled out Senator Jon Tester at a Montana rally as an “open borders” proponent, which was a lie. Tester won reelection anyway.
It seems unavoidable, at this point, that Trump did not actually believe the caravan was a threat of the magnitude he once claimed. It is significantly closer to the U.S. now, but he has discussed it just once publicly since Election Day, despite tweeting about it at least six times beforehand and bringing it up several more times at rallies and press conferences. He alluded to it in a November 9 proclamation limiting entry for certain asylum seekers. But the bigger fallout from his efforts is still being felt. The troop surge he ordered to the border to stop the “onslaught” looks increasingly like a political stunt with no military value. And the October 28 massacre at a Pittsburgh synagogue by a man claiming the caravan was a Jew-engineered invasion has left a community terrorized and 11 families mourning dead loved ones.
A bulk of the caravan migrants were last reported heading west from Querétaro toward Irapuato, roughly 200 miles northwest of Mexico City, en route to Tijuana. About 1,600 miles stand between them and their destination at the U.S. border. If their pace so far is an indication, it will be several weeks before they arrive. As for the threat they purportedly pose, all evidence suggests they are the same mix of strivers and asylum seekers who routinely — and peacefully — come to the U.S. seeking refuge and opportunity. And absent proof they mean Americans harm, the White House has piggybacked on fear generated by their mere existence. On November 2, Trump released an ad centered on convicted murderer Luis Bracamontes, seeking to blame undocumented immigration in general for enabling the Mexican citizen’s crimes. It was widely panned as racist.
Meanwhile, 5,600 U.S. troops remain stationed at the border in California, Arizona, and Texas, presumably waiting for the caravan’s arrival. They missed Veterans Day with their families, and their December 15 deployment bookend suggests they will miss Thanksgiving too, according to the New York Times. Their duties entail things like hammering stakes into the ground and unfurling wire fencing. They are not receiving extra combat or hostile fire pay for their efforts, since they will likely not be engaging with migrants. Defense Secretary James Mattis has tried to ratchet down the mission’s clear political overtones, discarding its original name, Operation Faithful Patriot, in favor of the less assuming “border support.” But the initial fanfare and theatricality in the face of a likely non-threat thousands of miles away leaves little doubt that the deployment was more saber rattle than tactical necessity.
Those who took the prospect of a caravan “invasion” the most seriously turned out to be the most unhinged. Shortly before entering the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh on October 27, 46-year-old Robert Bowers posted on the social network Gab, “I can’t sit by and watch my people get slaughtered. Screw your optics, I’m going in.” Bowers had posted regularly about Jews helping transport caravans of migrants from Latin America to the U.S., using language that mirrored Trump’s. “I have noticed a change in people saying ‘illegals’ that now say ‘invaders’,” read one of his posts, according to CNN. “I like this.” In apparent retaliation for his fabricated conspiracy, Bowers shot and killed 11 Jewish worshippers, some in their 70s, 80s, and 90s. He reportedly believed Trump was not anti-Semitic enough in his rhetoric, but shared the president’s delusion that the caravan warranted an armed response.
Such will be the likely legacy of the right’s fear-mongering here — demonizing migrants to secure Republican electoral wins, then discarding the issue once its political value expired. Even if Trump saw it as a charade — “It doesn’t matter if it’s 100 percent accurate,” one White House official told the Daily Beast. “This is the play” — enough took it seriously that almost a dozen people were killed for it. In the meantime, thousands of troops are performing menial tasks at the border to sustain the president’s pageant of siege, even as the political apparatus that once trumpeted their efforts has gone largely silent. A White House as dishonest as this one may see more flagrant cons. But it is hard to argue that many will be as appalling.