“I’m on message,” Donald Trump recently told the New York Times. “I’m not playing around. In fact, I’m a little nervous standing here talking to you even for just a minute.”
The GOP nominee has evinced a similar nervousness in recent campaign appearances — at a rally in Florida last week, Trump told himself, “All right, stay on point Donald, stay on point … No sidetracks, Donald. Nice and easy.”
While Trump has every reason not to trust himself on this score, the candidate has actually stayed (relatively) disciplined in recent weeks. The mogul has been more selective in doling out television interviews and gone on far fewer scorched-earth Twitter rants. On the stump, he’s concentrated more rhetorical energy on Hillary Clinton’s corruption than on the perfidy of his fellow Republicans or the ugliness of the women who’ve accused him of sexual assault.
The Times’ behind-the-scenes portrait of the Trump campaign, published Sunday, confirms that this shift was a conscious one: A year and a half into the campaign, Trump’s aides finally convinced him to try to follow their advice — including forfeiting control of his precious Twitter account.
But Trump is no less dangerous on script than he is off of it, a fact that’s been apparent at least since he shouted his way through a convention speech steeped in authoritarian demagoguery.
Trump’s campaign does not want him picking fights with Gold Star families or women who have accused him of sexual harassment. They see no political utility in Trump’s misogyny or obsession with celebrities who have slighted him. But they do want him demonizing nonwhite immigrants and refugees, because they believe he could assemble a majority coalition by wedding supply-side economics to xenophobic populism. And, at present, they’re about 3 percentage points away from being right.
This is terrifying, for reasons well illustrated by a pair of campaign stops Trump made over the weekend.
First, at a rally in Reno on Saturday, Trump argued that efforts to accommodate Latino voters were tantamount to electoral fraud.
The night before, so many last-minute early voters turned out in one heavily Latino district in Nevada, a polling place remained open three hours longer than it was scheduled to, so as to allow every voter who was waiting in line to cast his or her ballot. This extension was legal under the state’s election laws. But, in Trump’s view, when the government goes out of its way to allow certain people to vote, it undermines our democracy.
“It’s being reported that certain key Democratic polling locations in Clark County were kept open for hours and hours beyond closing time to bus and bring Democratic voters in,” Trump told his supporters. “Folks, it’s a rigged system. It’s a rigged system and we’re going to beat it.”
The chairman of Nevada’s Republican Party, Michael McDonald, was less subtle.
“Last night in Clark County, they kept a poll open ‘til 10 o’clock so that a certain group could vote,” McDonald said at the same rally. “Yeah, you feel free right now? You think this is a free and easy election? That’s why it’s important.”
Latinos exercising their right to vote makes America less free.
On Sunday in Minnesota, Trump turned his fire on an even more vulnerable minority group.
“Here in Minnesota, you’ve seen firsthand the problems caused with faulty refugee vetting, with large numbers of Somali refugees coming into your state without your knowledge, without your support or approval,” Trump said in Minneapolis. “And with some of them then joining ISIS and spreading their extremist views all over our country and all over the world.”
Trump was referring to a stabbing rampage carried out by a Somali immigrant at a mall in Minnesota earlier this year.
Notably, the GOP nominee spent much of last week insisting that it’s outrageous to slander his supporters by associating them with a handful of extremists who preach hatred in their prophet’s name: Just because the KKK backs Trump that doesn’t mean it’s fair to call his supporters racists. But if one Somali immigrant commits a violent act, the entire community should be presumed terroristic and denied safe residence in the United States.
When reading off a teleprompter, Trump often insists that his nationalism is colorblind, a creed that will prioritize the interests of “all our citizens,” including those of legal immigrants.
But the rest of his scripted messaging belies that claim. When he tells the people of Minnesota that Washington insiders make policies “without your support or approval,” the you being addressed does not include the many citizens of the state who arrived there as refugees from Somalia.
When he suggests that a rigged system is one in which the government takes pains to allow Latino voters to have their voices be heard, he is arguing that a fair system would suppress their political power.
The ever-increasing tribal hostility between red and blue America is already corrosive to our nation’s social fabric. But when that tribal hostility is cast in explicitly racial terms, the threat to civil society is even more dire.
One party is now consciously trying to cast the red-blue divide in such terms. And that party has won control of most state governments and of the House and Senate.
Now it’s only 3 percentage points — or, perhaps, one more competent authoritarian demagogue — away from seizing the White House.