The Only Tool Trump Has Is Fear

One of the reactions I’ve seen to Trump’s speech from the Oval Office Tuesday night is to suggest that he didn’t change any minds. That assumes he was trying, which is a fundamental error people make about this president. Ezra Klein demonstrated why it is important to put the speech in the context of what we know about the man who gave it.

Klein’s colleague, Dara Lind, identifies how Trump goes about trying to fire up his base.

[H]e gave the exact same speech he always gives: that immigrants are coming across the border to kill you…

Most politicians have more than one way to talk about the enemies of the American people. Most have more than one way to express sympathy for Americans going through hard times. Most have more than one way to assure America that they can keep its people safe. Trump only has the one note, and he has played it literally every time he’s been called on to talk like a president.

Lind goes on to document all of the times that Trump relied on “immigrants are coming across the border to kill you” in his speeches, just as he did on Tuesday night. I was reminded of a story included in a Washington Post report about tensions that had erupted between the president and his Secretary of Homeland Security, Kirstjen Nielsen.

The night before Trump delivered his first speech to Congress in February 2017, he huddled with senior adviser Jared Kushner and [Stephen] Miller in the Oval Office to talk immigration. The president reluctantly agreed with suggestions that he strike a gentler tone on immigration in the speech.

Trump reminded them the crowds loved his rhetoric on immigrants along the campaign trail. Acting as if he were at a rally, he recited a few made-up Hispanic names and described potential crimes they could have committed, such as rape or murder. Then, he said, the crowds would roar when the criminals were thrown out of the country — as they did when he highlighted crimes by illegal immigrants at his rallies, according to a person present for the exchange and another briefed on it later. Miller and Kushner laughed.

That is a fairly good window into who this president really is. He isn’t interested in actual negotiations to re-open the government because that would require compromise and persuasion. Even as his position continues to weaken, he can’t adapt to find a way out of the mess he created. The only tool he has is fear.

Fear is a critical ingredient for any authoritarian to maintain power. When people are oppressed, fear keeps them in check. That’s what makes hope so dangerous. The character Silas in Jonathan Odell’s book The Healing is his master’s right-hand slave. He explains it this way: “Mark my words,” I said, “when a man’s not afraid, then he’s hoping. And that’s when all hell breaks loose.”

What we witnessed Tuesday night was the president making yet another attempt to stir up his base with fear that “immigrants are coming across the border to kill you” in order to stop all hell from breaking loose in his world. It wasn’t delivered with much gusto because even Trump seems to recognize that it’s not working.

Nancy LeTourneau

Nancy LeTourneau is a contributing writer for the Washington Monthly. Follow her on Twitter @Smartypants60 .