(Bloomberg Opinion) -- Early Saturday morning, Mike Huckabee, the former governor of Arkansas and the father of President Donald Trump’s press secretary, took to Twitter with a post featuring MS-13 gang members:
Huckabee picked up on these observations and by Saturday afternoon and evening he was taking issue with some of them: “Absurd! To see race in everything IS racist,” he tweeted. “Nothing about race but about a vile violent criminal gang. Please understand that.” His tweet absolutely wasn’t about race, Huckabee said in another tweet early Sunday morning: “You want to defend gangs who rape, murder, and mutilate little children too? Repeat--a criminal gang is NOT a race! Doesn't matter if these goons were lily-white Brits!”
It probably would have mattered if those goons were lily-white Brits, though, because Huckabee could have chosen a picture of the Krays and he didn’t. Instead, he chose a picture of tattooed gangbangers of color because that particular gang, MS-13, is one of the president’s favorite reference points when he tries to whip up hysteria about a “crisis” caused by undocumented immigrants.
Trump has justified a crackdown on migrants trying to cross the U.S.’s southern border by suggesting that a large portion of them are criminals like MS-13 (which has roots in El Salvador) and that they will continue their lawless ways in America. Never mind that the border is under control, that MS-13 isn’t really the threat that Trump makes it out to be, or that immigrants to the U.S. are less likely to commit crimes than native-born Americans.
MS-13 serves a purpose for Trump that transcends the facts. It gives him fodder for making the immigration debate about the inherent traits of the migrants, and not about the realities surrounding their journeys. It gives him a tool for making the immigration debate explicitly racial.
“We have people coming into the country, or trying to come in — and we’re stopping a lot of them — but we’re taking people out of the country,” Trump said in May. “You wouldn’t believe how bad these people are. These aren’t people. These are animals.”
Just six days ago, Trump used racially charged language again when posting about immigration on Twitter: “Democrats are the problem. They don’t care about crime and want illegal immigrants, no matter how bad they may be, to pour into and infest our Country, like MS-13.”
All of this smacks of the language Trump used when discussing immigration during the speech he gave the day he announced his presidential candidacy in the lobby of Trump Tower in 2015. “When Mexico sends its people, they’re not sending their best,” he said. “They’re sending people that have lots of problems, and they’re bringing those problems with us. They’re bringing drugs. They’re bringing crime. They’re rapists. And some, I assume, are good people.”
Immigration isn’t the only issue that spurs the president to play the race card. Sometimes just a little bit of political competition will do the trick. Campaigning on Saturday in Las Vegas, Trump called Sen. Elizabeth Warren, a Democrat who has claimed to have Native American heritage, “Pocahontas” after she criticized his policies. That’s not a new one. He has called Warren “Pocahontas” many times in the past, saying on one occasion that using that name was a “tremendous insult to Pocahontas.”
Trump previously put Native American identity and lineage into play 18 years ago when he lobbied against the legalization of casino gambling in New York state. In a series of newspaper and broadcast ads, he branded one tribe seeking a license, the Mohawks, as drug dealers and criminals.
Trump’s support for white supremacists following the Charlottesville, Virginia, riots last summer echoed his past too. In 1989, during a citywide outcry about public safety in New York prompted by the assault of a white female jogger in Central Park, he ran advertising calling for the death penalty for several Latino and black teenagers falsely accused of the attack. Trump’s only reason for stirring up the racial animosities around that event was so that he could exploit them for publicity gains.
Other examples of Trump’s racism and race-baiting abound. He once embraced birtherism as a way to hound Barack Obama during his presidency, and he attacked a federal judge overseeing the Trump University fraud litigation by repeatedly emphasizing the judge’s Mexican heritage. Trump ran a housing and real-estate business in New York with his father that was investigated and sanctioned by the Justice Department in the 1970s for discriminating against prospective tenants of color. He has described Haiti and some African countries as a “shitholes.” The president brought Steve Bannon, the former boss of Breitbart, the white-nationalist tribune, into the White House and, briefly, into a pivotal role there. Trump has spent years bragging about the “good genes” that have made his, his children’s, and at least one of his grandchildren’s lives marked by what he describes as success and good health.
The president has had decades to hone his worldview and has never fully distanced himself from white supremacists — and his actions and words have made it easier for others in the U.S. to wear their bigotry and racism on their sleeves. None of that was likely to have been lost on Huckabee before he sat down on Saturday to tweet about the gang members he fancied running a campaign for the Democrats. And it’s hard to believe that he didn’t anticipate the multiple ways in which his tweet would resonate with his daughter’s boss.
Huckabee is only the latest person in the Trump orbit to throw in with the president’s value system, of course. The entire Republican Party has refashioned itself in his image. And Trump’s presidency has torn the cover off of many of the tales Americans have been telling themselves about progress around racial tolerance and pluralism over the last several decades. The only good that will come of that is if it further steels most citizens and voters from throwing in with Trump’s values as readily as Huckabee and the GOP.
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