This essay was originally published on October 16 2019.
Trump’s rally at the Target Center in Minneapolis on October 9th — particularly his attack on the Somali community — highlights important elements of what is likely to be his campaign strategy for 2020. We are all too familiar with Trump’s xenophobia and race-baiting. But much has changed on the ground in the last three years, and Trump’s campaign strategy elicits both new political dangers and new possibilities for how to respond.
Facing impeachment in the House and consistently high disapproval ratings in states he won in 2016 — including Ohio, Wisconsin and Michigan — Trump has to keep his core supporters angry and energized (and attempt to turn states that he narrowly lost, like Minnesota) while fighting back against increasingly surefooted impeachment proceedings.
Trump’s intuitive response to his declining political fortunes is to cry persecution, and then identify his supposed victimization with that of the nation. It is his accusers, not him, who have lied, broken the law, committed treason. In Minneapolis Trump knew that his supporters needed the threat of something more visceral than Congressional subpoenas. He had to make his enemies their enemies.
Thus the climax of Trump’s performance at the rally was his unabashed deployment of “replacement theory,” a long-held colonialist fear, recently repackaged by French white nationalist writer Renaud Camus that European and European-descended people are under the grave threat of being supplanted by non-white, culturally-distinct immigrants through migration and violence. Trump’s rants moved from anti-Muslim, red-baiting fabrications about Rep. Ilhan Omar to fear-mongering about Minnesota’s refugee Somali community, to a warning that given the chance the Democratic Party would “open the floodgates” to immigrants and refugees, “the likes of which the country has never seen.” It was as if Trump had taken this narrative straight from the pages of Steve Bannon’s favorite book, Le Camp des Saints, Jean Raspail’s 1973 racist dystopian novel about the destruction of white countries by hordes from the global south.
While Trump’s line of attack was notable for its xenophobic brutality, it was not in itself much worse than many of the comments he has made since his first campaign announcement in 2015. Yet he has now woven together a vivid, racialized and gendered conspiracy theory that links immigration, Islam, crime, socialism, House members leading the impeachment inquiry, and the Democratic Party in one associative chain. This demonization fits squarely in what the late political theorist Michael Rogin called the counter-subversive tradition in the United States — a persecutory fantasy centered on the imagined destructive power of women, immigrants, communists, and people of color that has authorized extraordinary violence and repression.
Under current conditions where the spread of far right conspiracies has swollen the ranks of heavily-armed paramilitary “Patriot” groups like the Oath Keepers and the Three Percenters; and proto-fascist street-fighting groups like the Proud Boys; where language of a coming “hot civil war” has animated the President’s Republican party base as they seek to defend him from the Deep State, and where belief in the “great replacement” has driven repeated, episodic mass killings, such language takes on charged and urgent meanings.
The Minneapolis event provides us with important insights about this moment. Consider that Republicans who attended the rally at the Target Center were escorted to and from their cars by members of the Oath Keepers, who bill themselves as “Guardians of the Republic.” An alert on the group’s webpage before the event read: “The violent communists of Antifa have issued a national call to action for Antifa and other radical, America hating leftists to converge on the upcoming Trump rally in Minneapolis on Oct 10.” Up until now, this open alliance between the GOP and armed groups has only been employed in the Pacific Northwest, where the Republican Party has become an increasingly far right party in the Central European sense of the term. Meanwhile in response to Minneapolis mayor Jacob Frey’s decision not to let police officers attend the Trump rally in uniform, the local police union distributed bright red “Cops for Trump” t-shirts to its members, claiming that this “law and order” president has stood by them.
The landscape of political conflict and the composition of forces continues to shift in the United States, creating sharpened dividing lines. As we have seen, the party system can no longer easily moderate forces on the right, which have become an increasingly dangerous and volatile assemblage since 2016. Indeed, the GOP by now has been fully made an instrument of the far right. Under these polarized conditions we see opposition to Trump being led not by Democratic centrists but by those on their left. Just as these last three years have seen the expansion and radicalization of the right, so have we seen forms of resistance grow among those targeted by Trump.
The defeat or even containment of the growing right cannot be achieved simply by impeachment, nor even the election of a Democratic president in 2020. The political instability wrought by decades of neoliberal economic reorganization that have made this a new Gilded Age; along with the coming shocks of climate catastrophe, means that basic social and ecological questions will be mediated increasingly through either authoritarian or democratic and collective means. At the forefront of the latter are the movements led by immigrants and refugees, indigenous struggles for the protection of land and water, anti-police resistance, youth-led militancy on climate, fights for healthcare, living wages, reproductive freedom – all aimed in some sense not just at the right, but at the elites who benefit by this right.
The right of course also depends on anger toward elites, on rage generated by a sense of political powerlessness and economic vulnerability. Returning once more to Minneapolis: perhaps the Somali community Trump so vilified has something to teach his audience who might listen. That Ilhan Omar has been a steadfast champion of working people is not in spite of, but by her own account because of, her experiences as a Somali refugee. Indeed, the Somali community of the Twin Cities region has been on the front lines of workers’ fights: at Amazon’s mammoth fulfillment center in Shakopee, at the Jenny-O Turkey Store plant in Melrose, at the Pilgrim’s Pride chicken processing plant in Cold Spring. Trump is not incorrect to say that immigrants and refugees are changing things in Minnesota, and the country. Here, the autonomous, unapologetic movements of the marginalized are pointing new ways forward toward an egalitarian and democratic future.
Joe Lowndes is an Associate Professor of Political Science at the University of Oregon.