It may look like Trump’s presidency is a failure because he’s been so utterly inept at delivering on most of his policy proposals, but sometimes words are as important as actions. And those words are rebranding America’s image across the world in a meaningful way.
As Trump has focused on steamrolling immigrants, Mexicans, refugees, and people of color, pundits and elected officials have been rolling their eyes and saying asinine things like “we are better than this” or “these are not American values” at every turn, ignoring plenty of evidence to the contrary. At no point should we forget the basic fact that Trump was elected to the highest office in the land by voters—60 million-plus of them, many of whom still support him.
This revisionism is what’s happening when Secretary of State Rex Tillerson suggests that Trump “speaks for himself,” as he did when asked if the president’s response to the violence in Charlottesville was adequate. It’s an exercise in treating Trump as an anomaly, an aberration, a person fundamentally incapable of redefining how people view America.
Yet Trump is the key spokesman for the country’s brand, and from a branding perspective, he doesn’t need broad legislative success and policy wins to change America’s image. Just with words alone, he’s able to shift the country’s reputation as a place that, at least rhetorically, is welcoming to people of color, immigrants, and other vulnerable populations, to one that has no room for, or interest in, serving “others.”
Trump represents the government of the United States when he speaks, and when he demonizes entire communities, his words alone are enough to make people feel like they’re being cut out of the American project, rejected, unwelcomed, targeted, and unsafe.
According to a report from the Council on American-Islamic Relations, hate crimes against Muslims are up 91% in the first half of 2017 compared to the same period last year. The Washington Post reported that as many as 150 migrants are crossing from New York State into Canada every day, essentially fleeing the United States. The Trump administration wants to institute a merit-based immigration system that prioritizes English speakers with a high level of education and a job. They’re also intent on cutting the number of refugees accepted into America at a time when the number of people forcibly displaced from their homes by conflict or persecution is its highest level since the years following World War II, according to the United Nations.
If you’re someone thinking of migrating to the United States or seeking asylum from persecution, you might think twice about making the journey because Trump has rolled up the welcome mat and closed the curtains.
This rebranding of America isn’t an act of carelessness, it’s by design. It’s what Trump and his advocates have been saying for years. It’s the same messaging that recently-departed White House adviser Steve Bannon pushed at Breitbart: Be scared of Islam, immigrants, and unsatisfied black and brown people. It’s also a message that can take the form of a more benign-sounding economic argument, as White House senior adviser Stephen Miller explained while working on the Trump campaign last year:
“After five decades of the largest immigration flow in our history—right, and we’ve gone from less than 10 million to over 40 million—and we’ve seen a stagnation of wages, but we’ve also seen, in immigrant communities in particular, a slowdown in economic assimilation … Couldn’t you make an argument, purely from an economic perspective, that it would be time to slow down the overall rate of immigration in order to promote, not just upward mobility, but also a greater cohesion in our country?”
The rhetoric we’re hearing from the Trump administration is having its intended effect. Just before departing the White House to return to Breitbart, Bannon gave a telling interview with The American Prospect. “The Democrats, the longer they talk about identity politics, I got ’em,” he explained. “I want them to talk about racism every day. If the left is focused on race and identity, and we go with economic nationalism, we can crush the Democrats.”
If there’s any way for the Trump administration to push the national conversation into this space, it’s by doing exactly what Trump has been excelling at as president—stoking the fires of so-called identity politics through his words and actions, and then acting like the reciprocal pushback and protests aren’t exactly what they want.