When untangling the latest ramblings of the president of the United States, it’s easier to pick out Donald Trump's weak spots by what he’s not talking about. He used to chat endlessly about the “booming” economy, but evidence now shows that his tax cuts have not benefited the middle class and entering into a trade war with China is a potential economic disaster. Trump once spend a lot of time discussing health care, but that was before Republican attempts to repeal the Affordable Care Act went up in flames. He doesn’t like to talk about Russia anymore either, and he’ll certainly shy away from any mention of porn stars and tax returns.
As the president prepares to kick off his 2020 campaign for a second term, he’s in one of the weakest positions of any incumbent president in modern times – and he knows it. Even his own pollsters (with whom he has quickly severed ties) are predicting that several leading Democrats are ahead of him in battleground states. Polling showed him trailing Joe Biden by double digits in Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin. He would not have defeated Hillary Clinton without winning these states in 2016.
With the president on the ropes, it is inevitable that his focus would turn to immigration. As he prepares to launch his campaign in Florida in front of a “record breaking” crowd, Trump tweeted to confirm that “millions” of people will soon be deported from the United States. He claimed that ICE, America’s controversial immigration police force, will start deporting “illegal aliens” next week, before once again mentioning the alleged “border crisis”.
This tactic is straight out of the Trump election playbook. Remember in last year’s mid-terms, where he tweeted hundreds of times about the “migrant caravan” supposedly on its way to “invade” the US? Whatever happened to that? It seemed to disappear just as the polls closed on 6 November, along with the republican majority in the House of Representatives.
Last year, Trump called the mid-terms the “caravan election”. If his latest tweets are anything to go by, we should all be preparing for the immigration election in 2020.
Immigration is a sweet spot for Trump. His supporters are overwhelmingly white and many display anti-immigrant views. When images of crying children being ripped from their families at the US border surfaced last year, Trump’s approach was opposed by 66 per cent of voters, including 91 per cent of Democrats and 68 per cent of independents. Republicans, however, supported the policy by a margin of over 20 points (55 per cent to 35 per cent).
Then there’s The Wall, the key election promise that Trump has failed to deliver on. Again, this policy is opposed by the majority of voters (59 per cent), including 84 per cent of Democrats and 66 per cent of independents, but an astonishing 79 per cent of Republicans support it. The president will likely blame his failure to “build the wall” on Democrats, though it was he who blinked first in this year’s government shutdown, as federal workers became increasingly desperate for their pay cheques.
Trump’s focus on immigration at this early stage of the campaign is likely an attempt to rally the base and get his supporters as riled up as possible. Given that he won’t face a primary challenger, focussing on divisive immigration issues that only strongly supported by Republican voters isn’t a winning strategy, particularly seeing as Trump’s success in 2016 hinged on flipping traditionally blue states. Trump will be trying to get every Republican voter behind him, whatever the cost.
In Trump’s eyes, presidential campaigns are a “marketing campaign” or an “infomercial”. Despite his chequered record in business, marketing is something he seems to be rather good at. Trump has always known how to identify grievances among white Americans and sell them a product (in this case, himself) to alleviate their problems. As his latest branding exercise kicks off, vulnerable people of colour, including desperate asylum seekers and refugees, will pay the price as ICE is told to rip them from their communities for the sake of a few percentage points.
Without a timely letter from the head of the FBI days before November 2020’s election, Trump knows he might struggle this time around. His success will hinge on winning over swing voters, and it seemed the majority still oppose his hardline approach to immigration. Even with more money behind him, to win in 2020 against an energised Democratic opponent he will have to find a new strategy.
Right now, as calls for his impeachment rumble, Trump is just trying to survive. If deporting “millions” of people is what he has to do to keep his head above water, then so be it.
As 2020 approaches, expect lots more stunts like this. Because ,sadly, 2016 taught us that we should never underestimate Trump – and nor should we underestimate the American electorate’s weakness to his marketing techniques.