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Dangerous and Disturbing Closing Arguments from Republicans Ahead of Iowa Caucus Make Immigrants Central Villain

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Republican presidential candidates are making their closing arguments to Iowans ahead of the caucuses next week. Donald Trump hopes to all but end the nomination contest with a decisive victory, while Nikki Haley and Ron DeSantis hope to make a strong enough showing to start to turn the tide in their favor. Their messaging reveals how Republicans in races across the country are likely to attempt to drive their base to the polls throughout this vital election year: attacking and vilifying immigrants. At America’s Voice, we have tracked GOP campaign messaging for the past several cycles. Without a doubt, this year, the vitriol coming from the GOP candidates has continued to devolve and become increasingly more dangerous and unhinged. 

Unsurprisingly, to anyone paying attention to the right, making immigrants out to be an urgent existential threat to the safety and stability of the nation and your local community has been a central theme for all the presidential candidates.  They hope their particular brand of xenophobic fearmongering and exceedingly extreme rhetoric and positions will drive a segment of Iowans  – a hard-core of the GOP base –  to their corners of school gymnasiums across the state.

Iowa Needs Immigrants

Let’s not forget that immigration is critically important to Iowa. In Iowa, the agricultural, health care, hospitality, and meatpacking industries are particularly reliant on immigrant labor. Just 15 years ago, in one of the largest immigration raids in history, 389 workers at a kosher slaughterhouse were arrested in one day, representing 20% of the population of Postville, Iowa at the time, devastating the economy for a decade. Aging and population decline are challenges in rural Iowa. Across the country, three-quarters of rural counties have lost the working-age population in the past two decades, according to research by FWD.us, shrinking the tax base, shrinking public services, and shrinking congregations and communities. This is particularly acute in the health care sector, where elderly Iowans need care, and rural Iowans need doctors. According to the American Immigration Council research, 21.1% of Iowa physicians are foreign-born. Despite rhetoric from Iowa Senator Joni Ernst about addressing healthcare worker shortages – which is generally out of step with her GOP colleagues who oppose legal immigration – the nursing home labor shortage in Iowa is twice the national average, as nearly 42% of Iowa nursing home facilities have a shortage of nurses and aides, according to Axios. More facts on immigrants in Iowa here.

Little Difference Between The Candidates

For all the attention the issue is given, the draconian policy proposals laced with violence and cruelty that each presidential candidate has articulated are not significantly different from the other candidates. None have laid out a serious policy vision to meaningfully address the challenges of regulating and managing forced global migration. Each talks about the border and migrants endlessly on the campaign trail, but the goal is not a policy discussion. Instead, it is a form of strategic bigotry to agitate anxieties around scarcity, safety, and identity.  

When policies are mentioned, they are vague generalities and impossible goals like completely sealing the border or wildly extreme positions like bombing Mexico and shredding the 14th Amendment of the U.S. Constitution. Outlandish and divorced from the reality of the challenges with immigration as they are, no one should dismiss these promises out of hand. If elected, they will attempt to realize their campaign promises no matter how disastrous they may be for Americans or the economies in states like Iowa. 

Trump advisor Stephen Miller told the New York Times, “Any activists who doubt President Trump’s resolve in the slightest are making a drastic error: Trump will unleash the vast arsenal of federal powers to implement the most spectacular migration crackdown….The immigration legal activists won’t know what’s happening.” But, it’s critically important to understand that the sum total of Trump’s policy positions goes well beyond immigrants, amounting to a plan to redefine who is an American under a white nationalist vision.

Xenophobic and conspiratorial nationalism may be key to winning over a radicalized base of Republican primary voters, but that didn’t work in general elections for the past several cycles. Beyond the horse race of it all, the dehumanizing rhetoric and radical policy promises have serious consequences and demonstrate the gravity of the stakes of the upcoming election.  With this in mind, it’s worth a review of what the candidates have been promising the Republican base.  

Donald Trump

Barring a huge upset in Iowa and a subsequent massive political shake-up, the indicted former President who staged a failed violent coup attempt after losing the 2020 election is likely to be the Republican nominee for the third time in a row. Since the beginning of his first campaign, when he descended the escalators of Trump Tower and called Mexican immigrants criminals and “rapists,” strategic xenophobia has been a central part of Trump’s political brand and has remained central this cycle. But Trump’s ethnic nationalist appeals are not to be shrugged off as a threat we have seen before. The threat is more acute and his designs on authoritarianism sharper. Trump’s chaos and cruelty approach to immigration and the border has rarely been about crafting a sound plan to manage migration flows, but his campaign pronouncements on the topic this time around look to use non-white immigrants as the scapegoat for establishing dictatorial rule. Here are the key developments:  

  • Dictator For A Day: Last month in a live interview with Fox News’ Sean Hannity, Trump proclaimed he wouldn’t be a dictator “other than day one.” He cited the ever-elusive promise to “shut down the border,” claiming, “after that, I’m not a dictator.” For the Trump campaign, this isn’t a goal to be achieved or about halting desperate families’ ability to seek safety in the U.S. but combating a fictional “invasion.” (see this analysis of Trump’s previous term’s failures on immigration from the Cato Institute). 
  • Invasion: From the speech announcing he would seek reelection over a year ago, Trump has peddled the white nationalist conspiracy that there is a literal coordinated “invasion” of non-white migrants organized to pollute the democratic process and steal the election from him. For the Trump campaign, this language isn’t merely rhetorical but an urgent threat that could explain the need for a violent overturning of an electoral result he doesn’t win. In the opening paragraph in a Des Moines Register op-ed published just days ahead of the caucus, Trump wrote, “I am the only candidate who will stop this invasion — and I will do it on day one.” He concludes by asking Iowans to show up for him in the framework of this deadly conspiracy, “vote to stop the invasion by caucusing for Donald J. Trump.” 
  • Poisoning The Blood: Tellingly, Trump talks about the alleged threat of non-white immigrants as one of “poisoning the blood” of Americans, repeatedly echoing Nazi rhetoric in recent months. Trump opened the door to this blood-and-soil nationalism with his winking approval of the deadly “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville, Virginia in 2017, and has now adopted those street chants for his campaign. He is telling us exactly what he plans to do with access to the Oval Office once again. To dismiss his rhetoric as an inappropriate joke falls right into his strategic trap. Inside Trump’s conspiratorial fiction, the existential threat from non-white immigrants is ever-looming, and thus the need for authoritarian power to repeal the “invasion” is a permanent condition. While the conspiracy is divorced from reality, Trump is promising to use the lie to justify his creation of an authoritarian state.  
  • War Measures, Round Ups & Camps: Last November, the New York Times published a deep dive into Trump’s immigration agenda, one that not only calls for severing most legal immigration channels but also setting up massive detention camps filled through massive round-ups in the interior of the country. A catastrophically destructive program not limited to those without legal status – see, for example, that citizens are reportedly already being caught in Texas’ newly implemented draconian show-me-your-papers law. Trump also has been explicitly promising that legal status alone will not shield you from the massive deportation machine, as he wrote in the Des Moines Register op-ed, “I also will invoke the Alien Enemies Act to remove known or suspected gang members, drug dealers, or cartel members from the United States.” The two-century-old law Trump wants to revive would make all non-citizens – even permanent residents or green card holders – subject to his raids. Meanwhile, Trump –  and the vast swath of the GOP and right-wing media – promulgate disinformation about fentanyl and terrorists abounding along the border. Again parroting some of the world’s most notorious despots, Trump referred to his long list of political enemies as “vermin,” adding another chilling layer to his promise to revive “war measures” to round up and deport those he suspects of being insufficiently loyal Americans. 
  • Ideological and Race Tests: Additionally, Trump has promised to erect de facto racial and religious barriers to citizenship. Last May, Trump reiterated his pledge to eviscerate the 14th Amendment, asserting that he would eliminate the birthright citizenship therein and return to a pre-Civil War construct of citizenship that was firmly locked in by white supremacy. He has said he would restart and expand his Muslim ban, explicitly foreshadowing his desire to add further ideological, partisan screening. His Muslim ban was extended to ban other African countries regardless of the Muslim populations during his previous time in office. And for those fleeing for their lives who make a harrowing  journey to seek refuge at the nation’s borders, Trump has flirted with restarting the practice of family separation, a policy that was described as “torture.” 

Ron DeSantis

Ron DeSantis has largely maintained his runner-up poll position throughout the early part of the contest but has failed to significantly eat away at Trump’s polling numbers. DeSantis built a campaign that tried to out-nativist the former President by making the deadly white nationalist “invasion” conspiracy a top issue. DeSantis repeatedly has tried to stake out the most extreme hard-right positioning toward immigrants, including passing a draconian anti-immigration bill in Florida that has scared away workers critical to Florida’s economy and recovery from natural disasters. A hard task when one’s opponents are willing to echo Hitler, there isn’t much further one can go, but DeSantis endeavored to try. The result has been his emphasis on violence and, especially in the closing days before voting starts, claims that the front-runner is more talk than action when it comes to his extreme nativism. Here are the key low-lights from the DeSantis campaign:    

  • “Stone Cold Dead:” The phrase “stone-cold dead,” crafted as an applause line in the candidate’s stump speech, was worked awkwardly into two debates, and was brandished on campaign merch. It is beneath it all a call for extrajudicial killings along the border and became the unofficial slogan of the DeSantis campaign. DeSantis has promised to let Border Patrol and the military troops he will deploy to the border carry out deadly attacks against those crossing the border who they will “just know” are cartel members. 
  • Fentanyl Disinformation: DeSantis peddles widely debunked disinformation about the fentanyl crisis as justification for his deadly campaign promises. The fact that fentanyl is smuggled alongside commercial traffic mostly by U.S. citizens reveals the horrific absurdity of DeSantis’ shoot first, ask questions later approach. Set aside asking yourself if taking aim at those crossing the border would in any way combat the fentanyl crisis ravaging America – it wouldn’t – making the calls for extrajudicial killings encoded with racist undertones an applause line creates a vile dehumanizing mixture that paints a target on non-white immigrant communities and encourages his supporters to take aim. DeSantis also cites disinformation about the fentanyl crisis for his calls for the U.S. to invade Mexico, childishly dumb but dangerous rhetoric that is likely to exacerbate the fentanyl crisis and not address it. But DeSantis has made this stance central to his closing argument, writing in the first sentence of an op-ed in the Des Moines Register  titled “Ron DeSantis: Immigrants are overwhelming us; I will control the border” days ahead of the Iowa caucus “We are at war, and in crisis.”         
  • “Stop The Invasion:” DeSantis launched his campaign emphasizing three key points, one of which was the conspiratorial white nationalist slogan to “stop the invasion.” This deadly lie is inexorably tied to the great replacement theory and has been the motivation for numerous deadly terrorist attacks before the DeSantis campaign adopted it as their own. DeSantis also repeatedly used the presidential primary debate stage to normalize and amplify the white nationalist replacement and invasion conspiracy. His campaign and major allied superPAC ran numerous digital and TV ads pushing the deadly conspiracy theory. Ken Cuccinelli, a top DeSantis ally and head of the allied superPAC, is a leading proponent of states using the “invasion” conspiracy to subvert federal authority to enact draconian deportation regimes and use the tools of war to deal with migrants. Unsurprisingly, DeSantis has also adopted this extremely dangerous position.  
  • “Deport The Millions:” DeSantis has also called for shredding the 14th Amendment by ending birthright citizenship and promised to “deport the millions.”  

Nikki Haley

Nikki Haley has risen in the polls and hopes the early primaries in Iowa, New Hampshire, and her home state of South Carolina will position her as the only alternative to Trump so she can find herself in a place to chip away at his lead (or join his ticket). That is still a long shot. But for Haley and the Republican primary, an alternative to Trump doesn’t equal a reasonable moderate, partially when it comes to immigration. While Haley has not engaged with the same white nationalist conspiratorial rhetoric as her opponents – an extremely low bar – she has peddled similar pernicious xenophobic disinformation and fearmongering and has too made anti-immigrant rhetoric a central part of her closing message. Haley’s hard-right anti-immigrant stance is not new, as she signed some of the harshest anti-immigrant legislation in 2011 when she was Governor of South Carolina. Haley had already more than hinted this would be critical to her 2024 campaign. During a campaign event for Republican candidate Herschel Walker ahead of the 2022 midterms, Haley called for the deportation of Savannah-born U.S. Senator Raphael Warnock. Here are a few of the key things to keep in mind on her anti-immigrant agenda: 

  • Close The Border: At the core of Haley’s agenda is the impossibly disastrous call to “close” or “shut down” the border. The Wilson Center estimated in 2019 that shutting the U.S. Mexico border would cost the U.S. 5 million jobs. Her calls are set against political disinformation about an alleged “open border.” 
  • Catch And Deport: Haley’s other campaign slogan, “catch and deport,” highlights her calls for mass round-ups and deportations. She has called to deport all the immigrants who arrived during the Biden administration. Haley has also repeatedly called for the end of Temporary Protected Status (TPS), protections granted to those already living in the US whose home country is racked by instability to the point that is unsafe for them to return. 
  • Fentanyl Disinformation: Like the other candidates in the race, Haley employs fentanyl disinformation, falsely equating it as an immigration issue and citing the fentanyl crisis for invading Mexico.    

Vivek Ramaswamy

The 38-year old isn’t likely to win any large proportion of the primary vote, but Ramaswamy’s brand of politics foreshadows a disturbing trend immediately ahead for the GOP. Despite being the son of non-white immigrants himself, Ramaswamy has also promised to shred the 14th Amendment by ending birthright citizenship and called for extrajudicial killings along the southern border. He also used the first presidential primary debate to explicitly promote the white nationalist “invasion” conspiracy and the last debate of 2023 to explicitly espouse the great replacement theory claiming it is “not a theory.” That debate stage pronouncement had the infamous white nationalist and antisemite Nick Fuentes shocked and elated for what it meant for the mainstreaming of his ideas.