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From ‘Build the Wall’ to ‘Deport Them All’: The Escalating Threat of Trump’s Authoritarian Nationalism

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Trump’s central campaign pledge, mass deportation, is a serious plan, a cop to his authoritarian designs, and something we cannot afford to ignore.  

Mass deportation is top of mind for Trump as he continues to build on his dystopian campaign pledge, this week promising to grant total immunity for misconduct investigations and lawsuits to the police force he hopes to deputize to help round up our neighbors. Over the next six months, we will see the Republican nominee continue to riff and add cruelties and authoritarian elements to his latest nativist obsession. As New York Times columnist Jamelle Bouie writes:

Trump’s signature promise, during the 2016 presidential election, was that he would build a wall on the U.S. border with Mexico. His signature promise, this time around, is that he’ll use his power as president to deport as many as 20 million people from the United States.

Trump’s loose relationship with reality and barely functional understanding of the massive logistical undertaking he is proposing should not lull anyone into mistakenly dismissing the threat of the campaign pledge currently animating the Republican presidential campaign. 

Yes, in 2016, Trump made similar promises, calling for the creation of a new “deportation force” and mass deportations that he was unable to fulfill. Setting aside the frigid comfort of incompetence, eight years on, there is now an actual plan crafted and set to be carried by Trump’s people that was not there the first time around. Recall all the reports at the time and all the subsequent reporting after about a Trump campaign utterly unprepared to win the race in 2016. While the Trump sycophants and hard-right apologists blamed the “deep state,” the truth is they were completely unprepared to deliver on all the nativist promises they made. Nevertheless, as the adage goes, ‘it is a lot easier to break than to build.’ Their chaos and cruelty approach still managed to inflict serious harm and wreck our immigration system further.

But this time, it’s different. Stephen Miller and Heritage’s Project 2025 are preparing to ensure they round up as many of our neighbors as possible.  

The sheer scale? 

No problem, Trump and Miller have been explicitly clear they will deputize police, send in red-state armies, and deploy the military on the streets of US cities to provide the manpower for the incredible scale of the operation they are promising to pull off. “I can see myself using the National Guard and, if necessary, I’d have to go a step further,” Trump recently told TIME “We have to do whatever we have to do to stop the problem we have.” 

But the expressed commitment to make mass deportations a military operation is new. Recall in February 2017 when then-Chief of Staff John Kelly quickly had to correct his boss when Trump, off the cuff, characterized their reinvigorated deportation efforts as a “military operation.” Julie Davis and Micheal Shear’s book “Border Wars” recounts the scene:    

The crackdown was being heard around the world. In February, Kelly and Tillerson were at the InterContinental Hotel in Mexico City, preparing for a meeting with President Peña Nieto, when Trump began boasting about how aggressively his administration was moving to stop immigrants at the border with Mexico. “It’s a military operation,” he said during an appearance with manufacturing CEOs. As Tillerson and Kelly headed to the motorcade in Mexico City, Tillerson was informed of Trump’s comments and told Kelly. “Holy shit!” Kelly said as the pair disappeared back into the hotel suite to strategize. The president’s comment blew up the talks and forced Kelly to publicly disagree with his boss. “I repeat: There will be no use of military in this,” he told Mexican and American reporters.”

Deploying the military on US soil also comes with major legal implications. 

The legality? 

No sweat, what is the law to a dictator, as Trump has repeatedly ‘joked’ he will become on day one of a second term to fulfill his immigration agenda. 

Warning of the seriousness that Trump would find ways to skirt the law to deploy troops into American cities, Joseph Nunn, counsel for the Brennan Center for Justice, and an expert on the Insurrection Act – which could allow Trump to do just that – told Will Bunch at The Philadelphia Inquirer: “I think it’s irresponsible not to. Anytime somebody tells you what they are going to do, you should listen.” When posed a similar question in a recent Time Magazine interview, Trump invoked the white nationalist invasion conspiracy to wave away any legal concerns. “Invasion” isn’t figurative hyperbole for Trump or as it is used as a standard talking point for the GOP, but an argument that says migrants constitute a literal military invasion of the country. Deploying the military to repealing a foreign invasion then becomes the logical approach if the twisted white nationalist conspiracy is to be believed.   

This complete lack of priorities is a notable shift we cannot gloss over. Trump and his allies are tossing out benchmarks for deportations at some 15 to 30 million. A telling number, not for its wild inaccuracies (the actual estimate of undocumented population hovering around 11 million) but for how vastly indiscriminate they plan to be. Republicans are not providing any qualifications in these plans. Meaning they are fully promising to go after Dreamers, mothers with US citizen children, and the 80% of our undocumented friends, family, and neighbors who have called the US home since at least 2010. Ripping apart long-settled families and using the local police and the National Guard to deport those whose decades’ worth of taxes will fund the very operation separating them from their families. Or as Robert J. Shapiro recently wrote in the Washington Monthly, “Trump’s dragnet also could end up detaining and deporting 4.4 million children who are U.S. citizens—because at least one of their parents is an unauthorized immigrant.”

In 2016, key Trump ally then-Senator Jeff Sessions pushed Trump hard to clarify that his mass deportation pledges would focus on targeting the vastly smaller number of undocumented immigrants with criminal records. Trump acquiesced ahead of the campaign’s big immigration speech at the end of August where he finally laid out concrete details for his immigration agenda. In the speech, he promised a “new special Deportation Task Force, focused on identifying and removing quickly the most dangerous criminal illegal immigrants.” Covering the speech, the New York Times characterized Trump’s message not a significant departure from the Obama administration’s policy writing: 

In some ways, Mr. Trump’s proposal is not radically different from the current policy of the Obama administration. In November 2014, President Obama established new priorities for foreigners who should be deported. The highest priority is on removing immigrants who pose security threats, gang members and convicted felons. Mr. Obama has said his approach is to deport ‘felons, not families.

This all may seem like splitting hairs on an extreme nativist position, but the escalation from 2016 to 2024 underscores why the threat this time is much more acute. It shows how the mass deportation promise goes from an ugly nativist campaign promise that was unable to be implemented at the scale that was promised to a clear projection of the campaign’s designs on dictatorship.

Or as Bunch concluded in his recent must-read column for the Philadelphia Inquirer, “Folks, he is screaming his plan out loud at his rallies! The Trump deportation scheme is really Trump’s blueprint for dictatorship.” 

Bunch is hardly alone in the mounting concern that the GOP 2024 central campaign promise of mass deportation is the urgent warning sign of the practical politics that will use immigration demagoguery as the pretext for despotism. Bouie concludes his weekend column: 

Rhetoric matters, and what candidates say is not simply for show. At every opportunity, Trump has placed the mass deportation of millions of people at the center of his campaign. It is a promise. And the promises a presidential candidate makes while on the trail are the promises a president tries to keep.

“​​The media would do well to focus on the authoritarian threat,” writes Washington Post columnist Jennifer Rubin. Pointing to the fascism that gripped Europe in the 1930s, Rubin warns of the difference and the significance of the threat Trump poses for voters in the upcoming election, describing Trump as a man “who promises to suspend the Constitution and round up millions, talks of blood purity and vows to seek revenge on enemies.”

The historians who dedicate their lives to studying these threats also agree. Thomas Zimmer, writing for his Substack Democracy Americana, used Trump’s call for mass deportation to contextualize the looming threat of fascism in American politics. And authoritarianism historian Ruth Ben-Ghiat expressed a similar warning in a piece titled “Denial about Donald Trump is deeper than ever” that we downplay Trump’s authoritarian designs at our own peril. Ben-Ghiat concludes the must-read and sobering piece with the admonition that, “We can learn from this sad history and treat the actions and declarations of Trump with all the gravity they deserve.” 

The nativist attacks leading the GOP are not ultimately about the issue of immigration alone but a vehicle to popularize the revolutionary politics of turning the country into an ethnic nationalist authoritarian state – and, importantly, as an excuse to once again try to steal an election. We cannot look away or pretend we have seen this song and dance before. The threat is new, and it is incumbent that the choice is framed in no uncertain terms for the American voters. 


  • 201 Republican ads running with immigration-related attacks on TV and CTV 
    • Total spending on nativist ads for the week of May 24th — $8,529,003 (AdImpact)
    • 22 new Republican-aligned immigration-related Facebook ads
  • Year to date:
    • Total nativist TV and CTV ads: 837
    • Total spend on nativist TV and CTV ads — $171,397,481 (AdImpact)

Nativist Ad of the Week

In the Republican Primary in Colorado’s 3rd district, Russ Andrews has a new TV ad stating that he will “help Donald Trump deport illegal aliens” even though his opponent Jeff Hurd “is against mass deportation of illegals”. 

Of the 525 GOP Twitter accounts we track, this week, they sent: 

  • 385 original tweets peddling anti-immigrant attacks mentioning “border”
  • 71 original tweets about “open borders,” with Gov. Greg Abbott tweet having the most reach with 61K Views, 720 Retweets, and 3.2kk Likes.
  • 40 original tweets that used “Biden Border Crisis” with the RNC Research tweet having the most reach with 44.2K Views, 196 Retweets, and 339 Likes.
  • x original tweets that mentioned both “fentanyl” and “border” with Kari Lake tweet having the most reach with 27.8K views, 49 Retweets and 268k Likes.

Top Articles on Social of the Week (Right-wing media still dominating the conversation online)

  • This past week there were 274.7k interactions, an decrease of ↓ 4% and 9.6k articles published, an increase of ↓ 14% from last week. Interactions and article count are both lower than the previous week. Data assembled from Newswhip.
    • NBC Los Angeles: “Master’s graduate dedicates book to her parents, who are immigrant farm workers”
    • CBS News: “Migrant crossings at U.S.-Mexico border plunge 54% from record highs, internal figures show”
    • Rolling Stones: “’Ready for Civil War’: Illinois Man Arrested With Bombs Posted Right-Wing Content”