Political journalism that meets the moment
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The Swamp; or, Inside the Mind of Donald Trump
His orations about migrants are a pastiche of others’ golden oldies. Exhibit A: the lie that migrants are sent from prisons and mental institutions.
Amid the vomitous fusillade Donald Trump spewed at the now-infamous rally thrown by the “Buckeye Values PAC” in Dayton, Ohio—before the bit about the “bloodbath” but after the one about how he would “save our country” by releasing “those unbelievable patriots” who assaulted the Capitol on January 6th—America’s 45th president addressed a certain category of migrants: the ones he wasn’t sure one could even call people. He was strikingly specific, citing 22 “who arrived from the Congo.” He pretended to address those 22 benighted souls: “Where are you from in the Congo? What’s your address?” He answered for them: “Prison.”

Same, he said, with “these people” supposedly being sent by Central American governments: “And I would do the same thing if I had prisons that were teeming with MS-13 and all sorts of people that they’ve got to take care of for the next 50 years … We have so many people being hurt so badly and being killed. They’re sending their prisoners to see us.”

Suckers that we are, America just lets them in.

In another of his most famous recent rants—the “poisoning the blood” one from last December in Reno—he puked something similar, with one extra detail: that blood-poisoning hordes had also been sprung from mental institutions—“all over the world, not just in South America.”

These are surreal refrains, entirely invented, of course. But Donald Trump, naturally, didn’t invent them. Nobody ever accused the Donald of being innovative in his xenophobia, or of having a steel-trap mind (except himself, of course). However, regarding one very specific sort of cognition, the guy’s Mensa-worthy. When it comes to the history of racial panics that happened during his adult lifetime, his brain is like flypaper.

There was the time in the last year of his presidency, amid outbreaks of violence during Black Lives Matter protests, when he promised: “When the looting starts, the shooting starts.” That was a memory he’d loosed from round about 1967, when it was a slogan of Miami’s racist police chief Walter E. Headley. His onstage panegyrics in the opening months of his 2016 presidential campaign cited the 1974 vigilante fantasy Death Wish. (“Today you can’t make that movie because it’s not politically correct,” he lamented. Wrong as usual. It was remade in 2018.)

And here’s a deep cut I was gobsmacked to get to the bottom of. I was researching the backstory of one of both Trump and his palavering audience’s favorite speech refrains, a fairy tale about Gen. John J. Pershing as a role model for fighting Islamic terrorism. Trump would explain how Pershing supposedly “caught 50 terrorists that did tremendous damage and killed many people, and he took the 50 terrorists and he took 50 men and he dipped 50 bullets in pig’s blood …”

What I discovered was a article about the myth dated October 30, 2001. It was one of those mega-forwarded emails that right-wing uncles used to send you and everyone else in their address book back in those days. It concluded as Trump did: “They let the 50th man go … And for the next 42 years there was not a single Muslim extremist attack anywhere in the world.”

Got to hand it to the guy. Trump is a veritable Wikipedia of America’s racial id. As a historian of this stuff, he even gives me a run for my money.

There’s a backstory, too, to this business about foreign potentates draining the contents of their prisons and mental institutions for the United States to absorb. It’s a fascinating piece of cultural history. Al Pacino makes a cameo.
YOU CAN FIND THE STORY IN MORE DETAIL in my book Reaganland. President Jimmy Carter had tendered an offer of better relations with Cuba if Fidel Castro made moves to open up his society. The strategy showed signs of success; early in 1980, Castro agreed to let exiles return to the island to visit relatives, and to release some political prisoners. As I wrote, “Unfortunately for Castro, flooding the population with witnesses to their government’s inadequacies served to intensify resistance to his regime. So he opened a political safety valve: he withdrew military guards from the Peruvian embassy. His expectation was that a few hundred of the most determined regime critics would take advantage of the sanctuary. Instead, more than ten thousand Cubans from all walks of life quickly crowded into the compound.”

Castro’s response to that was to declare that everyone rushing to leave were the “scum” of Cuban society anyway, and good riddance.

Meanwhile, he ordered some subalterns to set sail for America from the nearby port of Mariel. It was a dictator’s dog whistle: Leave now, if you want to. In Miami, Cuban Americans turned entrepreneurial, chartering fishing craft to pick them up. The “Mariel boatlift” was on. Jimmy Carter, in a tough fight for his own party’s renomination against Ted Kennedy, sought to pick up some Cold War brownie points with voters with the declaration: “We’ll continue to provide an open heart and open arms to refugees seeking freedom from Communist domination.”

Except that, as you may well know, for James Earl Carter, by 1980 no good turn tended to go unpunished.

Seventy thousand migrants came, all told, far, far more than what either Carter or Castro expected. Seeking to save face, Castro cleverly made sure the exodus included a small number, less than 2 percent, who were “criminals,” which in the Cuban context mostly meant people jailed for crimes like operating illegal side businesses to feed their families, or trading in the black market. He implied the number was far higher. Castro’s message that he was sending America Cuba’s “scum” took hold—and not just on the political right. The New York Times headlined, “Retarded People and Criminals Are Included in Cuban Exodus.” The UPI provided a number: 200 prisoners (that would be about 0.26 percent of those who arrived) were (“reportedly”) “hardened criminals.”

Most had nowhere to go. The government began housing them in tent cities at underused military bases, mostly in conservative states. A frantic, racist reaction took shape, exactly parallel to the one four years earlier when Vietnamese boat people had begun washing up on American shores. Some citizens made the connection directly, including this one I quoted in Reaganland: “The president and the governor said when the Vietnamese came out here that they were only going to stay a little while. Now they live here, they’ve got our jobs. They’ve got our tax dollars.” Colorado’s Democratic governor Richard Lamm, pledging that no Cuban criminals would darken his state’s doorstep, sounded like a Great Replacement theorist: “It seems to me the evidence is clear and overwhelming that Castro is emptying out his prisons and mental institutions. I think this country is sadly mistaken if we feel we can be the reservoir for all the displaced people in the world. There are too many of them. The numbers are overwhelming.”

Long story short, the normal ratio of violent crimes one might expect to be committed by any concentrated human population took place. But it was reported nationally as a ferocious crime spree. Refugees languishing for weeks in squalid tents inside Arkansas’s Fort Chaffee stormed the gates. Gov. Bill Clinton activated National Guard troops. Not enough, apparently: A frightening picture of a mob of angry brown men crowding their way down a thoroughfare made the papers nationwide. Around Fort Chaffee, stores started selling out of ammunition. “Everyone knows we’re getting Cuba’s trash,” said one citizen with a shotgun on his lap.

Things eventually calmed down. The Marielistas integrated into American life, and the myth that they represented the dregs of Cuban society would have faded, had popular culture not intervened.

Ever seen the 1983 movie Scarface? Remember the opening scene, in which four fearsome gangsters ae sprung from a refugee camp in a deal cut with a Miami drug lord? One of them, Pacino’s Tony Montana, becomes the most terrifying gangster the world has ever seen. That was how the Mariel boatlift would be remembered by many Americans. One certain American in particular. Dollars to donuts: When Donald Trump starts spewing bile about migrants sprung from Third World jails—“tougher than anybody we’ve got in the country … in some cases they’re not people in my opinion”—the refrain running around in his tiny brain is this:

Say hello to my leeeeetle friend!!”

THE CUBAN BOATLIFT STORY HAS a Trumpian coda. Ronald Reagan often gets credit, and deserves some, for his warm feelings toward Mexican immigrants, even undocumented ones. In his opening campaign address in 1979, he called for “open borders.” In a 1980 debate during the Texas primary, he and George H.W. Bush competed to one-up each other in welcoming. Mexican immigrants. In 1986, Reagan signed an immigration reform that granted amnesty to some three million.

His attitude toward others seeking refuge in the U.S., however, was revealed in a searing 2022 book on the subject by historian Kristina Shull called Detention Empire. “Boat people” from Haiti were treated with particular callousness. The point person for this policy was a rising star in the Justice Department named Rudolph Giuliani.

His job was twofold: peddling the lie that dictator Jean-Claude “Baby Doc” Duvalier, a Cold War ally, was not oppressing anyone, so none was eligible for refugee status; and supervising the construction of internment camps to detain them, including at an abandoned missile base in Florida (“a miserable place, surrounded by barbed wire, patrolled by armed guards,” a witness said), and a facility at Guantanamo Bay that later enjoyed a second life after September 11.

Then, Cold War be damned, the Reagan administration got to work politically weaponizing the Cuban migration too, which Attorney General William French Smith called “an incursion.”

Giuliani was enlisted point person for that “problem,” too, saying in one statement: “Those people are illegally in this country. They have no right to be here, and we have a right to hold them for as long as we have to, to protect the safety of the American people … anyone that presents a danger to the American citizens should remain confined. And we will fight with any judge and take it to any court to keep it that way.”

He was rewarded for that yeoman service with the envied post as United States Attorney for the Southern District of New York, and his political career was on its way. It’s been a long time coming, this Trump thing. Never say that we were not warned

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