I’ve learned to think like President Trump. That should probably scare the hell out of me, but journalists get paid for that kind of thing.
It was Tuesday when I knew I was finally on the same page with the man. That’s because my head didn’t do a 360 like Linda Blair’s in “The Exorcist” when he said he was thinking of cutting off U.S. aid to Honduras.
Trump said he’s putting more than $125 million for Honduras “in play” after his buddies at Fox News told him most of the migrants in a caravan moving toward the U.S. right now are from that Central American nation.
Normally, when my head was facing forward again, I would have shouted at the TV like any good media wonk and asked myself, “Doesn’t he know that’s the dumbest thing he could do if he wants to stem illegal immigration from Honduras?!”
I would holler, “Look at the facts, Donald!” The caravan he’s so hysterical about includes about 1,200 Central American migrants. Compare that to the tens of thousands of Central Americans – including almost 70,000 unaccompanied children – who poured over the U.S. border four years ago.
Most were fleeing horrific gang violence in Central America’s northern triangle – El Salvador, Guatemala and especially Honduras. And what’s helped reduce the flow from Honduras since then?
In two words: U.S. aid. In particular the more than $1 billion Washington pumped into the region in the years just after the 2014 crisis. Much of it was earmarked to combat the chronic criminal bloodshed – including the world’s highest murder rates – that drives so many Central Americans north.
In Honduras it involved law-enforcement modernization like U.S.-style community policing projects. In the summer of 2015 I visited Honduras’ most violent city, San Pedro Sula, and observed the experiment already showing results on the streets. During ride-alongs with night police patrols I saw Hondurans walking sidewalks that just a year before had been empty at those hours thanks to gang-enforced curfews.
Honduras is still a menacing place to live – not least because security forces propping up right-wing (and perhaps illegitimately re-elected) President Juan Orlando Hernández are cracking civilian heads again. However, increased barrio security has reduced the terrified panic to leave the country.
So only a fool would choke off the American assistance that’s helped reduce it, right? Of course.
That is, if he really wanted to reduce it.
Now start thinking like Donald Trump. Take my hand; I know it’s dark but this will just be a moment. Ask yourself: Why is Trump really bothered by the caravan crossing Mexico? It’s not because it’s 1,200 migrants.
It’s because it’s only 1,200 migrants. Just a little more than the number of people who move into Florida every day.
Trump is aware that illegal border crossings into the U.S. are at their lowest level since 1971 (according to his own Homeland Security Department). He knows that makes his call this week to militarize the border sound as asinine as setting off air-raid sirens over 1,200 Central Americans does (especially since Mexico will probably send back most of them before they’re anywhere near Texas).
What Trump wants isn’t 2018 illegal immigration numbers. He wants those 2014 numbers – because that’s a bigger foreign threat, a bigger brown bogeyman he can wave to whip up the xenophobic political base he so desperately needs to whip up.
So if kiboshing aid for Honduras makes no policy sense whatsoever, it makes a heckuva lot of political sense if you’re Trump. Not just because it will punish one of those “shithole” countries his base loves to scapegoat. But because it will undermine whatever progress has been made in Honduras and get that undocumented immigrant machine cranked up again – get those illegal numbers back up to levels where anti-immigrant bigotry looks warranted instead of whack.
As I wrote recently, Trump does not profit politically if Latin America looks benign. He needs it to look like the snake pit of “bad hombres” he branded it on the first day of his presidential campaign. Just a thousand or so “rapists” and “drug traffickers,” as he calls undocumented immigrants, won’t do it.
If you think like Trump, you need a hundred times that.