by Amy Davidson Sorkin
At a campaign rally in Rio Rancho, New Mexico, on Monday night, President Donald Trump had just finished a tribute to Ronna Romney McDaniel, the chair of the Republican National Committee—or “the woman in Michigan,” as he also referred to her—when he turned his attention to another person in the audience. This was Steven Cortes, a political consultant and occasional commentator on CNN, where he has been known to defend the President. (Trump has said that the network had fired Cortes, which does not appear to be the case.) Trump noted that Cortes “happens” to be Hispanic, and then proceeded to give an indication of the peculiar lens through which he himself sees the world. “I’ve never quite figured it out, because he looks more like a Wasp than I do,” Trump said. He was, at that moment, speaking against a backdrop of people wearing “LATINOS FOR TRUMP” T-shirts or waving signs bearing the same slogan; their placement, in view of the cameras, was an indication of the rally’s message. Some of them happened to resemble Cortes in ways that one imagines Trump meant; some didn’t, which is what one would expect, given the great diversity within the Latino community. Indeed, Trump’s comment would be baffling if its point were not so blatant: he has a particular picture of what “Hispanics” look like, and expects others to find it as perplexing as he does when life operates differently than the Trumpian Central Casting office in his mind.
In Rio Rancho, Trump made it clear that his Latino stereotype extended beyond any physical features to include matters such as citizenship, socioeconomics, culture, and loyalty. Still in raptures about Cortes, Trump continued, “There is nobody who loves this country more or Hispanic [sic] more.” He looked in the direction of Cortes and asked, “Who do you like more, the country or the Hispanics?”—as if this were somehow a choice, as if “the Hispanics” were not as built into the definition of “the country” as any other Americans, and as if asking in that manner were not an act of ragged division. Trump reported back to the crowd, “He says the country! I don’t know, I may have to go for the Hispanics, to be honest. We’ve got a lot of Hispanics! We love our Hispanics! Get out and vote.”
As always, it is hard, with Trump, to figure out the border between “I,” “we,” or whatever pronoun he’s using to refer to himself, his party, or the American people as a whole. (Or to somebody else: at another moment in the speech, he oscillated between complaining about what he saw as the unjust persecution of the Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh and the unjust investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 election, crying out, “and they still want him impeached!”) The United States has “got a lot of Hispanics”—was that the point, or was he speaking in a proprietary way about the people he believed would vote for him? And one can only wonder what he was thinking when he said that he’d “go for the Hispanics”—did he imagine that people would be flattered?—or whether he had thought about it at all. Perhaps the point was just to present a tableau in which he had the country and its people laid out like candies for him to choose among, or lined up as contestants vying for his favor. Trump seemed, as always, to forget that in an electoral democracy he is the one who needs to ask to be chosen. He speaks as if going to the polls is, above all, a great way for people to earn his love.
Trump was not wrong in boasting, as he did elsewhere in the speech, that he has a real shot with many Latino and Latina voters, particularly Cuban-American and Venezuelan-American voters—though, of course, he exaggerated, saying, “All for Trump!” Jonathan Blitzer has an incisive examination of why Trump has a chance with many of these voters in this week’s magazine. As he notes, Democrats, in their own way, may not fully recognize the politically diverse nature of the Latino community, as focussed as some are on the Administration’s often reprehensible behavior at the Mexican border. But Trump, as he does, flattened away all nuance, claiming that he was on the verge of total victory with these voters next year. (His approval rating among Latinos nationwide is in the twenties.) As he presented the case, even if “the Hispanics” don’t vote for him because of his policies toward Cuba and Venezuela, they should vote for him because unemployment is low and because of what he brazenly claimed was their overwhelming support for his border policies. “Because the Hispanic Americans, they understand, they don’t want the criminals coming over the border,” he said. “They don’t want people taking their jobs, they want to have that security, and they want the wall. They want the wall!”
Trump’s basis for this supposed insight was another set of stereotypes: that “the Hispanics” are naturally more intimately familiar with the dangers that Trump associates with immigration—drug trafficking, human trafficking, and crime—than other Americans are. Regarding illegal drugs, for example, he said, “You understand it when other people don’t understand it.” (He has a parallel gambit with African-Americans, whose vote he routinely demands by asking, “What the hell do you have to lose?” as if it would surprise him that they had anything worth cherishing.) He added, “This is like a warlike situation—that’s why you’re liking Trump.” The idea that anyone’s life might evince more complexity, or that people who are struggling with crime or a lack of jobs might envision a solution to those problems that doesn’t come in the form of a wall, seemed beyond his ken. Some Latino voters may indeed agree with him; but the only monolith here is the imaginary one that Trump wants to build at the border.
The event was, again, ostensibly designed as a forum for Trump to appeal for Latino voters and to make a play for New Mexico, a state that Hillary Clinton won easily in 2016. But then, often enough, when Trump professes his love for members of one minority group or another, the goal seems less to win their votes than to send a message to any of his supporters who may worry that they voted for a racist. If so, the Rio Rancho rally did not offer much reassurance. The President also discussed his strategy for going after Elizabeth Warren. It involved doing “the Pocahontas thing.”