Wait, what?! Steve Bannon was arrested by the Postal Service on a Chinese billionaire’s yacht because Mexico wouldn’t pay for the wall?
That’s right, dear reader, sometimes even columnists win the lottery. That’s how I felt last Thursday as news broke that Trumpism’s chief ideologue Steve Bannon and three associates were charged in federal court for conspiring to defraud contributors to “We Build the Wall,” a crowdsourcing effort to “unite private citizens that share a common belief in providing national security for our Southern Border through the construction, administration and maintenance of physical barriers inhibiting illegal entry into the United States.” What contributors (who have sent in more than $25 million) weren’t told is that more than a million of their dollars were diverted to bankroll the lavish lifestyles of the nonprofit group’s president, Brian Kolfage, and Bannon, chairman of its advisory board.
Now, I know it’s an extensive menu to choose from, but this may be the most Trumpy of all Trump-era scandals, for its sheer absurdity, tackiness, and hypocrisy.
Where to begin? Perhaps with the fact that it was US Postal Inspection Service officers who arrested Bannon on Thursday – which would have been quite a flourish by Hollywood screenwriters if this were fiction, given the Trump administration’s ongoing war with the postal service (and yes, the postal service contains within it the nation’s oldest federal law enforcement agency). But wait, it gets better: Bannon, the committed populist nationalist who masterminded Trump’s 2016 campaign, was arrested on a Chinese billionaire’s yacht, off the coast of Connecticut.
No, I kid you not.
There are other juicy tidbits for a columnist to feast on. The “We Build the Wall” advisory board also includes such luminaries of the anti-immigrant jihad as Tom Tancredo and Kris Kobach, the former Kansas Secretary of State, who reportedly told contributors that President Trump was supportive of this project (Don Jr.’s photo is on the group’s website, improbably hovering over an “Education” headline). In addition to siphoning funds to buy jewelry, an SUV, a golf cart, and pay for cosmetic surgery and his taxes, Kolfage also used Wall funds to buy a boat named “Warfighter,” which has participated in pro-Trump boat parades (Apparently that’s a thing in Florida). But wait, one more thing, a reminder of the slapstick amateur-hour nature of so many of the Trump scandals: During a “Wall-a-Thon” fundraiser for a section of wall being built in Sunland Park, New Mexico, in 2019, Bannon actually joked with viewers that they were “off the coast of Saint-Tropez in southern France, in the Mediterranean. We’re on the million-dollar yacht of Brian Kolfage – who took all that money from “We Build the Wall.”
But enough about the scandal’s absurdity and tackiness. It’s not all fun and games, sadly. The hypocrisy underlying the We Build the Wall saga is a cancer that keeps spreading over our political discourse and threatens both our democracy and our relationship with other countries, in this case Mexico. It is the cancer of opportunists stoking divisive fear and hatred in our society in order to then reap financial and political dividends from manipulating these visceral emotions.
The Trump/Bannon 2016 campaign was a master class in exploiting aggrieved, xenophobic populism, and the president has doubled down on the strategy. Two days before Bannon’s arrest, Trump was at the border in Yuma, Arizona, warning that if elected, Joe Biden “will unleash illegal immigration as the world has never seen.” A Trump loss in November, he warned the audience, means Americans will have “murderers, rapists in your midst.”
For Trump and his Bannonite allies, manufactured fear of foreigners is the gift that keeps on giving, their default strategy. It’s no coincidence the president rushed to Yuma on the week of the Democratic convention; he sees the border as his ultimate trump card (pun intended). And brace yourself for this week’s nominating convention of the Trump Organization formerly known as the Republican Party – it will be a parade of apocalyptic warnings of what may come across the Southern Border (which does sound creepier when capitalized, as these people insist on doing) and/or from China. In an astonishing break from tradition, and from the very purpose of these conventions, Republicans are taking a pass at writing a 2020 platform. Crazed tweets will speak for themselves.
Of course neither Trump nor Bannon were pioneers in preying on people’s fear of foreigners. It’s a timeless strategy throughout US history, though in the last two decades it’s been Fox News that lay the groundwork for today’s con artists. The news network established by an Australian media mogul who became American and by a Nixonite cultural warrior perfected the profitability of the anti-immigrant craze, especially after 9/11. Rupert Murdoch and Roger Ailes, aided by the likes of Lou Dobbs, landed on an airtight winning formula: Convince viewers that dodgy foreigners are out to destroy their way of life, and that mainstream media and the snooty elites who control it are hiding this truth because they’re in on the plot, and these viewers will become an ardently loyal audience dependent on you. For these viewers, the very fact that crackpot stories and conspiracy theories peddled by Fox were nowhere else to be found across mainstream media for years only validated the Foxian (now Trumpian) thesis – they’re all in on it, conspiring against you. So give us your attention, your votes… and your money.
Murdoch and Bannon know better, of course; it’s all a highly profitable act, scamming less educated, often elderly, Americans who don’t spend weeks on Chinese billionaires’ yachts, don’t fly private jets between their globe-spanning media interests, and who in most cases have never been near the Southern Border.
Immigration has always been among this nation’s greatest assets, as is the geographical blessing of counting Mexico and Canada as neighbors. The fact that we rely on so many undocumented workers crossing the border is indeed a problem, however; a problem for those workers as much as it is for the rule of law in this country. And it is not a terribly hard problem to solve on the merits, as any number of serious bipartisan immigration reform proposals throughout the years have made clear. Illegal immigration remains an issue because anti-immigrant politicians have worked hard to block solutions to the problem.
And why wouldn’t they? Some crises are too profitable to resolve.
* Andrés Martínez is a professor of practice in the Cronkite School of Journalism at Arizona State University and the editorial director of Future Tense, a Washington, D.C.-based ideas journalism partnership between ASU, Slate magazine, and New America Twitter: @AndresDCmtz