WASHINGTON — It started during the campaign.
Donald Trump said “Islam hates us,” he called Mexicans “rapists,” and he tweeted a photo of a taco bowl to demonstrate his appreciation for Hispanic culture.
As president, he said the crowd at the white nationalist rally in Charlottesville, Va., included “some very fine people.” He dismissed majority black nations as “shithole countries.” He mocked Senator Elizabeth Warren as “Pocahontas.’’ He labeled an African-American member of Congress “low IQ” and warned illegal immigrants will “infest” the country.
What’s emerged in recent months is the degree to which Trump has put some of those verbal sentiments into policy, crafting initiatives that critics call bigoted, dangerous, and sending a troubling signal to white, far right voters.
The country is watching: Forty-nine percent of respondents said Trump is “a racist” according to a recent Quinnipiac University poll of American voters. In that survey, 79 percent of blacks said he is “a racist” while 44 percent of whites came to that conclusion.
“He reflects a 1950s culture and mindset that many Americans still hold on to,” said former Republican National Committee chairman Michael Steele, who is black. “They still fight in so many respects battles that were lost a generation ago. . . . He’s found a way to tap into that vein and feed fears and concerns in a way that frees people up to act on those impulses and to speak aloud about those impulses.”
And with Trump, pontification becomes policy.
Last Tuesday, the Trump administration announced it was rolling back Obama-era affirmative action guidelines for colleges and universities — a policy change that, while similar to one put in place by President George W. Bush, a fellow Republican, raised accusations that the current president was pointedly appealing to his base of most loyal supporters.
That comes after Trump has escalated anti-immigration rhetoric at campaign rallies and touted his immigration crackdown to motivate his base for November’s midterm elections.
“At first I thought this was like Archie Bunker yelling from the end of the bar; Trump was just a guy without a filter,’’ said Frank Sharry, the founder and executive director of America’s Voice, an immigration reform group. “Now I’m starting to see it as more nefarious and more strategic.”
Other policies — including the massive tax cuts passed last year — have not motivated voters as much as strategists had hoped.
“They can’t run on tax cuts,” Sharry said. “They can’t run on increased wages, they can’t run on health care, so what has he got?”
The forced separation of immigrant children from their parents, which Trump has halted after a massive outcry, is the most egregious example of the president turning such impulses into policy. But even an administration fallback plan, to detain families together, is an idea the nation abandoned years ago.
Trump also pushed a travel ban that barred people from several majority Muslim countries from coming here, along with North Korea and Venezuela. The latest version of the ban, which prompted protests in more than 40 US cities including Boston, Washington, and New York, was just last month ruled constitutional by the Supreme Court.
There’s also the termination of temporary protected status for more than 300,000 people living here from countries that experienced upheaval.
The Department of Justice, under Trump’s presidency, has pushed tougher sentencing for drug offenses, which disproportionately affects African-Americans and reverses policies.
Trump’s history of harsh rhetoric targeting minorities also taints standard-fare GOP initiatives such as cutting food stamps and imposing work requirements on Medicaid and other social services. The Trump approach allows critics to question whether the GOP is pursuing punitive measures aimed at blacks and Hispanics.
Experts who have examined mass persecutions say the “tough” talk, as Trump likes to call it, is used by leaders across the planet to get a population more comfortable with discriminatory policies — even if they don’t like the initiatives.
“You need that mushy middle to not hate it,” said Andrea Pitzer, the author of “One Long Night,” a history of concentration camps. “You have to get the general population not to fight it and be complicit in some parts of it. But they don’t have to be doing it.”
In recent weeks, Trump has focused on crimes committed by illegal immigrants, greatly exaggerating the influence of the gang MS-13, which has Latin American ties. He’s also floated the idea that undocumented immigrants should be denied due process at the southern border.
He spotlighted crimes committed by illegal immigrants, despite evidence that such immigrants are far less likely to be imprisoned than US citizens.
“Your loss will not have been in vain,” said Trump to a group of parents whose children were killed by illegal immigrants. “We will secure our borders.”
Trump’s recent moves on immigration have been applauded on the far right.
“The plan is all coming together, friends,” wrote Andrew Anglin, the founder of the neo-Nazi website The Daily Stormer. That came after Trump said via Twitter that he wants immigrants turned away with “no Judges or Court Cases.”
A spokesman for the White House didn’t reply to a request for comment.
Trump has called himself “the least racist person” when confronted by reporters about various controversial comments, including the profane description of some black-majority nations. He’s also pointed to economic data as evidence he’s helping African-Americans. “Because of my policies, Black Unemployment has just been reported to be at the LOWEST RATE EVER RECORDED!” he said via Twitter in January. (Black unemployment has declined over the past decade, and under Trump it has fallen to its lowest rate since 1972, when the Bureau of Labor Statistics began measuring it.)
Meanwhile Trump has used the symbolic power of the White House to show who is and who is not welcome. The White House disinvited the Golden State Warriors, the NBA champs whose mostly black players were critical of Trump. Likewise, Trump un-invited the Super Bowl-winning Philadelphia Eagles this year after learning that many of the players, including a large number of blacks, planned to boycott the ceremony.
Democrats say that Trump is also trying to rhetorically target those who stand in his way, using a strategy they find familiar from the past.
During slavery and through the Jim Crow era, for example, whites who helped blacks were frequently discredited as “Negro-lovers” or worse, noted Jamal Simmons, a Democratic stategist. Trump is borrowing that concept, Simmons said, pointing to a speech the president delivered last month in South Carolina ahead of a primary election.
“The Democrats want to protect illegals coming into this country, some of whom are not good, some of whom cause lots of problems in the worst possible way,” Trump said. “They want to protect illegals coming into the country, much more so than they want to protect you, and that’s not where we’re coming from, OK?”
The idea spread quickly, with Trump surrogates amplifying the message, just the way Trump intended.
Mike Huckabee, the former Arkansas governor and father to White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders, took Trump’s idea further and tweeted a photo of five heavily tattooed Hispanic men flashing gang signs, and captioned the image: “Nancy Pelosi introduces her campaign committee for the take back of the House.”
The intended message was clear: Democratic leaders are in league with deadly gangs.