Guest post by Simone Durham and Dr. Rashawn Ray Simone is a doctoral student in the Department of Sociology at the University of Maryland. Rashawn is an Associate Professor of Sociology at the University of Maryland and a David M. Rubenstein Fellow at The Brookings Institution. This is the fifth installment of the Border Criminologies themed series on Crimmigrant Nations organised by Maartje van der Woude and Robert Koulish.

After starting out the year responding to the Coronavirus pandemic with statements like “We have it under control… It’s going to be just fine” and “like a miracle, it will disappear”, President Trump has shifted his position to one exhibiting xenophobia and racism. In mid-March, after the severity of the outbreak could no longer be denied, Trump started using the phrase “the Chinese virus” to refer to COVID-19. A photo of his prepared speech caught by a photographer provides evidence that he changed the prewritten language of “corona virus” with sharpie. When confronted about this choice of words, Trump insisted that using this label isn’t racist and is simply “accurate.” This use of racist language isn’t new. It echoes his approach to many race-related topics in the U.S. His previous racist rhetoric contributed to spikes in racial hate, discrimination, and violence throughout his campaign and presidency. Similarly, his usage of the label “Chinese virus” has emboldened racists to verbally and physically assault Asian-Americans during the pandemic.

In the recently edited volume Crimmigrant Nations: Resurgent Nationalism And The Closing Of Borders, we provided an analysis of the ways Trump’s rhetoric on Twitter provide support for crimmigration. In the era of COVID-19 and Trump’s racist strategy to place blame anywhere but on himself, our arguments in this chapter have become even more relevant. The U.S. racial hierarchy has always involved oppression and marginalization against groups of color, including immigrant populations. To understand the efforts made by social actors to shape the racial hierarchy, we employ Omi and Winant’s concept of “racial projects” – processes of meaning making and knowledge production taken on by social actors in efforts to shape the racial structure of a given society to influence the way resources are distributed across racial groups. The racial project of interest in this particular work is that of “crimmigration,” a project meant to control populations of immigrants perceived to be threatening to social hierarchies in a given society. While Trump has made racist comments about a variety of groups of color, our focus on crimmigration coincided with a focus on the racialization and criminalization of Latinx populations in the U.S.

Through a content analysis of 129 of Trump’s tweets about immigrants or immigration between January 1, 2015 and March 31, 2018, we demonstrate that Trump’s commentary on this topic is overwhelmingly negative (69% of his tweets). In fact, none of his tweets were coded as positive (the remaining 31% were neutral). In addition, the majority of these tweets (55%) contained messaging that associated immigrants and immigration with concerns about safety (30%) and crime (25%).

Trump’s solution to the alleged “immigrant problem” was to close the borders. Slightly over one-quarter of his tweets expressed support for increasing restrictions and building a wall between the U.S. and Mexico. He has maintained this position despite ample evidence that increased immigration does not increase crime. While about 15% of tweets exhibit these subliminal racialized messages, over 40% draw on group threat frames that characterize immigrants as a threat to the livelihood of U.S. native citizens. In this regard, Trump goes beyond the usual dog whistle politics used by many politicians of the past and blast bullhorns to racists near and far.

Our study used the Trump Twitter Archive for our data. Additional analysis shows that Trump has extended his crimmigration and racialized anti-immigrant rhetoric to the COVID-19 pandemic. In the early stages of the pandemic, his tweets were more neutral and even positive in tone, including mentions of China such as, “China has been working very hard to contain the Coronavirus. The United States greatly appreciates their efforts and transparency” (January 24, 2020). Over recent weeks, however, Trump shifted his position and began placing blame for the pandemic on China. On March 16, he tweeted: “The United States will be powerfully supporting those industries, like Airlines and others, that are particularly affected by the Chinese Virus. We will be stronger than ever before!”

On March 23rd, Trump seemed to shift tone a bit when he tweeted: “It is very important that we totally protect our Asian American community in the United States, and all around the world. They are amazing people, and the spreading of the Virus is NOT their fault in any way, shape, or form. They are working closely with us to get rid of it. WE WILL PREVAIL TOGETHER!” Despite this rare positive tweet, the damage is being felt by Asian Americans in their everyday lives. Data from the Stop AAPI Hate organization shows that almost 1,500 anti-Asian American incidents were self-reported from the middle of March through the middle of April.

Just as Trump’s Twitter rhetoric analyzed in our chapter drew on preexisting racial narratives marginalizing Latinx Americans and immigrants, anti-Asian sentiments are far from new in the U.S. While this surge in reports of both physical and verbal attacks coincides with the current pandemic, it echoes a long history of anti-American racism in the U.S. As the 2020 presidential election approaches, it is important to stay woke about Trump’s continued use of racist rhetoric to frame immigrant groups. Studies report that Trump’s appeals to racist sentiment are what won him the 2016 election, rather than the economic anxiety of working class Whites as some espoused.

Prior to the COVID-19 outbreak, some political analysts hypothesized that racism could win him the 2020 election as well. While there’s still a long road ahead before presidential voting in November, Trump’s response to this pandemic will undoubtedly have a significant impact on how Americans vote. While those who support equality hope crimmigration rhetoric doesn’t fuel more support for Trump, research suggests that it may.

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How to cite this blog post (Harvard style) 

Durham, S. and Ray, R. (2020). Trump and Crimmigration in the Era of COVID-19. Available at: https://www.law.ox.ac.uk/research-subject-groups/centre-criminology/centreborder-criminologies/blog/2020/06/trump-and [date]