We’ve seen Trump building this argument for a while now. But in an interview yesterday with The Wall Street Journal he made it yet more explicit. Trump says that Judge Gonzalo Curiel has an “absolute conflict” in presiding over the Trump University case because of his “Mexican heritage.” The fact that Curiel was born to immigrant parents in Indiana in 1953 is relevant, according to Trump, because Trump’s been so vocal against illegal immigration. “I’m building a wall. It’s an inherent conflict of interest.”
It’s true that it is a very, very big deal for the presidential nominee of a major political party to be engaging in such scurrilous attacks on a member of the federal judiciary. That would be a big deal even if there were no racial angle. But I confess that I’m surprised at how many press accounts treat this racial dimension as a sort of icing on the cake of awfulness of this story, an additional, intensifying outrage on top of Trump’s obvious contempt for an independent judiciary.
I don’t want to make it a competition over which thing is worse. Both are awful; it’s not a competition. But in context of Trump’s entire campaign, Trump’s attacks on Curiel’s ethnicity are a much bigger deal.
Trump literally started his campaign by calling Mexican immigrants rapists and murderers. Then there was the wall he plans the build along the US-Mexico border, a building project he insists Mexico will pay for. As recently as last night he led a boisterous call-and-response with his audience insisting that Mexico and Mexico alone will pay for the wall.
That’s not just ridiculous. It’s something that would normally happen after a country loses a war and the victorious country imposes a humiliating indemnity on the defeated power. It’s not and has never been about money but humiliation, which is why it is such a driving part of Trump’s presentation. Then there’s the pledge to round up and deport roughly 3% of the current US population in 18 months, an effort that would inevitably lead to the questioning and at least temporary confinement of millions of American citizens and legal residents.
Now against that backdrop comes Trump’s claim that Judge Curiel cannot carry out his duties as judge simply based on the fact that his parents were born in Mexico. (It is irrelevant to the issues at hand but nonetheless ironic that Judge Curiel’s father arrived in the United States before Trump’s mother.) It’s a fascinating claim since it both suggests that Mexican-Americans have inherently divided loyalties and that it is obvious on its face that any Hispanic in the United States would be implacably hostile to Donald Trump.
These are all of a piece. The entirety of Trump’s campaign has been driven by building white backlash resentment against non-whites – mainly Hispanics and principally Mexican immigrants or their descendants. It’s an escalating narrative: they’re not us, they’re dangerous, they’re taking our stuff and pulling us down.
It’s that mix of grievance and desire to reclaim what is being taken away, that desire for revenge that has been the centerpiece of Trump’s campaign from the outset, far more than any sort of economic arguments or anything else. Racial appeals, dog-whistle and all the rest are certainly not new in American politics. But having a major party presidential candidate running an explicit racist campaign is quite new. Again, the attacks on Judge Curiel is entirely of a piece with everything Trump has shown us since he kicked this campaign off almost exactly a year ago.