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Navarrette: The politics of fear

Ruben Navarrette



SAN DIEGO — Former President Barack Obama’s memoir — the first installment of which went on sale this past week and weighs in at 768 pages — appears to be an interminable love letter. To himself.

Trouble is, as more and more people have come to realize since Obama left office, there is not much to love about the 44th president’s awful crackdown on immigration. That’s why I was stunned when Obama wrote, in his new book, about how politics can be driven by fear. You see, it’s fear that fuels the immigration debate.

Americans like to tell pollsters that their anxiety about who is coming to the United States is all about their respect for the concept of playing by the rules.

Nonsense. Most people don’t really care about rules. COVID-19 proved that definitively. What the immigration debate is really about is the same thing it has always been about: good ol’-fashioned fear.

Psychologically, it’s fear of change, fear of the unknown, and fear of those who are different. Culturally, it’s fear of a foreign language becoming the national language, and fear that immigrants won’t assimilate. Economically, it’s fear that immigrants might take jobs from U.S. workers, and fear that employers might hire immigrants as an excuse to keep wages lower than they should be. And politically, it’s fear that immigrants, once naturalized as U.S. citizens, will register to vote against your party and your slate of candidates.

Obama understands fear. But — surprise — only as the concept relates to him and how he has been victimized by it. In April 2008, during the Democratic primary, Obama told supporters at a San Francisco fundraiser that he would be doing better with white working-class Democrats in the Rust Belt if not for the fact that so many of them were fearful. In recorded remarks later seized upon by Hillary Clinton as an example of her opponent’s “elitism,” Obama said of these voters: “They get bitter, they cling to guns or religion or antipathy to people who aren’t like them or anti-immigrant sentiment or anti-trade sentiment as a way to explain their frustrations.”

And, in his new memoir, “A Promised Land,” Obama surmised that it was fear that drove nearly 63 million Americans to vote for Donald Trump in 2016.

“It was as if my very presence in the White House had triggered a deep-seated panic, a sense that the natural order had been disrupted,” Obama wrote. “Which is exactly what Donald Trump understood when he started pedaling assertions that I had not been born in the United States and was thus an illegitimate president. For millions of Americans spooked by a Black man in the White House, he promised an elixir for their racial anxiety.”

According to Obama, Trump detected this racist fear that many Americans harbored and exploited it to get elected. Obama is spot-on about Trump. He’s just not very self-aware. Do you know who else exploited racist fears to serve political ends? That’s right. Barack Obama.

It was fear — specifically fear of undocumented immigrants who committed crimes — that allowed Obama to justify a heavy-handed immigrant crackdown that included more than 3 million deportations during his eight years in office. When pressed about the purge, Obama repeatedly — and, it turned out, falsely — claimed that he was only removing “criminals, gang bangers, people who are hurting the community.”

Why? Because he must have assumed that Americans would excuse his Draconian approach to immigration enforcement if they thought his policies protected them from scary brown-skinned foreigners. In fact, as you may recall from attempts to analyze the 2016 election, there was a sizable swath of the electorate that voted for Obama’s reelection in 2012 and then went on to vote for Trump four years later.

If Obama believes these voters backed Trump because of fear, why can’t he wrap his head around the idea that, just a few years earlier, some of them may have backed him for the same reason?

Now there’s a story worth writing.

— Ruben Navarrette is a syndicated columnist with The Washington Post Writers Group. Email .

Today's Bible verse

“Those on the rocky soil are the ones who, when they hear, receive the word with joy; and yet these do not have a firm root; they believe for a while, and in a time of temptation they fall away.”

Luke 8:13

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