In Donald Trump’s telling, MS-13 poses a fundamental threat to America. Starting early in his presidency, his U.S. Department of Justice made the transnational gang one of its top priorities, and late last month, Trump claimed to have personally seen Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents “liberate towns” from the gang’s grasp. In between, the president called MS-13 members “animals” and “thugs,” claimed unaccompanied immigrant children were actually gang members in disguise, and tried to use those concerns as a way to explain away his administration’s inhumane actions at the U.S. border, which took more than 2,000 kids away from their parents.
A new poll suggests all that fearmongering has had its intended effect.
According to a YouGov survey commissioned by the Huffington Post, 85 percent of Trump voters believe MS-13 is either a “very” or “somewhat” serious national threat (60 percent very serious), 53 percent believe the gang is also a local threat to their communities (20 percent very serious), and 51 percent worry at least “somewhat” that they or their family members will personally be a victim of the gang’s violence (12 percent worry “a great deal”). In contrast, far fewer Clinton voters express the same concerns: 32 percent see the gang as a national threat, 17 percent believe it is a threat to their local community, and just 13 percent view MS-13 as a threat to themselves or someone in their family.
The available evidence, of course, suggests those fears are largely unfounded. In March, officials at every level of law enforcement told the New York Times that Trump’s campaign against MS-13 was out of proportion with the threat it poses. The gang, also known as Mara Salvatrucha, doesn’t appear to have the infrastructure or funding of a major international crime syndicate. One law enforcement official, for instance, told the Times of a recent case where a suspected MS-13 leader had to cancel a drug deal because he couldn’t afford gas to drive to the drop-off point.
There’s also no evidence that the gang is growing as rapidly as Trump suggests—or growing at all. By the Justice Department’s own count, there are roughly 10,000 members of MS-13 living in the United States today, roughly the same number as there were a decade ago.
But it’s the personal fears of Trump voters that are most striking. While it’s possible to quibble over what constitutes a national or local threat, there’s far less wiggle room when we’re talking about specific dangers to specific people. While MS-13 has indeed been responsible for brutally violent crimes on U.S. soil, the bulk of those occurred within immigrant communities in places like New York and Maryland, and against immigrant teens, many of them undocumented. As Hannah Dreier, an immigration reporter at ProPublica who has been reporting on the gang for the past year, explains, “MS-13 rarely goes after true outsiders—people who are not friends with any gang members or targets for recruitment.”* It’s hard to imagine that anywhere near a majority of people who cast votes for Trump two years ago, or any of their family members, are themselves in danger today.
But they overwhelmingly believe they are in danger, and the most obvious explanation is that their president and his party have been persistently telling them they are. Before Trump was talking specifically about MS-13, he was talking generally about immigrant crime, be it about Mexican “rapists” or the death of “beautiful” Kate Steinle in California. Never mind that study after study shows undocumented immigrants commit crimes at lower rates than the general population does and that crime rates in cities with large immigrant populations have fallen disproportionately in recent years. None of that matters if you can convince someone that they and their loved ones are in danger. And Trump has made an art form of convincing his fans that they have something to fear—and that only he can protect them from it.
Correction, July 17, 2018: This post originally misspelled ProPublica.