President Donald Trump suggested Monday that he will follow through on his threat to send migrants detained at the southern border to so-called sanctuary cities, a move he sees as a way to punish Democrats who disagree with his hard-line anti-immigration policies. The apparent executive-order-by-tweet came just days after he sent out a heinous propaganda video splicing images from the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks into a speech by Democrat Rep. Ilhan Omar. And that smear of one of the first Muslim women elected to Congress came about a week after Trump forced Kirstjen Nielsen out as secretary of homeland security, reportedly because she wasn’t cruel and lawless enough for his tastes.
Taken together, Trump’s actions are xenophobic, dangerous, and possibly illegal. They also offer a particularly grim preview of what the next two years of his reelection campaign will look like. This sort of demagoguery has long been Trump’s default posture, but coming from a president with a, um, limited attention span, the recent burst almost looks like message discipline.
Last month, Trump cut short his own “Total EXONERATION” victory lap by reigniting the debate over repealing Obamacare, much to the dismay of a Republican Party that got walloped on the issue in the midterms. He quickly retreated, promising to address the issue after the election. This month, he’s back to playing offense and to being more aggressively offensive. Instead of a bleak health care rematch, he’s focusing on what has worked before: claiming without evidence that the nation is under attack both at the border and from within it, stoking much of white America’s fear of the other while pitching himself as those Americans’ greatest defender. It would be a mistake to see this as a conscious shift to election mode by the president—Trump’s been campaigning for reelection on that theme since the moment he was sworn in—but the current barrage of nationalism is nonetheless a clear reminder of what’s to come.
Trump’s second presidential campaign won’t look exactly like his first one, but his team is already using the same brushes and paint: Make American Great Again will become Keep America Great. He’ll spend less time (but not no time) calling Hillary Clinton corrupt, and he’ll spend more time branding his possible Democratic challengers as reparations-loving socialists. His fans will chant, “Finish the wall,” instead of “Build the wall.” And he’ll once again smear Muslims, immigrants, Mexicans, and black Americans, but with a few fresh faces like Omar’s added to his cast of villains.
As president, Trump has a far bigger stage from which to air his race-based grievances than he did as a candidate. He will also have far more cash. On the same day he delivered his “American carnage” inaugural address, he filed the paperwork to run for another term, an unprecedented move that allowed him to begin raising money immediately. He currently boasts a campaign war chest of $41 million, more than 20 times what Barack Obama had at this point in the 2012 cycle. Trump reported bringing in $30 million in the first three months of this year alone—or roughly the combined total of the two top Democratic raisers, Bernie Sanders and Kamala Harris. Meanwhile, GOP officials are doing all they can to clear the primary field, and while they haven’t been completely successful, it’s still a marked departure from four years ago, when Trump ran as an outsider and the establishment did everything in its power to derail him. Then, he told his base what he would do if he won the nomination and then the White House. Now, he’s pointing to those things he’s already doing with the GOP marching in lockstep behind him. The big difference between Trump 2016 and Trump 2020, then, isn’t the message, but the tense.
There’s no reason to believe Trump will successfully stay on message between now and November 2020. Even amid this current xenophobic flurry, Trump hasn’t been able to stop himself from live-tweeting professional golf or playing armchair fire chief—and this week’s expected release of the Mueller report will attract his attention as well. But there’s also no reason to doubt that racial resentment will be the motivating force of his reelection effort. It has been the unifying theme of his politics since well before he cannonballed into the GOP primary four years ago this summer. This is the guy who laid the groundwork for his run by repeatedly claiming that the nation’s first black president had no right to be in the Oval Office, then kicked off his campaign with a jeremiad against Mexicans, and followed that up by calling for a Muslim ban. It should not have been a surprise that his inaugural address was littered with racism. Or that he proposed one version of a Muslim ban after another. Or that now he’s trying to twist the memory of 9/11 into an Islamophobic weapon against the nation’s first hijab-clad congresswoman. Trump told us who he was then, and he’s telling us who is he now. On this at least, we can believe him.