President Donald J. Trump has been engaged with berating human caravans, a spectacle that might have been odd in another
era. At first instance, it all seems fundamentally anachronistic, a sort of history in reverse. It was, after all, the
caravan packed with invasive pioneers that gave the United States its distinct frontier identity, moving with
relentless, exterminating purpose in ultimately closing it.
On October 19, some 7,000 Central American migrants, mostly from Honduras and Guatemala, made an attempt to cross the
bridge between Guatemala and Mexico. “Una necesidad nos obliga,” came the justification
of a 20-year old man to the Washington Post. The ultimate destination for most: the United States.
Such a necessity does not merely apply to states in social and political decay. Honduras has historically been an
eviscerated client state, its politics those of a marionette of Washington’s interests. In similar fashion, Guatemala
continues to bleed before the preying involvement of Washington in its history. The US-owned United Fruit Company craved
gangsters for capitalism, and the Central Intelligence Agency obliged in protecting its assets, assisting the overthrow
of the Arbenz administration in 1954.
The Mexican authorities made various attempts to repel the human stream with violent though modest success. With the
November mid-term elections looming, this small group became electoral dynamite for Trump. It gave him a chance to militarise
matters, announcing the deployment of 5,200 troops to the US-Mexico border. (Some 5,600 have currently taken their
The language of General Terrence John O’Shaughnessy, in describing the proposed plan, resembled a description of an
armed operation against an elevated enemy. “Our concept of operations is to flow in our military assets with a priority
to build up southern Texas, and then Arizona, and then California.”
In the words
of the previous US president, Barack Obama, “They’re telling us the single most grave threat to America is a bunch of
poor, impoverished, broke, hungry refugees a thousand miles away.” Film director Spike Lee, presenting
his latest effort, BlacKkKlansman, at the Los Cabos International Film Festival in Mexico, was even more unvarnished.
“Agent Orange was on the campaign trail for his fellow gangsters and stirring his base by saying the migrant caravan was
If there is something that tickles and engages the populist sentiment, Trump is up for it. His “base”, as it were, is up
for rocking, chilling and entertaining. Obama might accuse Trump of being a fan of the “political stunt”, but that is
the essence of this administration, a sequence of aggravated rehearsals that have distracted when needed and enraged
Some of these ploys have gone beyond the category of temporary fancy. Senior policy advisor Stephen Miller had
demonstrated that policies of indignation can have purchase at chance moments. While Trump is always bound to claim
copyright over such ideas, it was Miller who proved influential in sketching the selective Muslim ban and the
head-scratching policy of separating children from parents at the border. Immigration is being larded with further,
stifling regulations with Secretary of State Mike Pompeo confirming
that a mere 30,000 refugees for resettlement will be accepted by the US in 2019.
Such cruel exercises are the stuff of modern reactionary politics, notably from governments wishing to remove the clammy
hand of international law upon them. Refugees, the outsiders, the marginalised, are ideal fodder to mince and grind. It
is the language of Australian Prime Minister John Howard who, in the federal elections of 2001, insisted
that the island continent would become an impregnable fortress against the undesirables coming by sea. He illustrated
this fact by deploying, much in the Trump manner, soldiers against refugees stranded at sea in August 2001. “We simply
cannot allow a situation to develop where Australia is seen around the world as a country of easy destination.” Given
Australia’s lethal natural barriers, the remarks were as incongruous as they were fictional.
It was a policy twinned with the feather brained notion, ruthlessly exploited, that terrorist operatives might sneak
their way to Australia on leaky vessels, avoiding more salubrious options. As Australia’s defence minister Peter Reith
at that time, such boat arrivals “can be a pipeline for terrorists to come in and use your country as a staging post
for terrorist activities”. Howard himself added taste to the fear: “you don’t know whether they have terrorist links or
not,” he suggested rather casually to Brisbane’s Courier Mail.
Trump would have approved of such laxity, having himself claimed
, with an approach immune to evidence, that there might well be “unknown Middle Easterners” heading to the US in these
migrant caravans. When probed on the matter by CNN’s now bedevilled Jim Acosta, Trump twisted slightly. “There’s no
proof of anything but they could very well be.”
Trump’s language of the demonised caravan is also the language of a host of European leaders who have decided to dust
off chauvinistic sentiments long held in the archive and ignore any central, humanitarian approach to refugees. At work
here is a species of depraved transatlantic consensus on cruelty propelled by strongman bullying. Hungary’s Viktor Orbán
fantasises about Muslim hordes in an Ottoman invasion redux, a positioning that elevates himself as defender of the West
against Islam and the dark forces of the barbaric East. “We don’t see these people as Muslim refugees,” he snorted in an interview
with Bild in January this year. “We see them as Muslim invaders.”
Other states contemplate a further entrenched, barbed wire approach, finding much value in shirking or adjusting the
refugee resettlement quota. Poland can add itself to Hungary in that regard, with Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki stating
his position plainly to Radio Poland in January that “we will not be allowing migrants from the Middle East and North
Africa to enter Poland.” Austria, Slovakia and the Czech Republic are not far behind.
Like his Australian and several European counterparts, Trump has deployed the instruments of violence and demonization
against refugees with a degree of commitment and, it must not be forgotten, success. It also supplies a fitful reminder
how criticising him for doing so remains a more difficult exercise, given the number of states which have gotten a cold
regarding refugees. A certain villainy against humanity has taken hold.
Dr. Binoy Kampmark was a Commonwealth Scholar at Selwyn College, Cambridge. He lectures at RMIT University, Melbourne.