It took Donald Trump approximately 26 minutes to get to the apocalyptic, scare-portion of his State of the Union address on Tuesday night—and he did it by turning to his favorite bogeyman.
“As we speak,” he warned, “large, organized caravans are on the march to the United States. We have just heard that Mexican cities, in order to remove the illegal immigrants from their communities, are getting trucks and buses to bring them up to our country in areas where there is little border protection.” Should these invaders succeed, he cautioned, working-class Americans would “pay the price” with “reduced jobs, lower wages, overburdened schools, hospitals that are so crowded you can’t get in, increased crime, and a depleted social safety net.” He announced that the government would soon be sending“another 3,750 troops to our southern border to prepare for this tremendous onslaught.”
The President’s warning was met by audible groans from Democratic lawmakers. Trump’s turn to the “caravan” threat wasn’t particularly unexpected. He’d been ranting about “caravans” not only in the days leading up to the State of the Union—“[A] big one has now formed and is coming. At least 8,000 people!”—but also during the run-up to the fall midterms, as things became increasingly difficult for his camp. And, of course, there was his initial series of “caravan” outbursts last spring. But while Trump’s “caravan” obsession has now become such a fixed part of the political landscape that Democrats felt comfortable groaning in response to his State-of-the-Union shout-out, there was a time, less than a year ago, when the few people had even heard the term. What changed, what brought the term into the national conversation, was a string of forceful manipulations by white supremacist and far-right activists.
As it is being used in today’s immigration debate, the word “caravan” carries with it a kind of threat—of itinerant wanderers, moving as a pack, looking for land to steal for themselves. It conjures white-European fears of “Gypsies” and other invaders and is bolstered by Trump’s repeated characterizations of immigrants as criminals, rapists and gang members. It’s clearly a racist pejorative. It’s also a pretty gross misrepresentation of the reality at the US-Mexico border, where the numbers of immigrants seeking refuge in this country have declined in recent years. And yet, the mainstream media has shown little reluctance to discuss “the caravan” and “caravans” as though it’s a recognizable brand, with a narrative we’ve all agreed upon. It goes like this: “Caravans of invaders are storming the border. We need to build a wall to protect ourselves.”
So how did we get here? And how did a word that once vibrated with a decidedly progressive resonance—because that is how it began—get warped into a rhetorical weapon of the extreme right? To answer these questions, we must better examine a key battle that went down last spring, well away from the sightlines of most “normies,” as Trump’s white supremacist allies would call us. Spoiler alert: the good guys lost. In fact, most of the good guys didn’t even know the battle was happening.
The story begins some ten months ago, on March 25th, when a new event listing appeared on the San Francisco-area free media website Indybay. Immigration allies and activists were encouraged to attend in support of a group of “migrants currently forming a 1,000+ person caravan from Central America through Mexico.” Prospective attendees were asked to “bring a friend; get involved; spread the word: donate to help this community on the move with basic necessities like food, medical supplies, flashlights, and more.” Pueblo Sin Fronteras, a small U.S.-based advocacy group, which had organized and publicized similar marches since the early 2000s, was promoting the event. It was to be held the following week, in the shared room of a community center in Berkeley. There was a promise of free pizza.
The next day, on March 26th, the group of refugees was given free passage from Honduras into Mexico. The successful border crossing was notable because people fleeing the Northern Triangle region of Honduras—one of the most dangerous places in the world—were typically denied entry into Mexico, forcing them to take far more treacherous paths, away from main routes and roadways. But that morning was different. The refugees crossed the border at an official checkpoint in broad daylight, and were met by no resistance from authorities. It was a thrilling and symbolic victory.
The Mexican news outlet El Universal reported on the morning’s events. In its article, the first to be published about the march, the word “caravana” was used in a single instance, in its original Spanish-language context, to describe the manner by which the group was traveling. About an hour later, a second article was posted, this time to the English-language website Telesur, another Latin American media outlet. Here, the word “caravana” was translated literally, and upgraded to headline status: “Central American ‘Migrants in Struggle’ Caravan Heads to Mexico, US for Dignity, Asylum.”
Two days later, on March 28th, the Berkeley fundraiser took place, and word of the refugees began to move through liberal circles in the Bay Area.
Then, on the morning of March 30th, the word “caravan” got its first sensationalist re-write, when BuzzFeed posted an article with the headline: “A Huge Caravan of Central Americans Is Headed For The US, and No One In Mexico Dares To Stop Them.” The word “caravan” appeared repeatedly in the story, accompanied by an ominous series of photos showing a mob of Latin American men, women, and children traveling by foot down a Mexican highway, headed for the American border. Despite this new click-bait-y approach, the BuzzFeed piece was relatively respectful in its coverage of the plight of the refugees. But it was noticed by people who were not.
Within a few hours, articles appeared on the websites of two of America’s most extreme anti-immigrant activist organizations: Numbers USA and the Center for Immigration Studies (CIS). The far right’s interest—or, rather, intolerance—had been piqued, and Breitbart News posted its own storythat night, repeating the word “caravan,” and warning of an imminent invasion: “Caravan of 1,500 Central American Immigrant Families Crossing Mexico to Reach U.S. Border.” As the hours ticked by, and the original refugee story faded away, excitement over the “caravan” began to spread deeper into the murk of the online alt-right, and the following day, March 31st, a handful of leading white supremacists joined the cause with a new, common goal: getting Trump to take action.
Mike Enoch, of the fiercely racist website The Right Stuff, took the fight to twitter, postingthe White House phone number, which he urged his followers to call. (Twitter has since purged Enoch’s account.) With a commander’s zeal, he provided a detailed list of instructions, telling them to keep any message short—“no more than 30 seconds” —and to use “no profanity at all.” He urged everyone to “get on board” and to “use your twitter or whatever to promote the call-in campaign starting Monday morning at 9am.” Then, he and his allies sought to bolster their fire power: “I’m reaching out to others across the alt-right, alt-light, and even normie conservatives to push this and get a call-in campaign going. Let’s show that we can exercise some community power here.” And they did.
That same day, the neo-Nazi hate site, The Daily Stormer, posted its first “caravan” pieceby publisher Andrew Anglin, a rouse-the-troops screed warning readers: “We have a situation developing. Right now, no one is talking about it. The media is going to keep a blackout on it until we are already knee-deep in it. The hordes are on the move.” Like Enoch, Anglin closed his piece with a call to action—“We need to get out in front of this”—but he took the idea a step farther: “We need to all start calling the White House every day and demand that the National Guard be deployed at the border. That is within the power of the President, and there is nothing any wetback judge can do to stop it.”
Within a short time, Anglin, Enoch, and other white supremacist influencers had begun to use the hashtag #StopTheCaravan. They urged their army of trolls—which easily numbers in the millions—to create and post memes in support of the effort to get Trump to publicly characterize the “caravans” as invaders.Things were progressing far faster and hotter than anyone imagined. Then they struck gold.
On Easter morning—Sunday, April 1—Trump’s favorite cable show, Fox and Friends, woke up its mostly-“normie” viewership with the now full-on racist version of the story. Brandon Judd, president of the National Border Patrol Council, warned that the refugees would use so-called “catch-and-release” asylum policies to get into the country, and then “hide in the shadows.” He called Pueblo Sin Fronteras a “quote unquote humanitarian group that… should be prosecuted,” and asked the morning hosts, “I mean, how many times do we have to hear stories of United States citizens being killed by people that are here illegally before we actually do something?”
At 8:56 am, Trump posted his first “caravan” tweet: “Border Patrol Agents are not allowed to properly do their job at the Border because of ridiculous liberal (Democrat) laws like Catch & Release. Getting more dangerous. ‘Caravans’ coming. Republicans must go to Nuclear Option to pass tough laws NOW. NO MORE DACA DEAL!”
There were now several “caravans,” not a single “caravan,” and Trump was just getting started. Thirty minutes later, he doubled down, claiming, “Mexico is doing very little, if not NOTHING, at stopping people from flowing into Mexico through their Southern Border, and then into the U.S.” It was grammatically incorrect, but America got the drift. Trump had been tweeting pro-wall, anti-immigration rhetoric all week, but the “caravans” were new. Especially in the plural. And now they were news.
With the President’s first round of tweets, Enoch and Anglin promptly took a victory lap, with Anglin dashing off an article, headlined: “Trump Posts About the Caravan!” The piececontinued: “So, we’ve been rallying the troops, telling people to call and leave messages, and Trump has at least heard us. The media was not talking about this, only the Alt-Right was, and Trump is posting about it—so he does hear us. He said ‘caravan.’ Now that word is in the media.” And he was right. The mainstream media began to toss around “caravan” with barely a hint of context.
Still, Anglin wanted more. Getting Trump to tweet about the caravans was exciting—“Phase One Complete!” he crowed—but now it was time for Phase Two.
On April 2, Anglin posted yet another of his lengthy Daily Stormer screeds, this time addressingthe President directly: “Mr. President, we appreciate you hearing us, but this is not what we are asking for. We want YOU to do something. Because YOU are the man we elected … This incoming caravan is not simply a challenge to our country—it is specifically a challenge to YOU, Donald Trump. These people are testing YOU to see how YOU respond to it.” Anglin then encouraged his followers to reach out to Trump yet again, this time providing a form letter for the purpose. He urged them to write their “own letter along these lines, but if you’re not up to it you can edit that one to fit your situation.” He warned: “Do not use profanity (and obviously don’t use racial slurs), so that these messages can be presented in bulk to back up Trump’s action.” The letter read:
Dear Mr. President,
For the first time in my life, I voted in the 2016 Presidential election, for you, because your message spoke to me in a way that no other politician’s rhetoric ever had.
Though you have had your ups and downs, overall I have been disappointed with the way you have handled immigration, which is the number one issue affecting this country.
I have seen, as you have seen, the caravan that is currently being marched from Central America and through Mexico with the intent to enter the United States.
Mr. President, if you do not act to stop this and defend the borders of this country, I will not be voting in 2020.
This caravan is a challenge to you, and it is within your authority to send the National Guard to protect the borders of this country.
If you fail to do this, I will not longer be able to say that I support your presidency.
Over the next two days, Trump tweeted multiple times on the topic, keeping the story alive. Ann Coulter, Tucker Carlson, and other cable-approved bigots weighed in, and the racist term “caravans” became the recognizable shorthand for what had once been part of a progressive refugee story.
On April 5th, the President sent the National Guard to the border. This time it came from the White House’s twitter account: “President Trump is authorizing the deployment of the National Guard to support the Border Patrol in its mission to protect our country and stop the stream of illegal immigration.” The rest is “caravan” history.
As the origins of the “caravan” myth slip further into the past, it is doubtful we’ll ever know for certain whether Trump first heard about the “caravans” story from any one source in particular. Was it from his morning Fox and Friends binge? The storm of calls and letters with which white supremacists may have flooded the White House? The Enoch-and-Anglin-inspired twitter frenzy? The answer could be any or all of the above, and in some ways, the particulars don’t matter. What is important is the bright line clearly linking the coordinated efforts of white supremacists and far-right bigots to the rhetoric that has since become White House policy.
The current framing of the “caravans” came from white supremacists and other bad actors in the racist far right. It is now being written into our laws by officials in the Trump Administration, many of whom were recruited from Southern Poverty Law Center-designated anti-immigration hate groups like CIS and the Federation for American Immigration Reform (FAIR). These allied constituencies are working together to create a toxic public debate that demonizes immigrants as “caravans” of invading hordes, because this context enables them to escalate the immigration debate, militarize the border, and put brown-skinned kids in cages. None of this is rhetorical. Nor is it a mistake. It is, rather, the coordinated effort of an energized, dedicated group of extremist activists, who are employing sophisticated means of achieving their policy goals. And they are succeeding.
The media—and progressive journalists in particular—should not have simply parroted the word “caravan” after Trump first tweeted it last spring. Perhaps they were blind to the word’s racial biases because they, to some degree, hold the same biases themselves. It would have been far better for them to have sidestepped the word “caravan” altogether and instead used words like “refugees” or “asylum seekers,” which is what the men, women, and children making their way to this country are. They are refugees who are escaping horrific conditions at home. They are people who are seeking kindness and aid. They are not an invasion, or a threat to our borders, or anything that anyone who isn’t a racist should ever worry about.
This should be obvious. And it should continue to be obvious—no matter what our white-supremacist President tweets.