AUSTIN, Texas -- Like the asphalt on the open Texas roads in the dead of summer, indignation and outrage run blistering hot as Americans dissect Donald Trump’s press conference face-off with Univision anchor Jorge Ramos on Tuesday.
Everyone it seems has an opinion. In this country and in Latin America, Ramos is revered by some as something of a Walter Cronkite figure, leading more than a few observers to opine that Trump insulted U.S. Latinos everywhere for disrespecting the respected journalist. Trump’s really done it now, they seem to say. Seriously? Hadn’t he raised your ire to this point?
Others say Ramos had every right to ask questions and to question authority. After all, a free press is the benchmark of a free society and surely no one condones kicking out a journalist, especially when the stated reason is that he didn’t wait his turn. Having participated in press conferences for more than 30 years, I can tell you that waiting your turn to ask a question reminds me of the Spanish dicho, “Al que no habla, Dios no lo oye.” (God doesn’t hear those who don’t speak up.)
True, Ramos has every right to speak up, but on Tuesday he looked more like a man who knew the answers before even posing the questions, declaring that Trump could not deport 11 million people and could not build a fence along the entire U.S.-Mexican border. There is plenty of evidence to suggest strongly that both are probably impossibly expensive, and would cost hundreds of billions of dollars.
But Ramos has called Trump’s attacks on Mexico and Mexican immigration “personal,” and at least initially Tuesday, he looked like a man offering opinions and ready for a confrontation. I respect Ramos and greatly admire the courage of his convictions, but at times I’m slightly uncomfortable with his advocacy journalism, however well-meaning it may be. He could have handled the situation better.
But let’s focus on the man who wants to be the leader of the free world.
As is his combative style, Trump bellowed, “Go back to Univision,” referring to the network where Ramos made his name. That lit up the Twittersphere, where some called that code for, “Go back to Mexico,” a slur generations of Mexican Americans have suffered for more than a hundred years.
Writing in the Washington Post, conservative Jennifer Rubin says all of this dissection misses the point: Trump is a bully who can’t engage. Confronted with someone not treating him with kid gloves like the other reporters, Rubin writes, Trump took things personally and resorted to removing the offender. Journalists should be tougher on Trump, Rubin wrote.
I agree, and I’ll take it a step further. The most telling moment of the night came not in that made-for-TV moment that set tongues wagging. No, it came later, when cameras captured a visibly angry Trump supporter confronting Ramos and blurting, “Get out of my country. Get out.”
To his credit, Ramos calmly responded that he is a U.S. citizen. “It’s not about you. It’s about the United States,” Ramos said.
Confronted with the fact that Ramos is an American, too, the Trump supporter shot back, “Whatever.”
For many years I wrote about U.S. immigration policy, and I was hyper-careful to base my reporting on hard data and facts. But like the Trump supporter who said, “Whatever,” some readers took umbrage anyway. Confronted with empirical evidence that did not support their hateful point of view, they would fire off nameless emails or leave anonymous phone messages, telling me to "go back to Mexico," even calling me a traitor. How could the newspaper allow a Mexican to write about immigration, they would ask. No, they didn’t call me an American.
Up to now, Trump’s front-running campaign has been short on specifics, near empty on policy, but overflowing in a bombastic brand of ugly rhetoric and intolerance that could lead one to believe that Mexican immigrants, including U.S. citizens and their families, are to blame for much of America’s ills.
Such caustic, mean-spirited attacks – some might call them xenophobic -- cast Mexican Americans as “the others” and probably appeal to a segment of Americans for whom life isn’t working out as well as they’d like it to be. They need a scapegoat. Analysts have speculated that Trump, a smart man by many measures, knows this and is feeding their dissatisfaction to keep him solidly atop the polls.
Perhaps there is one silver lining in Trump’s odd but mesmerizing rise to the top. It takes the cover off intolerance among a narrow base of Americans, those whose definition of “my country” has no room for certain other fellow Americans. At the same time, it offends the fastest-growing demographic in the country. The question is, will Mexican Americans and U.S. Latinos translate outrage into action? Will they harness their indignation and vote?