President Donald Trump’s State of the Union speech contained a number of unusual claims, but one in particular stood out. “The border city of El Paso, Texas, used to have extremely high rates of violent crime,” the president said, “one of the highest in the country, and [was] considered one of our nation’s most dangerous cities. Now, with a powerful barrier in place, El Paso is one of our safest cities.” The White House thought it had made a very powerful point, and the president’s allies repeated this claim a lot on Tuesday, some more skillfully than others. Donald Trump Jr. tweeted that Juarez had more murders annually than El Paso does “Because wall [sic] work!!!”
Juarez México had 773 murders in 2017, directly across the border, El Paso, Tx had 19, the only thing separating them is a wall.
Because wall work!!!
— Donald Trump Jr. (@DonaldJTrumpJr) February 6, 2019
Unfortunately, every part of what the president said is delusional. El Paso has been one of the safest cities in the country for decades and fencing along the border, erected in 2009, didn’t affect the rate of violent crime at all. But it’s not surprising that Trump got it wrong. For Trump, Texas is a backdrop and nothing more. It’s the president’s Westworld. That’s a very peculiar thing for Texas to experience, because the state is accustomed to deference from Republican administrations—deference it has earned. And the strangest thing of all is who is going along with it.
On July 23, 2015, Donald Trump’s presidential campaign landed on Texas for the first time, with a deafening thwack. A Laredo chapter of the Border Patrol Union had invited Trump—who had recently launched his presidential campaign by seeming to call many Mexican immigrants rapists and criminals in a garbled and semi-coherent speech—to tour the border. They uninvited him after pressure from national HQ but he came anyway.
He spent about three hours on the ground in Laredo, and it was a circus. Reporters tracked Trump’s private plane in real time as it crossed the state border, and when he landed, it took two charter buses to carry the press corps from the airport to the World Trade International Bridge, where Trump gave a ten-minute press conference, and back to the airport. The speed and urgency was reminiscent of presidential trips to war zones, which is what Trump professed to believe he was experiencing.
For Trump, Texas is a backdrop and nothing more. It’s the president’s Westworld.
“They say it’s a great danger [to be here], but I have to do it,” he told reporters at the airport. “I’m the one who brought up the problem of illegal immigration,” and so it was his duty to bring more attention to it here, at the epicenter of the threat. Who’s they, a reporter asked? “I have to do it,” Trump repeated. “I have to do it.” Of the border patrol officers he met, he said, “they’re petrified”—in fact so petrified that they were afraid to talk about how petrified they were. It had been worth it to come if only to see his many supporters greet him as he got off the plane, he said. (A number of those there to “greet” him were protesters.)
Anyone with a passing familiarity with Laredo knows that the biggest risk the average person experiences while passing through is a mixed-up order at Taco Palenque. Laredo is warm and welcoming and one of the safest cities in Texas, and the border region as a whole is safer than much of the rest of the state. At Trump’s press conference near the bridge, bemused local officials stood behind him, grinning as he described the great peril he found himself in.
If the president had been willing to learn, he could have learned a lot in Laredo. His young campaign had staked out only two real positions at that point—protectionism, and opposition to immigration. Free trade and the free movement of people helps some and harms others, but Laredo is testament to the fact that Texas is mostly on the winning side of that equation. Just a few decades ago, Laredo still had unpaved streets downtown; now it’s the largest inland port in the Americas.
Trump saw Laredo’s success as America’s loss. “Mexico is booming, absolutely booming,” he said. “A lot of what’s happening here is because Mexico is doing so well.” They were taking advantage of the United States, he claimed, and as a result, “there’s tremendous danger on the border.” Trump briefly handed the podium over to Laredo’s city manager, who politely suggested otherwise. A few days later, in Iowa, Trump told an audience that Laredo, where he had spent a little under 180 minutes, had been “really, really dangerous” and that Melania had been “crying” from relief and happiness when he had returned alive, a claim that’s somehow even harder to swallow than the others.
The history of the modern Republican party snakes over and over through Texas, and not just through H.W. Bush’s west Houston congressional district and W. Bush’s childhood home in Midland, but through John Tower, Phil Gramm, Tom Delay, and Ted Cruz. Texas conservatism has sometimes been a moderating force in the party and sometimes a radicalizing one, and sometimes the force is Louie Gohmert, but its status as the first among equals of red states has kept its issues and priorities close to the heart of the party—until recently.
Trump is a Queens conservative, an odd thing. Many of his more prominent advisers were or are California conservatives—Steve Bannon, Michael Anton, Stephen Miller. Their politics are shaped by deep cultural resentments and a particular fear of demographic change that don’t have an exact analogue here. And Trump views himself as a champion of the rust belt, which has been punished, in his view, by the economic displacements that made much of Texas much richer.
In that cosmology Texans’ needs are secondary, and the state itself is a prop. A year after the Laredo visit, Trump attended a fundraiser in San Antonio in which one of the hosts, Laredo banker Dennis Nixon, pleaded with Trump to reconsider his rhetoric about NAFTA and immigration. “He worked on that [speech],” Trump said after. “It wasn’t like a little quickie.” Hours later, at a rally in The Woodlands, Trump made fun of people like Nixon. “You are not a conservative because you don’t believe in free trade,” he told the audience people tell him, before saying in his own voice, “Who cares?”
The main utility Trump finds for Texas is as a warning to others. In his mind, the state is a kind of border sacrifice zone, with a tumor he’s intent to excise before it spreads to the good people of Long Island. Just in the last month, Trump’s Twitter account, as helpfully fact-checked by the Washington Post, has put the word out to his worried followers that Texas’ elections are fraudulent, flooded with illegal votes; that the state is waist-deep in undocumented child molesters; and that there’s been an extraordinary immigrant crime wave. The statistics he’s citing are bunk and don’t reflect the lived reality of anyone here, but that doesn’t matter—people elsewhere believe them. (In fact, data shows that Trump’s strongest support for the wall seems to come from states with the fewest immigrants, as well as states farthest from the border.) It’s propaganda generated in the service of a border wall that would confiscate land from Texas by eminent domain.
But even outside of trade and immigration, Texas gets weird disrespect from the president, including when he came to Houston after Hurricane Harvey and talked about all the people who had gone out in boats to watch the storm and had to get rescued. Many such claims by Trump can be traced to the fever dreams of Fox News, but no one could even figure out where he had heard that one. And the Trump administration lowballed and slow-walked Harvey relief through Congress. As the Texas congressional delegation was begging ineffectively for relief money, the White House offered far less than the state was hoping for, blamed the state for the low number, and then Trump personally made fun of Abbott for asking for as much as he did.
Given the level of disrespect, and given how hot-tempered Texas Republicans were with the last administration, you might expect to see some pushback. There have been a few Republicans who’ve pushed back, most notably Congressman Will Hurd, the last remaining Republican to represent a district on the U.S.-Mexico border.
But most have not. Governor Greg Abbott has occasionally issued statements about the need for a comprehensive approach to the border, and the importance of trade to Texas, but not very loudly. Lt. Governor Dan Patrick, who at times has seemed to view the president as a big brother, has gone whole hog for The Donald. Patrick skipped the first day of the legislative session, in fact, to be in D.C., where he said he was advising the president on how to give his mid-shutdown prime-time speech on the border wall. (Patrick, born in Baltimore, is a blue-state conservative just like the president.)
And that El Paso anecdote? Well, the White House has said something like it before. But close observers of the president note that a lot of what he says unprompted seems to be recycled and remixed material from conversations he’s had recently. A few weeks ago, the El Paso Times flagged a likely candidate for the El Paso claim. At a meeting with the president on January 10, Texas attorney general Ken Paxton (still awaiting trial on charges of securities fraud) offered a version of the story that’s very much like what the president said last night: “El Paso used to have one of the highest crime rates in America,” Paxton said. “After that fence went up and separated Juarez, which still has an extremely high crime rate, the crime rates in El Paso now are some of the lowest in the country. So we know it works.”
Here, just as with the case of the disappearing illegal voters that the Secretary of State generated from whole cloth in January, Texas elected officials are complicit in untruths that tarnish the state’s reputation in order to support the preferred narratives of a president who doesn’t seem to like the state much anyway, and has shown no interest in trying to understand it. That’s not how it’s supposed to work, is it? In a little under a generation, Texas has gone from being the GOP’s strongman to its mannequin—bendable, posable, pliable. Now Trump’s bringing the road show to El Paso, to repeat his untruths about it to its residents’ faces.
Somewhere, John Tower’s ghost is scowling. In 1978, the first Republican senator since Reconstruction cut an ad to explain why he had refused to shake his opponent’s hand in a high-profile incident. “My opponent has slurred my wife, my daughters, and falsified my record. My kind of Texan doesn’t shake hands with that kind of man,” he told his audience.