The greatest feats of Donald Trump: pressuring undocumented immigrants and populism for the benefit of the elite

The populism of Donald Trump appeals to people in the American heartlands while effectively profiting the richest of citizens instead. Associate Professor Lena Näre and Professor Mikko Saikku at the University of Helsinki assess the most influential decisions made during Trump’s term so far.

 “Volatile and focused on restrictions.” This is how Lena Näre, Associate Professor in Sociology at the University of Helsinki, describes the immigration policy of Donald Trump, the President of the United States.

According to Näre, Trump’s thinking on immigration culminates in the hunt for undocumented individuals. The president has sought to make their situation increasingly difficult by, among other things, proposing the intensification of forced returns and arrests.

 “From Trump’s policy perspective, the undocumented are considered an isolated group of people that is a potential threat,” says Näre.

As an example, Trump decided to establish an independent office under the Department of Homeland Security for communicating with victims of crimes committed by immigrants on the residence permits and criminal procedure of the perpetrators.

 “There are no grounds for its establishment, since a unit that promotes the rights of crime victims already exists under the Department of Justice,” Näre points out.

Scapegoats for the base

In Näre’s opinion, this type of politics, based on the construction of new scapegoats, is extremely dangerous. When carried out by the government, it brings to mind the anti-Semitic propaganda of Nazi Germany.

 “Those living in the United States without a residence permit, often for several years, come from various backgrounds. From a clinical perspective, they are extremely cheap for employers, since they have very little alternatives or opportunities to stand up for their rights.”

Näre does not fully understand the motivation behind Trump’s immigration policy. It may be linked with a desire to portray a certain group of people as the cause for unemployment in the US and even as a threat to national security.

 “But why are people who have not been convicted of any crime made criminal to start with? This is a direct blow against those in a weak position.”

Unwanted consequences of border control

According to Näre, the decades-long gradual tightening of border control underlies the situation in which undocumented individuals in the United States now find themselves. As a consequence, immigrants working in the country, particularly Mexicans, have been unable to return to their country of origin.

 “After the stricter border control measures came into force, it was no longer wise for migrant workers to cross the border again, but to stay permanently in the United States.”

This has created a group of people in the United States that is living and working in the country without a residence permit. In particular, young people who immigrated to the country as minors with their families, known as the Dreamers, have become a pawn in contemporary politics. The decision to terminate a programme enacted during the Obama era, providing Dreamers with an opportunity to apply for a residence permit, is another example of Trump’s haphazard decisions made without thoroughly studying the matter at hand.

 “The majority of Dreamers have lived in the United States for years or even decades, and they have no other homeland. It seems crazy to turn them away based on a missing piece of paper,” says Näre.

Lobbyist for the financial elite

Mikko Saikku, McDonnel Douglas Professor of American Studies, sees strong similarities between Trump’s government and the rule of Ronald Reagan in the 1980s. Both presidents represent political ideologies drastically different from those of their predecessors, as well as opposition to federal government.

Through his attempts to dissolve rules and standards, Trump has made a complete about-face when compared to, for example, the environmental policies of Obama’s presidency.

 “Today, the reigns are held by people who value nature conservation very little,” says Saikku.

The goal is to minimise restrictions which representatives of business life working in the Trump administration consider harmful.

Trump’s support is personified in the inhabitants of the Rust Belt and stagnating industrial regions of the Midwest. He appeals to the white working and lower middle classes. To many American conservatives, Trump started as a joke: a pure-bred populist without any traditional political alignment or experience.

Even though many republicans at first considered Trump’s values and appearance unappealing and alien, a large share is now happy with the politics he represents.

 “In reality, Trump is fighting for the interests of the very richest financial elite. Not since Eisenhower have business leaders been represented to this extent in the upper echelons of the administration,” says Saikku.

Economic situation a boon for Trump

According to Saikku, the appointment of Neil Gorsuch as a justice of the Supreme Court was a decision with a particularly positive impact on Trump's support.

The Democrats were hoping to fill the seat vacated by Justice Antonin Scalia, who passed away in 2016, but the Republican-majority Senate did not discuss President Obama's nomination at all during that term. That decision was left to Trump, and the Conservative majority of 5 to 4 in the Supreme Court was maintained. Due to their lifetime nature, Supreme Court appointments have a long-term impact.

Saikku finds it ironic that Trump’s strong populist opposition to state government and the dissolution of restrictions serve the interests of the very financial elite that the “forgotten” public supporting Trump so vehemently despises.

In the United States, however, the situation appears less conflicted than from a European perspective.

 “There is still a strong consensus on the idea that everyone must take care of themselves. Relying on public services, for example, symbolises failure to many,” generalises the professor of American studies.

In the end, the economic boom and the stock market are holding Trump afloat. According to Saikku, without those factors he would be in dire straits.

 “It should be kept in mind that economic cycles are the thing that in the end has a decisive impact on the satisfaction of regular voters.”

How does Russia perceive Trump?

Even though the United States is often portrayed as Russia’s nemesis in local media, Trump as a person has received very little criticism.

In the pro-Kremlin mainstream media, the investigation of the Trump administration’s ties to Russia have been labelled no less than unfair,” assesses Vladimir Gel’man, Professor of Russian Politics at the University of Helsinki.

All accusations of Russian interference in the presidential elections of the United States are also strictly denied in the media.

According to Gel’man, the overall view on President Trump in Russia is more favourable than his critics in the United States and elsewhere in Europe suggest.

 “Still, I would not go as far as to say that Russian media are favouring Trump. He is not, however, perceived as a representative of the anti-Russian American establishment. News concerning Trump is mostly centred on his attempts at improving relations between the countries.”