It’s déjà vu, except this time, the divisive, false and fear-stoking rhetoric is coming from the president of the United States ― not just a fringe potential candidate.
In November 2014, my birth country of Liberia endured a devastating Ebola epidemic. The virus, which is transmitted through touch and contact with those infected, ripped through the population, infecting over 10,600 and killing more than 4,800 people.
Donald Trump, then best known as a reality TV host who had relentlessly pushed the birtherism conspiracy about President Barack Obama, jumped on the issue. But he didn’t intervene to help the nation that was founded by freed American slaves and already debilitated from 13 years of war. Instead, Trump called for a ban on entry into the U.S. for not only Africans but also American citizens, relief workers, doctors and nurses who had gone to Liberia to help. Trump said they “must suffer the consequences” for providing aid.
Even after facts were released about how to contain the virus, Trump went on to spread misinformation about immigrants, suggesting Africans were just waiting to infiltrate the U.S. with a global killing agent that would take American lives if we didn’t shut the borders. He did everything he could to make “African” synonymous with “Ebola,” and therefore a threat, preying on the fear of illness that could potentially hit American people on American soil.
How many Americans were infected by the Ebola virus? Four. And how many died of the virus? One.
But to hear Trump tell it, every African coming into the country was suspected of having Ebola and should be turned away. The fearmongering caught on. I hadn’t been to Liberia in a year, but I could see the sudden unease in people’s eyes if I mentioned I was from Liberia. I am a U.S. citizen, but as an African immigrant, I was once again seen as “other.”
At the time, these were the racist rantings of a celebrity billionaire just beginning to explore a presidential run. Thankfully, the country had leadership with a moral backbone ― President Obama ― that recognized that the best way to contain the disease was to fight it in West Africa, and America joined the global coalition to help solve the crisis. America did not shut its borders as Trump proposed.
Flash-forward to today. It’s November 2018, four years later, and I see so much of the same fearmongering around the migrant caravan as it makes its way toward the U.S.-Mexico border. And now, the hateful language and policy prescriptions that go along with it are coming from the White House.
Days before our midterm elections, Trump has once again made the immigrant the boogeyman that “real” Americans must fight. Instead of using America’s might to offer aid to desperate people fleeing violence in Central America, his rhetoric ― and that of his allies ― peddles misinformation of Islamic terrorists and lepers among the group, all working to destroy or infect our great, pure nation. He has ordered over 5,000 active-duty American service members to the border to prevent the supposed onslaught.
Never mind that we know the caravan is largely made up of women and children seeking safety from violence in their home countries and that, of the estimated 4,000 of them trekking northward, only a small fraction will ever reach the U.S. border.
Immigrants are once again Trump’s target to vilify, used to stoke fears and rile up his base. His latest tactic? Threatening to take away birthright citizenship, a right enshrined in the 14th Amendment of the U.S. Constitution. And Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) has quickly picked up the torch, announcing that he’s ready to introduce legislation to do the same.
As Election Day looms, Americans of all stripes and backgrounds must use our ballots to showcase who we are. Trump is betting that by embracing fear and closing doors, we will somehow become more American. He is willing for us to lose our humanity as we search for nationality.
In 2014, after the midterm elections came and went, the Ebola scare rhetoric disappeared. But I remember being so proud to be part of an America that responded to a global health crisis with aid and humanity; we never gave in to the fear.
Marlene Cooper Vasilic is the vice president for outreach and special events at the Center for American Progress.