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In ‘Zero Tolerance,’ ‘Frontline’ reviews Trump’s anti-immigrant strategy

“Zero Tolerance” is a good reminder of the not-very-distant past when wall-building themes played a large role in the election of Donald Trump.

The great “Frontline” series of PBS will premiere a new film tonight, titled “Zero Tolerance,” about how Donald Trump used the threat of immigrants as a threat to the United States as one of the centerpieces of his 2016 campaign, and the first year of his presidency.

“Zero Tolerance” airs at 9 tonight (Oct. 22) on KTCA channel 2 in the Twin Cities. It’s a one-hour film.

The Trump presidency has been such a whirlwind of controversy, currently dominated by impeachment, and Trump’s use of leverage to get Ukraine to dig up dirt on Joe Biden’s family, and the abandonment of our Kurdish allies in Syria, and, and, and, and … that until I previewed  “Zero Tolerance,” I had to some degree forgotten how much the first few months of Trump in office was about the border, the border, the border — which led to family separation horrors that even some border enforcement hardliners found hard to stomach. But this film brings it right back.

Likewise the lineup of Trump underlings who were in the thick of those early days and especially those border-obsessed days — Steve Bannon, Stephen Miller, Sebastian Gorka, Jeff Sessions – seem like figures from a distant past (though Miller is still in the administration). Even harder to recall (but this film will remind you) was the not-so-distant past when top Republican presidential candidates – Jeb Bush, Marco Rubio and others – seemed to want to steer the GOP to a much more welcoming attitude toward immigration across the southern border. (And don’t forget the initial effort to put a complete stop to new arrivals, by plane, from the Mideast, that caused a whole bunch of liberal lawyers, and non-lawyers, to rush to airports in the northeast where arrivals from Middle Eastern countries were all of a sudden not being allowed to proceed with what had been for years the normal process for seeking a stay in our country.)

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It’s not the greatest “Frontline” ever, because the series is often so great. But my own reaction, more than the horror that I felt at the time, was that I couldn’t believe how recent all this was but how long ago it seemed, back to a time when the big names and faces of the new administration were the likes of Steve Bannon and Jeff Sessions.

The film strongly suggests that, somewhat under Bannon’s influence, Trump used the immigrant-and-refugee-bashing routine to separate himself from the field from the day he rode down the escalator in New York to declare his candidacy and on into the first year.

The film reminds us that even before Trump, Bannon and some of the other xenophobes had used fear of brown-skinned immigrants and refugees to take over the GOP, starting with the 2014 ouster of House Majority Leader Eric Cantor in a Virginia Republican primary by the previously unknown Dave Brat, demonstrating that you could gather a mob on the right by demagoguing the immigration issue.

Before that happened, according to the film, even Sean Hannity was “evolving,” as the saying goes, toward a more tolerant attitude on immigration. Then came Trump, and he rode the immigration issue, perhaps more than any other, to the nomination and the presidency and that wild first year, during which Hannity and much of the rest of the Fox crowd rediscovered their anti roots.

Bannon, who is seldom mentioned anymore, is on camera in the film saying the first Trump year could be the year that turns the tide against refugees and immigrants. But, Bannon said in the film, “we gotta start with the muzzle velocity” — meaning constant fire on the issue. Build the wall. Deport. Prosecute. Put ’em in cages. The travel ban. And keep the base revved up about the threat these (almost entirely) nonwhite newcomers pose.

In some sense, this turns into a story about the failure of Trump and the hardliners to implement all their plans. Bannon, Gorka, and Sessions are no longer in the picture. Not much wall has been built. It remains to be seen how much Trump will return to the old wall-building themes, assuming he is a candidate in 2020, and it remains to be seen if he can make it work again. But “Zero Tolerance” is a good reminder of the not-very-distant past when these themes played a large role in the election of Donald Trump.

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