Lizbeth Fierro, from Racine, Wisconsin, was 16 when Donald Trump was elected. “I thought he was a joke,” she told me. Then she noticed a change at school. “Once he was elected there were a lot more people who came out very bold and started saying mean comments about immigrants and Mexicans … I thought, ‘Wow, this is dumb, this is very dumb.’”
Then in July her father, Ricardo, the former head of the Latino chamber of commerce in town and a prominent activist, was detained at his home and is now threatened with deportation. Ricardo, who has been in the country for more than 20 years and has five children and two stepchildren, was one of the first of almost 40 undocumented migrants detained in Racine this summer. For the past few months, many in the Latino community have been keeping their heads down. They don’t go out, even to church, and when they do leave the house they get someone with documents to drive them.
The Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency (Ice) had previously concentrated on undocumented migrants who committed serious crimes. Now it is open season. “Ice will no longer exempt classes or categories of removable aliens from potential enforcement,” a spokesman said. Its agents are literally following people and picking them up in the street.
“It was like a summer of terrorism for the Latino community,” says Kelly Gallaher, a local activist. “Everybody knows somebody who is undocumented so it becomes a threat to the whole community.”
Trump’s election and the xenophobic rhetoric that came with it not only emboldened schoolchildren to parrot bigotry to their peers, it gave the state free rein to unleash its power indiscriminately against a minority community. So when pipe bombs are sent to Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton, Joe Biden, California congresswoman Maxine Waters and CNN it should be understood not only as a specific threat to democracy but as one of the most violent examples yet from a democracy that has long been under threat.
We do not yet know who planted the bombs or what their motivation was. Nor, at the time of writing, do we know how many more are out there, though it has been reported that billionaire philanthropist and Democratic donor George Soros and actor and vocal Trump critic Robert De Niro have also been targeted.
But while the direct cause remains unclear, given the targets and the timing – just two weeks before the midterm elections – the context could not be more obvious or more chilling. Both in his candidacy and presidency Trump has made direct appeals to political violence. He has advocated protesters be beaten up at his rallies; tweeted a simulation of himself pummelling the news network CNN, as though in a wrestling match; encouraged police to rough up suspects; and in the week in which the Saudi government conceded that Jamal Khashoggi was murdered in its consulate, he lauded a politician for body-slamming the Guardian journalist Ben Jacobs.
Both in his candidacy and presidency Trump has made direct appeals to political violence
So when he says, as he did on Wednesday, “We have to come together and send one very clear, strong, unmistakable message that acts or threats of political violence of any kind have no place in the United States of America”, it rings not only hollow but hypocritical.
Just two hours after CNN had to evacuate its studios, a pre-programmed email to Trump supporters in the name of his daughter-in-law and re-election campaign adviser, Lara Trump, read: “I have some breaking news for CNN … That is the real America that exists outside of the liberal bubble. It’s time for us to give the media another wake-up call from the American people.” When Trump later told a rally in Wisconsin, “Those engaged in the political arena must stop treating political opponents as being morally defective”, the people he has demeaned and demonised were aghast.
This is the man who has led chants for Hillary Clinton to be imprisoned (“Lock her up!”); said the media were the “enemy of the people”; claimed Obama founded Islamic State; praised those who marched alongside neo-Nazi demonstrators in Charlottesville, Virginia, as “very fine people”; and described Waters, who had called on protesters to face down administration officials wherever they find them, as a “low-IQ person” and warned her “be careful what you wish for”.
Despite his efforts to appear presidential he could not help himself. “By the way, do you see how nice I’m behaving today? Have you ever seen this?” His curated contrition was a big joke – others may have had their lives threatened but, ultimately, it was all about him.
Even as he called for unity he blamed the media, insisting they have “a responsibility to set a civil tone and to stop the endless hostility and constant negative and oftentimes false attacks and stories”. Or what?
To get to power, his campaign violated a number of democratic norms, not least refusing to say that he would accept the result if he lost, insisting the vote was rigged, and branding one minority (Mexican immigrants) rapists, criminals and drug runners. That has continued. Earlier this week he called on his opponents to stay away from the polls. “Go out and vote,” he told one rally. “Now, if you’re going to vote Democrat, don’t bother.”
And for all his talk of keeping America safe by closing the country to Muslims and building a wall along the Mexican border, the fact remains that the greatest terrorist threat America faces is from far-right extremists, including white nationalists, whose involvement in deadly acts of terror outnumbers those committed by Muslim extremists by two to one. These are the very people Trump encourages with his rhetoric.
When Trump paints a world of cheating adversaries and lying journalists, and those accusations are not even remotely true, he lays the groundwork for attacks such as the ones we saw earlier in the week. When he routinely scapegoats a minority, kids get bullied at school and their parents get taken away. Words are actions and actions have consequences.
On 6 November, election day, Ricardo Fierro will have his deportation hearing and Lizbeth will cast her first vote. “I knew that once I turned 18 I would go out and vote,” she says. “My dad always talked about it. And any conversation we had was always politically based. I know with my vote I could change things like this. Votes do matter. Every vote makes a difference.”
She sees the link between what Trump says and its impact on the real world. After these attempted pipe bombings one can only hope many others will too.
• Gary Younge is a Guardian columnist