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Kris Kobach Is Preparing to Be the Next Trump

The Kansas gubernatorial candidate is a pure creature of the Trump era—and an indication of where the GOP is heading.

Drew Angerer/Getty

In June of 2013, more than 100 immigration reform advocates staged a protest on the front lawn of a large home in a Kansas City suburb. As a megaphoned voice rallied the crowd, protesters filed neatly up the porch steps and, one by one, placed shoes just outside the front door. Each pair, they said, represented a fatherless family, shattered by deportation. The protest was organized by Sunflower Community Action, a local non-profit focused on social justice. The home belonged to Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach, the nation’s most indefatigable voter fraud conspiracy theorist and the natural heir to Donald Trump’s throne.

Kobach’s response was a perfect encapsulation of the far right’s—and hence the modern Republican Party’s—twisted views on immigration. “I thank God I wasn’t there with my kids,” he told a local TV affiliate, “because my children would have been terrified to see all these people, this mob, swarming up to our house and shouting things through the megaphones about their daddy that they would have perceived as a threat, and it would have scarred them.” In Kobach’s world, white, God-fearing Americans are under assault from the brown, unhinged rabble. The deep scars left on children whose parents had been deported did not get a mention.

Kobach then took to Fox News for some brand-building and red meat throwing. “If we had been in the home and not been armed, I would have felt very afraid because it took the police 15 minutes to show up,” said Kobach. “It’s important we recognize there’s a reason we have the Second Amendment. There are situations like this where you have a mob and you do need to be able to protect yourself.”

This is the man Trump tapped in May to lead his voter fraud commission, which last week sent out a letter to all 50 states requesting the personal information of registered voters, causing even the governors of red states to bristle. Trump had announced the formation of the commission after blaming his popular vote loss in the 2016 presidential election on illegal votes cast by millions of undocumented immigrants. There is no evidence for any of this, of course, but Trump’s mind is the place where evidence goes to die.

Kobach’s mind, in contrast, is a place far more sinister. It is the place where evidence goes to be tortured and mutilated, then locked away in a dark room forever. The truly scary part, however, is that Kobach is far more polished and experienced than his mentor. His voter fraud commission seems extreme now, but being at the cutting edge of right-wing politics has only helped ambitious Republicans over the past ten years. Kobach has already announced his plans to run for governor of Kansas, and his continued rise is indicative of what Trumpism may look like long after Trump himself has left the scene.

Kobach’s first claim to notoriety came in the aftermath of the September 11, 2001, terror attacks. In 2002, the George W. Bush administration hired him to head the National Security Entry-Exit Registration System (NSEERS), a kind of proto-Muslim ban that was used to screen and monitor travelers from majority-Muslim countries. In less than a year, Kobach had collected the personal data of more than 130,000 people in the U.S. based on not much more than their religion and country of origin. Yet, in the 14 years of its existence, NSEERS produced no convictions. No bad guys were brought down. No terror attacks were foiled. Kobach was permitted to orchestrate a massive breach of Americans’ civil liberties, and he came up empty-handed—a sequence of events that would become a familiar pattern in Kobach’s career. President Barack Obama finally dismantled the ill-conceived program in 2016.

Undeterred, Kobach returned to Kansas where his nativist predilections gave way to obsession. He launched a nationwide legal assault on any entity that didn’t share his narrow vision of American purity. Instead of using his Yale law degree and his experience as a professor at the University of Missouri-Kansas City to advocate for a rational, humanitarian solution to America’s broken immigration system, Kobach went after students. He sued Kansas, California, and Nebraska for granting in-state tuition to undocumented immigrants. And in courts all over the country he defended cities where laws targeting illegal immigrants had been implemented.

When litigating immigration didn’t do it for him anymore, Kobach turned to legislating against it, albeit behind the scenes. He was the primary architect of one of the most extreme anti-immigration laws in the country, Arizona’s infamous SB 1070. Passed in spring of 2010, the so-called “show-me-your-papers” law required police to demand immigration papers from anyone they suspected had entered the country illegally. The law was such a poorly veiled justification for racial targeting that it drew international condemnation.

Nevertheless, Kobach’s handiwork was riotously popular with conservatives, inspiring copy-cat laws that have either been introduced or passed in Missouri, Michigan, Pennsylvania, Minnesota, Rhode Island, South Carolina, Utah, Georgia, and Alabama. Six months later, Kobach leveraged his reputation as an immovable conservative into a successful bid to become the Kansas secretary of state, the post he still holds today.

In Kansas, one of the primary functions of this position is to serve as the state’s chief elections officer. Despite all available evidence showing conclusively that voter fraud basically doesn’t exist, Kobach insisted it was a rampant problem in need of drastic solutions. Within three months of assuming office he had convinced the state legislature and Governor Sam Brownback to sign off on his pet project, the Kansas Secure and Fair Elections Act (SAFE), which requires voters to prove their citizenship before they can cast their ballots.

The Kansas Advisory Committee to the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights called out the law as a textbook case of voter suppression, and pointed out what anyone who studies elections already knows: Voter disenfranchisement is a much bigger problem than voter fraud, especially among poor and minority communities. “It does look like lower-income precincts with a large African-American population are affected [by SAFE] more than others,” Emporia State University professor Michael Smith told the Kansas City Star. “It doesn’t seem to be race-neutral in its effect.”

Emboldened by the success of his voter suppression efforts, Kobach made an unprecedented grab for power. June 8, 2015, may be remembered as the day an autocrat was born. It was on that day that Governor Brownback signed a bill granting Kobach the power to prosecute. Kansas’s nativist secretary of state, who had made a whole career out of placing undue burdens on those (usually minorities) exercising their constitutional rights, now had the power to charge anyone he liked with breaking the laws that he wrote.

No other secretary of state in America has been granted this power. His office keeps its official website updated with everything Kobach is doing to rid the state of the mythical plague of voter fraud, including all nine—count ‘em, nine convictions, many of which seem questionable—he’s managed to secure with his newly minted prosecutorial powers.

Kris Kobach is the embodiment of all of the modern Republican Party’s basest urges. He was an early adopter of the birther conspiracy, repeatedly calling on President Obama to release his birth certificate (which he had already done). On his radio show in 2015, he suggested Obama might end all prosecutions of African-Americans. He relentlessly paints immigrants as leeches, sucking America dry of all the resources that should be going, presumably, to tax-paying white people.

Of all the rising stars on the right, none are more gleefully anti-democratic and dangerously competent than Kris Kobach. In addition to his Yale law degree, he has an undergraduate degree from Harvard and a PhD from Oxford. He resembles Ted Cruz in this way, but is far more telegenic and less viscerally repellent than the Texas senator. And he has spent years implementing the vilest of Trump’s ideas long before Trump made them mainstream in the Republican Party.

He is also nakedly ambitious. Last month, Kobach launched a campaign to run for governor of Kansas. He lambasted the conservative legislature’s rollback of Governor Brownback’s historic tax cuts for the rich, which almost bankrupted the state and depleted its education and transportation coffers. If he were to win the governor’s mansion, a presidential run would seem to be a given.

A few short years ago, it would have been unimaginable for somone so openly hostile to America’s core democratic values to make it out of a Republican presidential primary. For all its illiberal tendencies, the Republican establishment had at least paid lip service to the idea of America as a beacon of freedom and opportunity, open to all willing to do their fair share. That all changed in 2016. Research shows that Trump activated a swath of voters that had been searching for a politician who would run an openly prejudicial campaign—voters who are now crucial to the GOP’s coalition. Initially resistant to Trump’s relentless assault on the party’s dignity and legitimacy, Republicans are now mainlining Trump’s xenophobia, and politicians like Kobach are the beneficiaries.

For all its protests, the Republican Party is being remade in Trump’s image. And Kobach has spent his entire career positioning himself to be ready to inherit Trump’s movement once Trump fades from the scene, perhaps as early as 2020.

Many people assume that Trump is an outlier. But it is just as likely that he is a prelude. As the Republican Party continues down its Trumpian path, Kobach’s future in national politics grows dismayingly brighter. And the shoes of America’s deported immigrant mothers and fathers will continue to pile up at his doorstep.