You are using an outdated browser.
Please upgrade your browser
and improve your visit to our site.
Skip Navigation

The GOP’s Immigration Split Is an Opportunity for Rubio

Scott Olson/Getty Images

If the resounding badness of Donald Trump’s Saturday Night Live hosting gig wasn’t enough vindication for the #RacismIsntFunny activists who had protested against it, then Tuesday’s Republican presidential debate certainly was.

Trump got an early question on immigration and managed to expand the usual “murders, drug-dealers, rapists” spiel to include his apparent disdain for Palestinians. “We have to stop illegal immigration,” he said. “It's hurting us economically. It's hurting us from every standpoint. It's causing tremendous difficulty with respect to drugs and what that does to many of our inner cities in particular. … We will have a wall. The wall will be built. The wall will be successful. And if you think walls don't work, all you have to do is ask Israel.”

Determined not to miss out on the fun, Ted Cruz redirected his next question, on Social Security reform, to the “economic calamity that is befalling our nation” as a result of all those illegals—who, Cruz assured the audience, are not journalists or lawyers or dignified professionals of that sort. Immigration, he said, “is a very personal economic issue” for millions of Americans, and Republicans are “tired of being told it’s anti-immigrant” to say as much. “It’s offensive,” he concluded.

Prior to the debate, I had cautioned readers not to be surprised “if there aren’t any racist outbursts,” because the GOP’s appeals to racial anxieties largely comes in coded forms. But in the age of Trump, this is less and less the case, the manifestation of an underlying political logic that has animated the Republican Party for decades. What remains to be seen is whether there is a candidate who can simultaneously tame and harness the energies this loud xenophobia has unleashed.

Mainstream politicians in the GOP have used the plainspoken expression of white supremacy as a reference point, a foil to pass off their own racially informed policies as a matter of respectable ideology. Slashing Medicaid may disproportionately harm black people, but it’s not about race. It’s about out-of-control government spending or turning takers into makers or whatever the prevailing excuse may be. Ted Cruz doesn't hate Latino immigrants, and he's hurt you would even suggest he does. He just wants to enforce the rule of law and protect the border. If that means forcibly uprooting a few million people who happen to be Latinos, then the fault is with the immigrants, not with his lofty principles. This ability to signal racial intent without having to voice it has been critical to the GOP’s success in holding together a fragile coalition that includes far-right grassroots support, financial backing from business elites, and voter turnout from the socially conservative white working class.

But in order for the coded language of racism to work, someone, at some point, has to spell out the code. What we witnessed on Tuesday night was a fairly open discussion of the place anti-Latino racism should occupy in the future of the Republican Party. Jeb Bush and Ohio Governor John Kasich were quick to attack Trump’s xenophobia as both inhumane and impractical. Bush, whose punitive, drawn-out path to citizenship is in line with the GOP leadership’s preferred policy solution, said, “They're doing high-fives in the Clinton campaign right now when they hear this.” A few minutes later, Cruz, who helped defeat bipartisan comprehensive immigration reform in the Senate in 2013, warned that “if Republicans join Democrats as the party of amnesty, we will lose.”

From a purely tactical perspective, there are compelling arguments to be made either way. Republicans, as liberals enjoy pointing out, are on the wrong side of a major demographic shift in the American electorate. Virulent anti-immigrant rhetoric, you could argue, is not the way to reverse the party’s precipitously poor performance with Latinos, which saw Mitt “Self-Deport” Romney get just 27 percent of the Hispanic vote, compared to Barack Obama’s 71 percent.   

It’s also entirely possible that a move away from the hardline would tear apart a party whose fringe has very publicly become its core. The GOP is dominant in the states, where it can do plenty to slow the declining power of its white base—whether through redistricting, social spending cuts, or voter suppression. On the national level, much of the right’s agenda can be accomplished through mere obstructionism. Keeping the party intact, this thinking goes, makes more sense than staking its survival on the off-chance that a less friendly version of Democratic immigration policy will be enough to sway Latinos—who don’t all vote on the basis of immigration, anyway.

As my colleague Jeet Heer wrote, the question of whether anti-Latino racism is a viable political organizing principle moving forward “is crucial not just in determining the party's presidential candidate, but the identity of the GOP.” The answer, however, need not be a choice between the binary presented at the debate. Indeed, if the past is any indication, the best result for the party would be an approach that straddles the two.  

Marco Rubio made it through Tuesday night without having to come down on one side or the other. Like the party itself, his position on immigration is in flux. Thus far in this campaign, he’s managed to distance himself from his own previous support of comprehensive reform without having to come out too sharply against it. This leaves open the possibility that Rubio could emerge from the immigration melee stronger than either Trump or Bush, as a young Cuban-American capable of speaking to white anxieties without shattering white illusions of a post-racial America. And that possibility should be as worrisome to Democrats as to his rival candidates.

It may be that Rubio’s waffling proves unacceptable to the charged expectations of the ascendant right. It may be that Rubio, for all his lauded oratorical gifts, is simply not as convincing a communicator for the modern Southern Strategy as Richard Nixon was for its earlier incarnation. But for Rubio, and for the GOP at large, the dichotomy between Trump and Cruz on the one hand and Bush and Kasich on the other—a dichotomy that is both patently evident and in many ways artificial—is an opportunity as much as a challenge.