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Trump and the “Low-Skilled” Labor Myth

Sorry, elite conservatives: Whites who oppose immigration are not principally motivated by economic concerns.

Sandy Huffaker/Getty Images

In an otherwise sensible column about the limitations and possible consequences of dubbing Donald Trump a fascist, New York Times columnist Ross Douthat suggests that one of “the legitimate reasons” Trump’s campaign has endured so long is that conservative voters share a “reasonable skepticism about the bipartisan consensus favoring ever more mass low-skilled immigration.” 

This is just the latest articulation of a widely shared elite-conservative axiom that a mix of concerns about labor supply and the rule of law animates anti-immigration sentiment on the right. That, to put it crudely, “they’re taking our jobs!” is an expression of anger about wages, employment displacement, and people breaking rules.

But in my experience, growing up with no small number of undocumented Mexicans and white xenophobes in inland Southern California, these technocratic and philosophical concerns were way, way subsidiary to cultural anxiety and racism.

For instance, I vividly remember this old Pete Wilson ad depicting illegal immigrants as invaders. 

Shortly after its run was complete—with the overwhelming support of whites across the state, and particularly in the Inland Empire region—California passed Proposition 187. It, among other things, sought to kick undocumented children out of public schools.

It’s hard to see how persecuting children (or, charitably, persecuting undocumented parents by targeting their children) principally addresses worries about labor supply and rule of law. 

This isn’t to say that wages and fairness were absent from the white immigration critique, or that the racial and cultural sentiments weren’t in some sense rooted in economic insecurity. But it is to say that racial and cultural antipathies often dominated the expression of their hostility to immigration and immigrants. 

This is no less true today. We saw it last year, when many on the right depicted child-migrants from Central America as ISIS infiltrators and Ebola carriers. Again, it’s hard to see that as mostly an expression of opposition to low-skilled immigration. 

You can’t, in my view, gain real insight into Trump’s appeal without accounting for the fact that way above and beyond their passion for playing by the rules, many of these whites simply dislike Mexicans and other Hispanic immigrants a great deal. It might also explain why the Republican establishment, embodied in this election by Jeb Bush and Marco Rubio, has failed to gain footing at the rule-of-law-centered sweet spot between comprehensive reform and mass deportation. Enforcement first, but no mass deportation—the Bush/Rubio position—might be roughly the middle point on a theoretical continuum between Trumpism and the Democratic Party view. But it bears little resemblance to the normative preferences of xenophobic whites. 

Giving voice to their rage, as Trump does, is a more apt response to their desires than mild appeals to law-abiding, economic fairness, and pragmatism. Elite conservatives like Douthat can’t wish that away.