For years now, the debate within the Republican Party over how to reform the country’s immigration system has pitted more moderate and business-minded members of the GOP against nativists—most of whom have framed their opposition to amnesty for undocumented immigrants as an idealistic fealty to law and order, their opposition to immigration flows from Mexico as populist concern for working-class wages.
Donald Trump, through a campaign of racist incitement against minorities, and Mexicans in particular, has stripped away the veneer masking the passions driving that debate.
His depiction of the issue foregrounds alarmist and inaccurate renderings of Mexicans as rapists and marauders who threaten the integrity and the purity—really, the racial purity—of white America. Wages have very little to do with the story he tells about immigration. His appeal all along is that he would stop pussyfooting around the issue like other Republicans and speak the truth: If these immigrants are really so bad, such a threat, why not kick all of them out, then consider letting the “good ones” back in?
The problem with this idea, of course, is that it’s highly offensive—alienating to minorities of every ethnicity, to liberals, to white people who live and work among immigrants, the overwhelming majority of the country. Reactionary immigration policy was the key factor that allowed Trump to hack the Republican Party, but it is now a major impediment to his ability to reassure moderate Republicans he isn’t unacceptably racist.
Republicans are on the losing end of a decades-old demographic gamble, and Trump embodies their resulting bind. Reflecting the passions of their base makes Republicans toxic to the electorate at large and even to one another; appealing to minorities on the basis of humane policy makes Republicans toxic to many of their own supporters. It’s a bit like trying to stretch a carpet across all corners of a floor when the problem is that the carpet is too small.
Republicans could have plausibly solved this problem before it became insoluble. Now they’re stuck. Trump realizes they’re stuck and is hoping a new hack will rescue him, but it almost certainly won’t.
After everything he’s staked in nativism and xenophobia, Trump can’t straightforwardly embrace the old bipartisan immigration-reform consensus, with all the language of tolerance and forgiveness that holds it together. Trump is making a different bet: that he can shift incrementally toward any policy he wants, so long as ethnic minorities are made to understand that under any policy regime, they will be viewed and treated as an inherently suspect, untouchable caste.
Trump’s Great August Pivot has entailed abandoning old calls for a mass expulsion modeled on Dwight Eisenhower’s Operation Wetback, and moving ever-so-slightly in President Barack Obama’s direction.
The Washington Post’s Greg Sargent traces the basic shape of the scam. Rather than promising that all 11 million illegal immigrants will be deported within his first term, Trump is now promising to “get rid of all the bad ones … gang members … killers … a lot of bad people that have to get out of this country.”
This is half of Obama’s immigration policy, disguised in language that makes it clear Trump believes that immigrants are a criminal class. Unlike Obama, though, Trump has no plan to assimilate what he calls “all the others.”
The combination of stepped-up enforcement for violent criminals and a muddle for everyone else makes Trump quite like Mitt Romney, or a typical Republican member of Congress. Trump proposes using “existing laws” to address the remaining unauthorized population, so he has no intention any longer of equipping the government with the tools it would need to deport everyone within 18 months. The vast majority of immigrants in this country would either remain in the shadows, subject to deportation, or find themselves unable to secure housing and employment and ultimately deport themselves.
Once upon a time Trump called self-deportation “maniacal.” Now, he’s essentially pivoted his way right into it. This may have been unintentional, but it was no coincidence. Trump’s not the first heedless Republican this has happened to. Republicans keep finding themselves in the “self-deportation” cul-de-sac because it is the only way to bring the nativist and corporatist arms of the party into rough alignment.
The question now is whether Trump believes he can use the same basic steps—further moderation, but with maximum abuse directed at minorities—to inch further in Obama’s direction. Some kind of quick legalization process for “the good ones” expressed with the kind of disgusted condescension Trump has substituted for outreach to other minorities.
“Look, it is a disaster the way African Americans are living, in many cases, and, in many cases, the way Hispanics are living,” he said in Akron, Ohio, on Monday night.
And I say it with such a deep-felt feeling: What do you have to lose? I will straighten it out. I’ll bring jobs back. We’ll bring spirit back. We’ll get rid of the crime. You’ll be able to walk down the street without getting shot. Right now, you walk down the street, you get shot.
Trump’s basic bet is that be can couch an entreaty to minorities in terms that reflect his supporters’ caricatured views of those same minorities, allowing him to skim some minority support without breaking faith with his base. And it’s easy to imagine a similar appeal to immigrant communities in the future. “Look, you’ll never be Americans, but at least with me, you won’t be living in filth—what do you have to lose?”
As it happens, non-white voters find this all clownishly offensive.
And here we see just how much harm Republicans did to themselves when they refused to alter their governing orthodoxy after losing in 2012.
Among #NeverTrump Republicans, it’s widely assumed that the GOP’s decision to embrace immigration reform after 2012 catalyzed Trumpism. Republican voters had become disenchanted with a party that had become too solicitous of the Chamber of Commerce, and Republicans responded with an entreaty to Democratic constituencies, backed by the business community. This is a reasonable way to view the aftermath of Romney’s defeat. But it’s also incomplete. There isn’t just one counterfactual to consider here; there are two. Republicans didn’t embrace immigration reform, and see it through to the end. The party leadership revealed its intentions, and then retreated from them, leaving nothing to boast about to anybody.
If after losing in 2012, Republicans had abandoned supply-side orthodoxy, they could have appealed to a multi-ethnic coalition of working-class voters on a pocketbook basis. If instead they had helped shepherd immigration reform into law, it would have been a powerful gesture to immigrant communities, but one which allowed them to continue to speak to nativists concerns: With these new tools, we can stop new immigration, protect you from bad guys, and move on to cutting funding for all social moochers.
Instead they did none of the above. Republican elites outed themselves as consorters, creating a perfect foil for Trump. In that role he has whet the GOP base’s appetite for a more undisguised form of white identity politics. And as we’re seeing, there is no way to build a national coalition on promises to satisfy that kind of craving. Trump can’t hack this problem.
But when he loses, those appetites will remain unsatisfied. After November, it will be time for another autopsy, but the options Republicans had before them in 2013 will no longer be available.