Donald Trump’s passionate revival last week of his hard-line stance on immigration looks more and more like a political disaster for the Republican nominee and his party.
Trump’s angry speech in Arizona, in which he promised to deport not only criminal aliens but millions of other immigrants living in the country illegally, prompted at least three members of his Hispanic Advisory Council to resign. It instantly became fodder for Democratic efforts to mobilize millions of Latino voters in swing states such as Florida and Nevada. And it probably didn’t convince many undecided voters that Trump can be a unifying force in a deeply divided country.
But winning undecided moderates may not have been Trump’s goal. Instead, his former campaign manager, Corey Lewandowski, said on CNN that the speech was aimed principally at “white males,” to ensure “he has locked them in.”
“After alienating so many nonwhite voters, Trump needs to win 65% of the white vote... It’s not going to happen.”
To non-Trump Republicans, that’s precisely the problem: Their nominee is focused on voters he’s already got.
“Preaching to the converted is fine if you’re leading,” GOP pollster Whit Ayres told me. “If you’re behind, it’s not what you need to be doing.”
Ayres, who worked for Florida Sen. Marco Rubio in the primaries, has never been a Trump fan, but he has spent years studying the demographics of the electorate — and he’s convinced that the nominee is leading his party to calamity.
“After alienating so many nonwhite voters, Trump needs to win 65% of the white vote,” Ayres estimates. “Only one candidate has done that in the last 40 years, and that was Ronald Reagan in a 49-state landslide in 1984. It’s not going to happen.”
And the stakes are even bigger than the outcome of this year’s election. Trump’s campaign could shape Latino voters’ behavior for a generation to come.
Already, Latinos have been trending Democratic. In 2004, then-President George W. Bush won roughly 40% of the Latino vote; in 2012, Mitt Romney won about 27%. This year, according to a poll released last week, Trump is on track to win no more than 20% of their votes, a modern low.
Over the long run, Ayres and other GOP strategists worry, Latinos’ Democratic allegiance could become a habit that’s hard to break.
“We’re in a hole,” Ayres said. “We can dig our way out of it if we make the Republican brand distinct from the Trump brand. But at this point, Trump is making the hole even deeper.”
But in his speech last week, Trump said he would subject immigrants who are in the country illegally but haven’t been accused of crimes to deportation, too. He called for new restrictions on legal immigration, which he said is too high. And he argued that the quality of recent legal immigrants, often admitted thanks to family ties, has been too low. “We take anybody,” he complained.
Trump supporters who say he makes a clear distinction between immigrants here legally and those in the U.S. illegally haven’t been paying close enough attention.
And guess what? The sponsors of those “family reunification” immigrants — often their parents or siblings — are citizens who have the right to vote. They’re not only Latinos; they’re Asian, African and European. Trump’s complaint that their relatives aren’t classy enough isn’t likely to make him many friends.
There’s a legitimate debate, of course, about whether legal immigration has leaned too far in the direction of family reunification at the expense of places for highly skilled professionals. And there’s a legitimate debate about how best to handle the more than 10 million immigrants who are here illegally and haven’t committed serious crimes.
Wait a minute, some may object: Trump hasn’t been demonizing Latinos in general; he’s praised Mexican Americans as “great people.” And Trump hasn’t attacked immigrants in general; he’s focused on criminal aliens, who he says have been allowed “to freely roam our streets [and] do whatever they want to do.”
But Trump’s problem — and the Republicans’ — isn’t policy, it’s that he frames immigration as a crisis that has unleashed millions of nonwhite foreigners to roam our streets, commit grisly crimes and steal Americans’ jobs. That portrayal is inaccurate, and it exacerbates racism.
Several times in recent months, House Speaker Paul D. Ryan (R-Wis.) has worried out loud about the growth of “identity politics” in his own party — meaning political allegiances defined by race or ethnicity.
“If we try to play our own version of identity politics and try to fuel ourselves based on darker emotions, that’s not productive,” he told the New York Times. “I don’t think it will be successful, and I don’t think it is the right thing to do.”
“Unfortunately, these days, it’s bubbling up on the right,” he told reporters at the Republican National Convention.
Whether Trump wins or loses, Ryan and the rest of his party have their work cut out for them.