Donald Trump’s racial politics were obvious from the first minutes of his presidential campaign. Well, before that, really, back to his unfounded insinuations about Barack Obama’s birthplace and, even before that, to his responses to violence in New York City in the 1980s.
But the racial politics on which his campaign was predicated were heavily about Hispanic immigrants, a group that he derided at his campaign launch as including criminals and rapists who were pouring across our southern border. Those remarks were offered in the lower level of the Trump Tower atrium on June 16, 2015. His angry insertion of white nationalists into the political mainstream on Tuesday came one floor above, up that infamous escalator. The path between the two moments is, in multiple senses, clear.
Trump’s virulently anti-immigrant route to the presidency went like this: Condemn illegal immigration and disparage those immigrants at the campaign’s launch. Witness a backlash from the media and cultural institutions. Enjoy the embrace of conservatives who saw both his comments and the backlash as a sign that he is someone who’d speak truth to the elites (though, of course, his comments weren’t accurate). Reinforce that core by demonizing terrorists (meaning people from the Middle East) and crime (meaning black people). Use that kernel of support to power past 16 other Republican challengers. Narrowly win the presidency on the strength of positions on race as much as or more than positions on the economy.
Just as important is what happened after Nov. 8: Trump consistently focused his priorities and policies on the demands of that core group of supporters who led him to victory. His repeated insistence that he wants the country to unify are undercut by his continual focus on staunchly conservative and evangelical voters. When Bloomberg News’s Joshua Green spoke with Trump adviser Stephen K. Bannon in September 2016, Bannon explained that the Trump campaign had done polling to see whether it was important for the candidate to denounce the racist elements that backed him. “It doesn’t matter,” Bannon said. “It doesn’t move anyone who isn’t already in her camp.” And so, when asked to explicitly reject the politics of groups that are overtly racist against immigrants and blacks after the violence in Charlottesville over the weekend, there’s hesitation.
Let’s go back to the beginning. Why was immigration such a powerful draw in the first place? In large part because conservative media outlets have spent years speciously linking immigration broadly and illegal immigration specifically to a variety of societal ills: drug smuggling, crime, low employment and wages. But that was effective in part because of real shifts in the number of immigrants in the United States.
Over the past 40 years, the percentage of the American population that is foreign-born has nearly tripled.
The last time the population included such a large percentage of foreign-born was in the early 1900s — resulting in federal legislation limiting the number of immigrants allowed into the country. Most of those immigrants, though, were European — even through the middle of the 20th century. In recent years, the most common nation of origin for immigrants was Mexico.
Over the next several decades, the percentage of Americans who are Hispanic is expected to continue to climb.
In a number of large states, the percentage of the population that is white has or will soon fall below the percentage that is Hispanic.
White nationalists never liked immigration, of course, but that demographic shift is powering a lot of consternation among conservatives outside of that racist element. But there’s a critical problem with Trump’s rhetoric: The link between the increase in the percentage of the population that’s Hispanic and current immigration trends isn’t as clear-cut as one might assume.
First of all, that increase in the Hispanic population is a function of population growth inside the United States, not from immigration. In fact, in the years after the recession, net migration with Mexico was negative, according to the Pew Research Center.
2013 data from the Census Bureau shows how the demographics of the U.S. Hispanic population are skewed younger. Among white Americans, the percentage of places where older people outnumber younger people is about evenly distributed across the country. (These maps, from 2015, compare the percentage of the population in a congressional district that is 56 or over with the population that is 25 and under. Data on Hispanics in some areas was not available.)
That’s a lot of young people who will be living in America for decades to come, even as the white population continues to age.
It’s also the case that Trump’s focus on Hispanic immigrants misses another trend: Asian immigration.
Bannon is understood to be one of the driving forces of Trump’s views on immigration. He was reportedly pleased with Trump’s comments on Tuesday, echoing the sentiments of people like white nationalist Richard Spencer — who, incidentally, was once a member of the Duke Conservative Union with White House adviser Stephen Miller.
In a radio interview with Trump in 2015, Bannon pressed him on the issue of immigration — specifically on immigration from Asian countries. “When two-thirds or three-quarters of the CEOs in Silicon Valley are from South Asia or from Asia, I think — ” he said, not finishing the sentence. “A country is more than an economy. We’re a civic society.” In March 2016, he made similar comments.
In fact, the percentage of new immigrants from Asia has in recent years about matched — and at times passed — the percentage who are Hispanic.
None of this nuance factors into the rhetoric of most conservative media outlets, and it certainly doesn’t factor into Trump’s. His announcement speech’s connection of Hispanic immigrants to crime has been reinforced repeatedly, including in a speech last month on Long Island when he extrapolated out from murders in one area to impugn tens of thousands of new immigrants. He has repeatedly insisted that a wall on the Mexican border is key to halting the opioid crisis. For Trump, many of the nation’s problems are blamed on this same group of immigrants.
There’s almost certainly going to be a long-term consequence for his party. Those young Hispanics who will make up an increasing percentage of the U.S. population in the coming decades as older whites die off will also be voting. Hispanics vote at lower rates than other Americans do right now, but as people age, they vote more and more regularly.
Last year, Univision conducted a poll asking Hispanics whether they thought Trump was racist. Nearly three-quarters said they did.
Trump has embraced that evaluation, clearly. But over the coming decades — or even the coming months — others in his party will have to figure out how they expect Hispanic voters to view them more hospitably, or face the electoral consequences.
Trump ran on a platform of racial antagonism and false accusations against immigrants. His comments this week are of a piece with his campaign. But his success despite — and because of — that worldview will not be replicable for long.
The Republican Party will eventually need to put space between its views and the views of the president who currently leads it. Here’s Sen. Lindsey O. Graham (R-S.C.) on Wednesday, doing just that:
“Through his statements yesterday, President Trump took a step backward by again suggesting there is moral equivalency between the white supremacist neo-Nazis and KKK members who attended the Charlottesville rally and people like Ms. Heyer,” a statement from Graham read, referring to Heather Heyer, the woman killed Saturday. “I, along with many others, do not endorse this moral equivalency. Many Republicans do not agree with and will fight back against the idea that the Party of Lincoln has a welcome mat out for the David Dukes of the world.”
Expect more such statements. Even if they don’t want to now, the base needs of winning elections will almost certainly demand such a response in the future.