The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Laura Ingraham’s immigration comments are different words for the same Trump-era rhetoric

Pundit Laura Ingraham points toward the media booths during her speech at the Republican National Convention in July 2016. (J. Scott Applewhite/AP)

Dropped into the national conversation without any other context, the comments made by Fox News host Laura Ingraham on her show Wednesday night are jarring.

“In some parts of the country, it does seem like the America we know and love don’t exist anymore,” she said, with videos of agricultural work playing over her shoulder. “Massive demographic changes have been foisted upon the American people. And they’re changes that none of us ever voted for and most of us don’t like.”

“Much of this,” she added, “is related to both illegal and in some cases legal immigration that, of course, progressives love.”

It’s an overt assertion that:

  1. Immigrants change America for the worse.
  2. Most Americans don’t like that change.
  3. It was a change that happened without Americans’ consent.

From the context, it’s pretty clear that the offended “Americans” in those three points are largely white, nonimmigrant Americans, for whom those sentiments are more likely to be true. Particularly among watchers of Fox News, the network as the “most trusted” outlet by 58 percent of Americans who identify themselves as “very conservative.”

President Trump wants to reduce legal and illegal immigration, but apparently has no qualms about scapegoating every immigrant in the process. (Video: JM Rieger/The Washington Post)

Those assertions are also demonstrably wrong. Three-quarters of Americans think immigration is a good thing, a number that has increased since Donald Trump announced his candidacy for president. As many Americans now believe that immigration should be increased as decreased.

Trump’s candidacy, of course, was often explicit in its reinforcement of the case that Ingraham made Wednesday night. His campaign began with disparaging comments about immigrants from Mexico, describing them as criminal by default and beneficial as the exception. That sentiment sparked a public fight over immigration that propelled his candidacy. Supporters often praised him for “telling it like it is,” but the connotation from that was that the untrue things he was saying about immigrants and crime needed to be said.

Why did they need to be said? In part, clearly, because these were things that were being said in conservative media. Trump was and is a consumer of Fox News and other conservative outlets, embracing during the campaign both Breitbart News’s Stephen K. Bannon and even, at one point, Infowars’s Alex Jones. Ingraham gave a speech at Trump’s nominating convention. Breitbart and Bannon, in particular, were making a case as explicit as Ingraham’s recent comments for some time before the election. Fox News’s approach before Trump’s presidency was often more subtle but sharing a similar focus: Immigration was a threat to be dealt with.

Fox News discussed immigration in the context of crime more than twice as much as CNN or MSNBC before Trump announcing his candidacy according to closed-captioning data collected by the Internet Archive. After, that margin increased.

This perceived threat to “traditional America” — generally meaning the white-majority, postwar America experienced by baby boomers — was at the center of Trump’s pledge to make America great again. It included assertions that Trump would revitalize manufacturing and reduce the trade deficit, but voters prioritizing economic issues in their 2016 presidential vote consistently preferred Hillary Clinton. The motivating factor for many Trump supporters was issues linked to race: terrorism and immigration in particular. Trump benefited from racial anxiety. Places that had seen the most racial and ethnic diversification since 2000 voted heavily for the Republican ticket.

It is the case that the percentage of the population that was born outside the United States is at its highest point in a century. It’s also true that a century ago the main immigrant populations were ones that now would almost certainly fit squarely into the realm of the acceptable in Ingraham’s eyes. The top countries from which immigrants arrived in 1918 were Italy, Russia and Canada.

It’s also the case that the foreign-born population in the United States doesn’t look the way most people assume. Less than half of Americans realize that most immigrants are here legally. It’s also likely that very few Americans realize that the immigrant population is split about equally between Hispanics and Asians.

There was an infamous moment when Trump appeared on a radio show hosted by Bannon in 2015. Trump argued that immigrants from Asia should remain in the country after completing college in American institutions. Bannon tried to figure out how to disagree in a gentle way.

“When two-thirds or three-quarters of the CEOs in Silicon Valley are from South Asia or from Asia, I think …” he said. He restarted his thought: “A country is more than an economy. We’re a civic society.”

Bannon’s school of thought on immigrants from Asia — probably a central part of Ingraham’s aside about “in some cases legal immigration” — permeated Trump’s administration. In a meeting with business leaders this week, Trump reportedly claimed that “almost every student that comes over” from China “is a spy.”

As with the focus on “voter fraud,” part of the focus on immigration stems from electoral concerns. Immigrants tend to vote more heavily Democratic, and Democratic support for immigration policies is framed as being an effort to skew elections. In September 2016, Trump asserted that if he lost Republicans would never win another election, because Democrats would give citizenship — and the franchise — to as many people as possible. It’s a different sort of fearmongering that plays to the partisan moment. But it also frames immigrants as the opposition in another way, one that allows those opposing immigration to step away from the frequent racial undertones of that opposition.

Outside the context of the moment, Ingraham’s comments are shocking. In context, though, the surprising part is that it took her so long to be so explicit. Two hours before her show, Tucker Carlson hosts “Tucker Carlson Tonight,” where he’s repeatedly made comments that are even more pointed toward protecting the interests of white America. In January, conservative media institution Bill Kristol — at one point Carlson’s colleague — described Carlson’s frequent forays into the realm as “close now to racism, white — I mean, I don’t know if it’s racism exactly — but ethno-nationalism of some kind, let’s call it.”

Trump and Fox News recognize the value of marketing white anxiety to their shared base of supporters. Both are learning from one another about how those messages are refined. Ingraham’s comments are the most recent example of the form but should be understood as a continuation of the theme, not the introduction of it.