Could this be the election in which Latinos tell President Trump to self-deport?
He doesn’t think so. He’s betting there’s little downside to closing out the 2018 midterms in signature style: by raising the alarm about dark-skinned immigrants crossing the southern border to kill white people.
He declared an “emergency” because he claims (without evidence) that a migrant procession on foot 1,000 miles from U.S. territory is supposedly infiltrated by “MS-13” and “unknown Middle Easterners.” He rushed troops to the border to keep migrants from “pouring” over, though the few who complete the journey won’t be here for weeks. And now the White House is talking about blocking all Central Americans, even asylum seekers, from crossing the southern border — to prevent “animals” and “some very bad people” from an “assault on our country.”
Behind Trump’s manufactured menace is a cynical calculation. If the anti-immigrant campaign provokes a strong enough backlash among Hispanic voters, they could easily vote Republicans out of power in the House, and from Senate and gubernatorial seats in parts of the country. They have the power, theoretically, to quash these nativist appeals once and for all. But Trump expects to mobilize more whites than Hispanics with his histrionics.
Trump’s America has become a grim place for Latinos. Two-thirds say Trump’s policies have been harmful to Hispanics, according to a Pew Research Center poll out Thursday. A majority say it has become more difficult to be Hispanic in America, and 4 in 10 have personally experienced racial harassment in the last year. Only 22 percent approve of Trump’s presidency.
Collectively, the nation’s 29 million eligible Hispanic voters (about half the Hispanic population) can do something about it. In 2016, Hispanic turnout was 47.6 percent, behind whites (61.4 percent), blacks (59.6) and Asian Americans (49.3). Researchers from the Brookings Institution and the Center for American Progress calculate that if voters of all races turned out in equal percentages and support levels were kept constant, Democrats would win the popular vote by 4.5 points in 2020 (up from the 2.1 percent Democratic popular vote edge in 2016) and the Electoral College by 288 to 250, as the states of Florida, Wisconsin and Michigan would go Democratic. Pennsylvania, Arizona, Georgia, North Carolina and Texas would all swing Democratic in subsequent cycles.
Such equalization isn’t imminent. Hispanics come from many countries, some without democratic traditions. Early generations, particularly, tend to have low education levels. Polling indicates Latinos continue to be less likely voters this year.
But there are tentative signs of change. In this last week’s Pew poll, 52 percent of registered Latino voters say they have given “quite a lot of thought” to the election, up 16 points from 2014 (when turnout was only 27 percent). That’s well below presidential-year levels (67 percent in 2016), but the Cook Political Report’s Amy Walter this last week observed that the biggest improvements for Democrats in recent days — when Trump escalated his attacks on immigrants — have been in Latino-heavy districts in California and Florida.
UCLA political scientist Matt Barreto , who runs the Latino Decisions political consulting firm, said Democrats’ reluctance to engage Trump on immigration as a campaign issue means “Latino voters are essentially confused — they don’t know who to vote for.” But Barreto expects Trump’s latest immigration attacks might not work as well with white voters as they did in 2016. “People who held their nose and voted for him are asking more questions now,” he said. “In 2016, it was just rhetoric: ‘Build the Wall.’ . . . Now he’s put kids under five by themselves in court.”
There is no shortage of ugliness to offend many a moderate, suburban voter: family separation, belittling Puerto Ricans’ suffering after the hurricane, failing to help the “dreamers,” the pardon of Joe Arpaio, stripping Latinos in Texas of their passports and a long series of belittling remarks (such as marveling that a Latino border guard “speaks perfect English”). Republican candidates and groups, taking the president’s lead, have run a number of ads playing on racial fears.
Maybe they see that as their only remaining option. The GOP tax cut was a dud with voters, so much so that Trump is touting a new, nonexistent tax cut. Republicans had become so concerned over their disadvantage on health care that the White House issued an economic report this week attempting to link those promoting Medicare-for-all to Lenin, Mao and policies resulting in “deaths [via] purges, massacres, concentration camps.” Stock-market volatility and rising inflation and interest rates have increased recessionary fears, and wages stubbornly refuse to keep pace with economic growth.
So it’s predictable that Trump would return to white identity politics in the closing days. But Latinos don’t have to let him get away with it. Neither do the rest of us.