That’s a quite different tone from how Trump began his quest for the White House, which included referring to Mexican immigrants as rapists and criminals. But it was the president’s remarks later in Monday’s speech — delivered perhaps in jest, but also perhaps from a place of hope — that suggested one of the biggest disconnects of the commander in chief with one of the most coveted voting blocs in the American electorate.
“I better win the Hispanics next time. But we did well. We did a lot better than anyone thought,” he said, then added to his labor secretary, Alexander Acosta. “We better win it, Alex. I’m gonna put that one on you.”
The crowd gathered for the ceremony cheered the optimism of Trump, who won only 28 percent of the Hispanic vote in 2016. “Four more years” and “Viva Trump,” some shouted. But if Trump loses the Hispanic vote, it probably won’t be the fault of Acosta, the only Hispanic member of his Cabinet.
If Trump and, therefore, the Republican Party lose Hispanic voters in 2020 — or even 2018 — it will probably be because Hispanic voters see a party headed by a man who hasn’t done much to win them over after attacking their character and integrity when he launched his presidential campaign.
After Trump denied last week that nearly 3,000 people died in Puerto Rico after Hurricane Maria, and he blamed Democrats for inflating the numbers to make his administration look bad, Rep. Michelle Lujan Grisham (D-N.M.), chair of the congressional Hispanic Caucus, wrote the president a letter expressing her continued disappointment with his words and actions toward Hispanic Americans. She wrote:
Your policies harming the Hispanic community evolved from your rhetoric. During your presidential campaign and as president, you demonized and dehumanized the Hispanic community and spread fear and untruths. You have ignored and recently tweeted lies about the devastation and loss of life in Puerto Rico from Hurricane Maria, compared immigration to an infestation, and attacked a judge because of his Hispanic heritage. That rhetoric is not only unbecoming of the President of the United States; it has no place in American political discourse.
One can occasionally find a Hispanic supporter of Trump’s on cable news defending the president and trying to explain why his latest policy affecting Hispanics is being misinterpreted. And Trump likes to tout record employment numbers among Hispanics. That’s not having much impact, though: 22 percent of Hispanics approve of Trump’s job rating in Gallup’s latest poll.
Given the current numbers, there is room for growth in the relationship between Trump and Hispanics. But few paying attention deeply believe that the president can maintain his base, many of whom got behind his campaign because of his tough language directed toward Hispanics on immigration and law enforcement, while winning the majority of Hispanic voters simultaneously.