The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Race, immigration — and the right-wing backlash they trigger

New U.S. citizens listen as Secretary of State Antony Blinken delivers remarks during a naturalization ceremony in Philadelphia on Oct. 19. (Anna Moneymaker/Getty Images)

Donald Trump was explicit about his political appeal from the moment he announced his candidacy in June 2015. He pledged to “make America great again” — to restore America to its past greatness, a greatness it no longer possessed. Within the first minutes of his announcement speech, he articulated one way in which that greatness had eroded: dangerous immigrants crossing into the United States from Mexico.

The backlash to those comments cemented his position with Republican voters and delivered him the party’s nomination. As the 2016 election approached, it became clear that immigration and often-but-not-always submerged concerns about race were a strong motivation for his supporters. The great America for which his mostly White supporters were nostalgic was one in which there wasn’t a focus on or accommodation for discrimination against Black or gay people.

On Thursday, PRRI released its annual American Values Survey (AVS), asking questions that get at the heart of that political impulse. What it shows is that race, immigration and right-wing politics continue to overlap — and overlap in, at times, alarming ways.

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None of this is to say that America is flawless. Indeed, the poll found that most Americans think the country is heading in the wrong direction. As might be expected, given who controls the government, that sentiment is much more common among Republicans than Democrats. But a heavy majority of the country feels that way.

Of course, there are certainly wide differences in why people think the country is headed in the wrong direction, which we’ll get to in a moment.

The AVS also asked a question that gets directly to the point made above. Nearly half of respondents think that American culture and way of life has mostly changed for the worse since the 1950s — including, surprisingly, nearly half of Blacks. But notice the partisan gap: Two-thirds of Republicans think this is true, more than twice the percentage of Democrats.

Make America great again!

So what does that “change for the worse” look like? Well, there’s certainly some concern about immigration. More than half of Republicans, for example, think that immigrants are “invading” the United States and “replacing” American culture. This isn’t quite the white supremacist “great replacement theory” — that involves a cabal of elites intentionally manufacturing the replacement — but it’s close enough to warrant the comparison.

The response was even stronger for the statement that new immigrants to the United States “threaten traditional customs and values.” More than two-thirds of Republicans think that’s true.

It’s impossible to separate this out from that prior question about the 1950s. As it turns out, not only has immigration increased since the 1950s (thanks to the liberalization of immigration laws in the 1960s), but the nature of immigration has changed. Before World War II, most immigrants were from Europe, triggering a backlash a century ago about Eastern and Southern Europeans tainting the United States. Now, immigrants are mostly Hispanic and Asian. So “immigration” and “concerns about race” overlap to a large extent if not, in some contexts, entirely.

Remember that Trump’s arrival in 2015 came as the country was just starting to process the issues raised by the Black Lives Matter movement. This also colored his reception by Republican voters. Because then, as now, Republicans tend to be less likely to believe that long-standing discrimination negatively affects Black Americans.

Consider this statement from the AVS: a Black person is more likely than a White person to receive the death penalty for the same crime. This has been shown to be true. But only a third of Republicans think it is.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, then, Republicans are also less likely to say that white supremacy remains a major problem in the United States.

This question carries more weight than it might seem, however. In the past few years, many on the right have come to view “white supremacist” as a phrase usually deployed in bad faith by the left to gain the moral high ground. Being asked whether the ideology is still a major problem, then, becomes entwined with a desire to neutralize that moral judgment.

Another question from the AVS, though, gets at something similar — are concerns about discrimination overblown? — from the other direction. Most Republicans say that discrimination against Whites is as big a problem as discrimination against minority groups.

This isn’t a new finding, but it’s still eternally fascinating. Consider how it sits alongside the other questions detailed above: If you think America is changing for the worse since the 1950s, a time when the power of Whites was codified in the law, and if you think that immigrants are ruining real America but “invading” anyway, perhaps it’s to be expected that you’d think Whites were facing enormous discrimination. What’s the saying? “When you’re accustomed to privilege, equality feels like oppression.”

Now we get into the grimmer terrain. Trump’s bid for a second term — focused even more explicitly on issues of race than his 2016 campaign — was stymied by voters. But most Republicans think it wasn’t, that the system they see slipping away from them worked nefariously against the former president. This, too, is obviously false but, as PRRI notes, the percentage of Republicans who think the 2020 election was stolen is the same this year as last.

More alarming was PRRI’s continuation of the question about whether the country was on the right track: Have things gotten so bad that “true American patriots may have to resort to violence”? The vast majority of Americans say no. But more than a quarter of Republicans say they completely or mostly agree with that sentiment.

You can see how this builds. America is being eroded, Whites are under threat. We may need to resort to worst-case measures.

One bit of good news, if you want to call it that: The percentage of Americans willing to embrace violence hasn’t changed since last year.

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